I wrote this just about a year ago. Not long after my lumpectomy, while I was going through radiation.
Yes, it sucks to have cancer. But cancer is not the end of joy, as I suspected before I went for a biopsy about a month ago after my first mammogram at age forty showed calcifications. I saw the door marked “Oncology” and figured that was a door other people walked through — people I felt for, of course, people I considered to be strong. And it was a door my mother walked through far too young. Could I really be even younger than she was and have to sit at that oncology desk where they answer the oncology phone and dole out oncology advice?
To say you feel lucky when you also have cancer might seem counterintuitive. But I feel lucky I got checked at all. My primary care nurse practitioner handed me a referral sheet and said, “Just walk over there to The Hoffman Breast Center and make an appointment. Just do it.” And I did — even though I, like most people, dislike going to the doctor. Who wants to get their breasts squeezed into mammography machine? Not me! I’m forty. That’s young. I’m fine, I thought. But I made the appointment and I went. It turns out having DCIS (ductal carcinoma in situ) is the reality — the luck is that they found it so early.
For me, joy is the details. Joy is discussing the beer and Doritos (Nacho flavor) the nurse “dominated” the night before my biopsy — she tells me about it while cupping my breast to stop the bleeding. Joy is realizing you give so fewer shits about how you and your work are received because you’re in the midst of the existential mind-fuckery of a cancer diagnosis. Joy is having the time to go to Florida with friends and their two and a half year old the week before your surgery. Joy is not having a two and a half year old of your own to entertain in Disney World, especially when you have cancer.
Joy is unfurling your body into Warrior II in the morning and realizing you’ve set yourself up with a daily yoga practice months before your diagnosis, so you’ll be in the most prime shape you can be for recovery. Joy is “What we thought we saw on the breast MRI was probably just hormonal noise and the ultrasound shows there is no additional cancer we can see.” Joy is “You don’t have any additional cancer than the cancer you already have.” Joy is perspective.
Joy is a sense of humor. Joy is being able to say “no.” Joy is being able to say “yes.” Joy is believing you are worthy of saying “no” and “yes.” Joy is realizing you’ll never put yourself in the position again to say “no” or “yes” against your will. Joy is seeing your own light and believing it. Joy is having people around who show you that light. Joy is having a huge cry because you realize what they’re saying is true and you never want to forget your own light again.
My mother had breast cancer before she was diagnosed with the ovarian cancer that killed her. And she was terrified. To be diagnosed with breast cancer while writing a book about your mother’s cancer presents its own slew of oddness:
What if I follow the same fate? What if cancer is all over my body already? What if I test positive for the genetic markers, BRCA1 and BRCA2? And then you ask these questions out loud to people you trust. And joy is allowing yourself to be vulnerable enough to ask because the answers you get are “Your path is your own path and cannot be the same path as your mother’s,” “Cancer is not all over your body already — you were diagnosed with this specific cancer and it is ‘in situ,’ which means ‘in place,’” “There are management options for testing positive for the genetic markers and I know people who have gone through both radical hysterectomies and bilateral mastectomies and live great, full, healthy lives, and their reconstructed breasts look beautiful, and I can put you in touch with them (the people themselves, not their reconstructed breasts).” Joy is perspective, again.
Joy is telling the mammography technicians after they help the radiologist place the wire for your lumpectomy, “Thank you for this work you do. You are in here every day and people like me come in and we can’t wait to get out of here as fast as we can. It’s good work you do, and I appreciate it.” And joy is hearing, “Thank you for saying that. It feels really good to be appreciated and acknowledged once in a while.”
You can take a break from the joy when the radiologist chooses too short a wire for your ample bosom and has to stick you twice and acts like the most bruised thing in the room is her ego because she chose incorrectly. Joy is not Lidocaine, but Lidocaine helps. Joy is knowing you can air your grievances later on the page.
Joy is the chicken dinner your husband cooks you and your sisters after you come home from surgery. Joy is the wabi-sabi-style light your hypnotherapist sister suggests you inject into the site of your lumpectomy while meditating. Joy is your family being able to take time away to come support you in your healing. Joy is the breast surgeon saying “not life threatening.”
Joy is having the outlet of writing to be able to focus on details, like how the anxious intake nurse’s braces shone in the bright sunlight of the OR waiting room and how she looked so much like a fifty-nine-year-old female version of your banjo-playing friend, Todd.
Joy is a practice. Joy is more likely to flood in if you let yourself cry.
Joy is waking up after a long, twilight-anesthesia-fueled night’s sleep in your funny pale pink hospital bra to Facebook posts from people you’ve known forever and people you’ve only just met telling you how touched they are by you sharing your story and how you’ve always felt “full of light” to them. Joy is letting yourself cry some tears of gratitude over that while sniffing your Maine Coon cat’s head as your husband snores next to you with his black sleep mask on to keep out the rays coming through the many windows in your bedroom. Joy is having many windows in your bedroom. Joy is letting him sleep. Joy is noticing the one white whisker in his beard because he cares so much for you and this time has been difficult, but here you are, breathing and warm in bed, together.
If someone had pointed a bony finger at me a year ago and said, “You’re going to get cancer and you’re going to be happy,” I would have woken up thinking about it in the middle of the night, gasping and sweating. If they had said, “It is going to feel impossible and then you’re going to look into the face of mortality and surprise yourself,” I would have put my hands over my ears. But the good news is, I’m telling you, from this side of the line, it is possible. We’re extraordinary beasts — as amazing as we are shitty at times. We can find joy anywhere and we do.
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It's me, Jennifer Bernice (rhymes with "Furnace": it was my Granny's name) Sutkowski
• More details about my writing here.