Monday, November 26, 2012


It was a year ago--just after the last family members had clambered a little heavier from the Thanksgiving weekend's multiple feasts into cars to take them southward--that I rolled over one morning and felt the hardened spot that would lead to my breast cancer diagnosis. A year ago this week. I really don't want to mark time this way; it's not something I want to commemorate, it's recovery that should be the focus, not the moment of the dark news that bludgeoned it's way in like a vicious intruder. But despite everything, it looms in my path, like a fallen tree I can't circumnavigate. It's like a Yartzeit I don't want to observe, an anti-versary.

It's been a long time since I've written, I know; I've been struggling with what I want to say, with how to express the peculiar mix of euphoria and anxiety that is this post-chemo landscape. It would be simplier to leave the narrative arc of b'matzav at the conclusion of treatment--looking forward to the growth and recovery ahead. But that would be so very untruthful, so deceptive as to the shape that healing takes for cancer survivors. It's not over. It's never really over.

Treatment continues, in the form of hormone therapy, a multi-year prospect. And though my Oncologists at Kaiser have released me back into the wild, so to speak, letting me resume normal schedules of life, work, and travel free of the weekly visits to the infusion center, the follow-ups do follow sooner than you expect, the blood tests and scans punctuating the calendar with quarterly incentives for sleepless nights and anxiety attacks. I am not, by nature, an anxious person; truth be told, I don't think I really understood what anxiety felt like before this experience. Now I am squarely a member of Team Ativan.

In the past two weeks, in the midst of seemingly wonderful events, like visiting New York for the book launch of an architecture publication I recently edited, or gathering with family for the holiday, I have found myself with a knot in my stomach and my pulse racing. Or aggravated beyond reason at the check-out person or while trolling for parking. When walking the streets of post-Sandy Manhattan, I felt the heady buzz I always feel in that glorious city, but it was tinged with a sense of precariousness, both for New York and for myself. My excitement became mired in fear--"oh no, flying too high, nowhere to go but down."

A woman I know who is three years out from her breast cancer diagnosis says that she is just now getting to the point where she can have a day where she doesn't think about it.

Physically, I feel great (as I've said to many, "there's nothing like six months of chemo to make normal feel positively spectacular!") but how is one ever to trust this sensation? I had never felt more fit or healthy in my life as I felt precisely one year ago, wearing my skinniest-ever jeans while preparing Thanksgiving turkey. I was disabused of that feeling with a single phone call. 

Someone very close to me went in in the past week for a biopsy--thankfully, negative, but the morning it was happening I was close to hyperventilating, feeling what I can only liken to an episode of PTSD. My previous post on post-traumatic growth notwithstanding, I was somewhat taken aback by the force of the physical response I had to the apprehension of someone else I love being stalked by cancer. Even with the relief of the negative results, my anxiety has not completely dissipated. Doing battle with insomnia, I tried to chase the cause, as though I could pinpoint an exact correlation. Then I realized it was the time of year--revisiting the same scarred patch of time when the rift occurred, you're forced to tread over this fissure like the open trench of a fault line.

I talk to so many other women who are beset with the same demons--the emotional legacy of what's already taken place, the deep worry that the worst may be yet to come--and this is a big part of cancer's toll, long after one's hair has grown back. We've known the deception of considering ourselves well, but when do you stop considering yourself sick? When do people stop saying the misheberach for you? What does refuach schlemah (complete healing of body and soul) really entail?

And I'm going back in for surgery later this week. To complete the "reconstruction" process with permanent implants. The funny thing is how marginal in importance it seems to me now to have reconstituted breasts. A year ago I could make morbid jokes about the benefits of a new rack; now they seem almost incidental. Like superfluous ornamentation.

Because reconstruction of one's sense of oneself will be so much more of a piecemeal and faltering process. Not by way of anesthesia and silicone. It would be enticing to think of ways that the dark side, the anxiety and fear, could be extirpated, surgically or ritually, even. When Micah was a chaplain at UCLA Medical Center, he was once asked by a patient to help her perform an exorcism. At the time, it seemed loony-bins to me; now it seems a perfectly comprehensible desire. I can't say as I wouldn't welcome a little good ole fashioned demon evacuation: "Oh Lord, give us the strength to cast out this devil anxiety, this tormentor of sleep and stomach acid! Let this darkness be cast forth and let the light of peace shine upon her!"

Ahhh, if only it worked that way. I hope that with time and distance I can stop binging on doubt, stop being a glutton for uncertainty. I will acknowledge and savor the extravagant grace of moments of rest, peace, pleasure, without any tinge of fear. I'll get there. Someday. But for now, let the Ativan flag fly.