Every time I think I know the lay of the land, things change. Mountains rise in front of me where I’m not expecting them. I lean forward, pushing my heels into the earth and hike upwards. The things I thought would bother me don’t seem so bad. The anticipated ick of chemo – no taste buds, bit of nausea, exhaustion, loss of more cranial peach fuzz – it seems okay… even, manageable. Truthfully, the anticipation of losing my hair was far worse than the actual head shaving experience. I’m getting used to things – sort of.
Then I lost feeling in my fingers – that’s the neuropathy they warned me about. More numbness – not painful – just dull. After my first surgery, I have little to no feeling in my upper torso and back. I run into things all the time. My proprioception (word of the day) is impaired. Proprioception is one’s body awareness in space. I don’t quite understand it, as my vision isn’t the problem. I just keep bumping into the sink, the wall, the table – and I don’t know why. Numbness aside, I do feel the straining muscles in my stomach from the d-flap reconstruction surgery, as I hunch over.
During this trek up Kilimanjaro, (breast cancer diagnosis, treatment and recovery), I’ve been subjected to all manner of indignity. You think when you get breast cancer, you’ll be cradled and cared for. Truthfully, most days, you are. Some days – well, let’s just say, you’re shocked how fast and far you can tumble. One minute you’re hiking through montane evergreens, the next you’re sputtering, gasping to catch your breath in the icy waters of a creek bed.
The day prior to surgery, I met with the plastic surgeon. Had I known what I was in for during that appointment, I might have opted to take my chances with the cancer. (Not really). To cut right to it, I underwent a mortifying photo shoot – squeezing into teeny-weeny string bikini panties (blue, if you care) so they could develop a reconstruction plan, like This Old House. Glad Bob Vila was nowhere in sight. I should have screamed “NO!” but didn’t. I stuffed myself into dental floss masking as “panties” and stood in front of the assistant as she photographed me… from every God-awful angle, revealing every flaw and roll of fat tumbling over ridiculously miniscule undies. The only other thing I was wearing were pink fuzzy socks they’d given me to keep my feet warm. So thoughtful...
I joked with the photographer relying on humor to help me through the horror of it. But if I’m honest, I shouldn’t have been put in that position and know I should have refused to put on the damn panties. They could have offered various sizes or told me to wear simple briefs. Shoot, I’d have felt less exposed standing there buck naked. This is not the time to shame women when they’re about to lose a vital part of their bodies.
My old breasts fed three children, despite the challenges of inverted nipples. Sorry folks if this is TMI. I struggled as a new mother to breastfeed. But I persevered, attached myself to a masochistic breast pump while watching endless episodes of Bonanza, to ensure my babies got the health benefits of my colostrum and sedating effects of the occasional glass of wine. When my third child finally latched on without much trouble, I remember the surge of joy and pure love as my infant son looked up into my eyes, smiling as he suckled. I miss those moments.
Breast-feeding nostalgia aside, the old boobs had to go. Standing in my baby blue dental floss, Dr. S. returned and took a bright blue sharpie to me, marking me like a Jackson Pollack canvas. He told me what he’d shave off, shape up and rebuild. I was a lump of clay and he, the sculptor. I felt like a blob of fat, not a piece of art.
Even after the surgery, I’m conflicted over this new body I’m walking around in. Sure, I look better. My belly fat was used to construct new breasts. Pretty ingenious, really. It’s still me, and the cancer’s gone. I know that’s the most important thing. But could there have been a better way?
I’m grateful to be cancer free, but it’s been a long road – a twisting, obstacle-filled road where things were thrown at me and I had to swerve to avoid crashing or running off the road all together. I found myself in the ditch a few times, but I met others there.
