I got the news no one wants after my first ever mammogram at age forty and subsequent biopsy: breast cancer. I cried. And then something amazing happened: I dealt with it. And then something even more amazing happened: I grew exponentially.
If you can imagine (and I’m sure you can) how awful it is to get the news that you have breast cancer, imagine also Newton’s third law of physics, wherein there is an equal and opposite reaction. Cancer is the blackness, the opposite is all the light you feel when you share your vulnerability with others. I’m sure it’s not exactly what Newton had in mind but it works for me.
It sounds corny but my heart has felt cracked open to the light. And I get to be a little corny because, oh, breast cancer. Not that I play the “C” card. But who gives a shit? I’ll do what I want.
My social worker/hypnotherapist sister sent me Inna Segal’s book, “The Secret Language of Your Body: The Essential Guide to Health and Wellness,” in which Segal explores energetic reasons for disease and offers beautiful, gentle ways to ease yourself back to health. I’m not suggesting (and neither does Segal) to use meditations in place of a doctor’s recommended treatment. But it was helpful to read that the breast is about nurturance. As is so typical of so many women I realized I was not nurturing myself enough and I was not asking for nurturance from others when I needed it. Breast cancer will turn that around really fast if you let it, and I have. I also realized how important I used to think it was to seem like I had it all together and to be a human SCUBA (self contained underwater breathing apparatus), not leaning on anyone. And then the epiphany came that I was being a SCUBA because I was afraid of leaning into my feelings.
So now I lean into my feelings. I made a pact with myself that I’d allow myself to cry, regardless of where I was. For example, the other night my husband and I were watching an episode of Ellen Page’s show, Gaycation and as twenty or so LGBTQ people gathered for a flashmob in Jamaica in spite of being scared for their lives in the middle of the day, I felt the welling. And pre-breast cancer Jenn would have just stuffed her tears. But instead I said, “Oh man, I promised myself I’d let myself cry, so I’m doing it!” And I looked over at my husband and he was crying, too, because people should be able to dance in their city at any time of day regardless of sexual orientation and so forth. So we cried. And then went on with our evening. No damn bigs.
When I sat with my body and the cells I asked what there was to learn. “You’re letting people into places that are just for you,” my body said. “You’re letting interlopers in where they don’t belong,” it told me. Ok, then. I’ll stop doing that. I’d already begun to stop listening to people ad nauseam, pulling energy back from black holes and tending to the parts of me that were calling.
“Cancer is the best thing that’s happened to you all year,” one of my friends joked, after seeing my Facebook posts about how much I’ve learned. And while that isn’t quite true, it is also in its way true-ish. Breast cancer is the thing that comes knocking — like Heisenberg/Walter White — and when you open the door you know how it would actually feel if you had it. You no longer have nebulous anxiety about what is on the other side of the door because it is right in front of you. And you might surprise yourself at how you handle it. I know I have. I keep marveling at how this human has dealt with it so far. And to continue the Walter White metaphor, I have yet to react to having breast cancer by making and selling methamphetamine. Though my cancer is admittedly far milder that Mr. White’s. And that’s TV.
Upon diagnosis, I basically immediately gave about ten thousand fewer shits about the unimportant stuff. I started caring way less about how people perceive me and how my work is received. This is me, I write, I make art and music, mortality is staring me in the face and I don’t have time for petty bullshit or rehashing stupid things people have said about me in order to keep myself from my work. “Ain’t nobody got time for that” is a true statement.
The nurse at my OB/GYN who also had breast cancer said, “Don’t worry, that comes back,” as relates to giving zero shits about what people think. We laughed. She’s probably right, but I’m going to try to hang onto some of these lessons.
I’ve also held onto “not life threatening,” which is what my breast surgeon told me. I’m very lucky they caught this so early — DCIS (ductal carcinoma in situ) stage zero. We like “ductal,” as it means it’s in the duct, we like “in situ,” because it means “in place,” and “carcinoma,” well, we could do without that. That’s why I had a lumpectomy in February and start radiation treatment next week (every weekday for six weeks) and after that will take tamoxifen, a preventative drug, for five to ten years. We do what we need to do. We learn what there is to learn and we share. And we get a plum (and free!) parking spot at the hospital. Whoop-dee-freakin-doo.
Oh, and the scar over my right nipple makes my boobs look like Marlene Dietrich winking. At least that’s what I’m going with. “Men cluster to me like moths around a flame.”
There’s a bunch of scary stuff, of course. Existential mind-shit. My mother had breast cancer and died of ovarian cancer that they found a year and a half later. Radiation only works once, so if I were to get breast cancer again in my right breast I’d most likely need a mastectomy and reconstruction is trickier after radiation because it changes the texture of the breast. Tamoxifen comes with its share of side effects. And to oophorectomy or not to oophorectomy? That’s having your ovaries removed, upon which I would go into overnight menopause, but since my mother died of ovarian cancer, and having your ovaries removed reduces your risk of breast cancer and, of course, ovarian cancer, it’s a good option, especially since there is no optimal screening for ovarian cancer. Lots of thoughts on getting cut open and having various parts taken out. It’s not exactly a jaunty ride on a unicorn shooting rainbows out its ass set to ELO’s “Strange Magic.” Although finding out I do not have any known genetic mutations that would skyrocket my cancer risk came pretty close to that unicorn ride.
Expanding beyond my academic mind I rely on growing spirituality and a hearty sense of humor. Everything seems related. Someone on “This American Life” says, “My fate rests in your hands,” but I hear, “My fake breasts in your hands.” And I laugh about this for longer than is warranted. But again — do your life as much as you can. Even if you’re laughing too long. Those are the moments to savor. Everything is way too goddamned serious otherwise. Cancer. Good times.
Find this piece on The Huffington Post.
It's me, Jennifer Bernice (rhymes with "Furnace": it was my Granny's name) Sutkowski
• More details about my writing here.