Sunday, September 30, 2007

Five O'Clock Shadows

September 30, 2007

I feel really well. The oncologists were raving about my blood work, which is apparently really good for someone who has just finished chemo. That made me feel good, because I feel like maybe my general good health is kicking in again. My hair is starting to sprout; I have a 5 o’clock shadow on my head. My eyebrows are little barely visible strips of fuzz, an outline for me to follow with an eyebrow pencil. It seems hardly fair, that all the hair I didn’t want, like on my face, is quite visible again. But I am relieved to think that I will probably have a real head of hair by the end of the year. I am working half time; after work I rush off to radiation, which takes about 20-30 minutes (the actual process is about 10, but there’s changing, getting everything lined up, changing back). So far, I have no symptoms from the radiation. My oncologist is really into everyone using lots of corn starch like powder, all over the area that’s being radiated, so there’s a film of corn starch all over my apartment. I’m glad, though, to be using something so simple and benign and cheap, rather than toxic ointments that make drug companies rich.

Last week I had a dream. Someone knocked on my door. It was a young man I knew slightly. He asked to borrow money, and I said, “You really came here to steal from me, didn’t you?” He acknowledged it. He was sorry, but said he needed the money and didn’t know who else he could get it from. I might have given it to you, I said, but it makes me angry that you pretended friendship, when you are only thinking of me as someone you can steal from. I went outside to talk to him, and when he was gone (I think without having gotten the money, though I’m not positive), I opened my door to find that I had been erased from the apartment. It was like I had never lived there. All my things were gone, my books replaced by someone else’s books, my furniture by someone else’s furniture. I thought maybe I was confused about which apartment was mine, so I looked in all the other apartments in my building, but none of them were mine. I went around asking my neighbors, “Where do I live?” and they suggested one apartment or another, but no, I didn’t live in any of them. I concluded I did not live in the building.

When I woke up, I thought, “My house in that dream is my body.”
What “someone” – the universe, karma, G-d, Bad Luck – stole from me was the sense of invincibility I have always had, the feeling of entitlement to good health. I – the me who never got sick, who didn’t see a doctor for seven years and went without insurance for three, has indeed been erased from my body. My very first professional article, written almost twenty years ago, was about women and cancer. The lead was a quote from a cancer survivor, one of the founders of the Women’s Cancer Resource Center in Oakland. “When you have cancer,” she said with tears starting to fall, “everything in your life changes.” At 29, I didn’t really understand what she meant. Now I do. Even if I wanted to go back to my old way of ignoring my physical self, the health care providers I have brought into my life wouldn’t let me. I would have to move out of the area to get away from the constant schedule of appointments. They are making appointments for me three and six months in advance. Although I am happy to say that it’s been a month or so since I swallowed my last drug, I do have a shelf full of naturopathic supplements I’m supposed to take every day, though I admit, I’m not all that good about it. I worry more than I ever did about losing my job, and I couldn’t quit unless I had another one, because I would never qualify for individual insurance.

From this year forward, I’ll always have cancer in my life. The memory of the chemo ordeal has already started fading, and in some years, I am sure it will be a distant echo. I hardly intend to let cancer take over my life, but I’ll always have that worry in the back of my mind.

A lot of people have asked if they have succeeded in shrinking the cancer, or if I’m in remission. I would probably have asked the same questions to someone else a year ago, but the fact is that I have not had any cancer in my body since March 28 (the day after my surgery). The surgeon removed the entire tumor (2.4 cm), plus a margin for error, and all the lymph nodes containing any cancer cells. Everything they have done to me since then is to prevent the cancer from coming back, a recurrence or a new tumor.

I’m taking a class right now in health and healing, that involves some magical-spiritual-meditation practice and some techniques from hypnotherapy and body work. Last week, people were talking about what is health and what is healing. Someone used the phrase, “Healing is growth,” and that made me laugh, because in my body right now, growth is the opposite of healing. In fact, the “healing” processes I’m undergoing are meant to prevent growth. I started thinking, not for the first time, about the oddness of cancer, compared to many types of what we perceive as “ill health,” where you feel bad, and when you start feeling better, you are getting healthier. Six months ago, I felt fine, but I was sick. Four months ago, I was more or less well, but felt terrible (or at least, to the extent I was sick, it was from the treatment, not the disease), and now I am well and feel well. And thank Whoever for that!

(Next week, hopefully I am doing a radio broadcast about breast cancer, for Breast Cancer Awareness Month. This week I have a piece about the Philippines; you can hear it tomorrow at 94.1 FM between 1:00 and 2:00 p.m. or online at