Now I’m dealing with the challenge of chemo. I’m retaining what feels like a camel’s hump of fluid. My left hand and arm continue to swell from lymphedema. My fingers are puffy and pale, like the Pillsbury Doughboy. My face is splotchy with hints of teenage acne. Even my eyelids are swollen – really? Didn’t know this was possible but I look like a character from a Tim Burton film. My appearance has changed so much my own iPhone doesn’t recognize me. I have to punch in my passcode each time. I could go on – dry, itchy skin, acute sense of taste – everything’s too salty or too sweet. And then the total loss of taste as the chemo kills off my taste buds. Daily gastric distress, aching muscles.... And I know, this too shall pass, as my obstetrician reminded me years ago when my young children were fraying my last nerve.
This too shall pass. Just need to persevere a few more weeks, then a final round of chemo to ramp things up. But I’ll be okay. Lots of people have been up this mountain and survived. I’ll keep writing and processing this science experiment I’ve become. Each day brings a new experience – something new to examine. Is that the start of a camel’s hump on my back? That must be where all the water’s going. At least I’m a Dromedary and not a Bactrian.
I’m a shit show, but I’m still here. I’m surrounded by people who love me and keep me sane. They lie and tell me I look good. I know better but appreciate their kindness and generosity. Friends come by with magazines and goodie bags of puzzles and word games. Others get me up for walks – even short ones - to be sure I see the sun. My teenage children check on me, even abasing themselves to watch bad TV with me.
My husband cooks and cleans and walks our pack of mongrels. When I first came home after surgery, he took care of my multiple drains, emptying and logging the milliliters of fluid I continued to secrete. I felt like a voodoo high priestess donning shrunken heads, as they were looped on a piece of elastic around my neck, while I showered.
To say I wasn’t always grateful for his gentle ministrations and patience is an understatement. I’m not a silent sufferer. I spit venom, claws out when I lose control over things – especially bodily things. It’s difficult to feel grateful and loving when retching over the toilet or coming out of the shower with handfuls of hair. But my John – he smiles sweetly, makes a stupid joke and before I know it, I’m laughing – murderous thoughts and hatred gone. Or at least suppressed until the next degrading moment. And that’s how we get by… one moment to the next.
Last weekend we came up to Clifford (our farmhouse named by our daughter because it’s red and full of dogs). We bought the house a few months back and it needs work. We’ve been fixing things up, slowly. John decided we needed to mount the deer heads gifted to us by a friend, Sharon. Over the years I’ve used Sharon’s hunting spoils as educational biofacts for wildlife talks I present at schools around the city. We have two large deer heads and it’s time they hung in a place of honor. John and our son, Sam hung them – one over the fireplace and another on an adjacent wall. Neither is centered or well-placed. The larger, more impressive buck is on a side wall, looking at you from wherever you are standing in the room. The smaller one – the one Sharon told me I could not hang in a place of prominence, due to its wonky antlers, is over the fireplace, off-center, looking somewhere left of center.
John stood back, admiring his handiwork and smiled to our son, nodding. He could see me cringing in the corner, fighting to keep my ungrateful heart and judgmental mouth shut. He put an arm over my shoulders, not meeting my eyes, pulling me back to get a good look at his artistry.
Hugging me close, he whispered, “Honey, some places have Feng Shui. We’ve got Fuck Shui.”
I laughed so hard, tears poured from my eyes. I look at those deer heads with new appreciation. Yup, we’ve got Fuck Shui – something off kilter and out of balance. From my altered taste buds and newly shaven head to steroid driven cravings for eggs … nothing’s quite right. And it isn’t supposed to be. I still have rocky mountain roads ahead with another surgery around the corner after chemo. They’ll likely make me wear those damn panties again. Maybe this time I’ll say no. Right now, I feel particularly Fuck Shui – mentally and physically. It won’t last forever, but for right now – that’s where I am. And that’s okay.
Note: This piece was published in Adanna Literary Journal Issue 13, Fall 2023.
About the Creator
Writing is breath for me. Travel and curiosity contribute to my daily writing life. I've had pieces published in Adanna Lit Jour. and Halfway Down the Stairs. My first novel, The Call, comes out in 2024. I live in New Orleans.