As I get closer to my surgery date, my mind, heart, body, and soul have increased in their capacity to feel a wide range of feelings simultaneously—even when those feelings seem to be conflicting.
I want to live both like I have no tomorrow and like I have a century left.
One minute I’m eating a large breakfast of eggs, tater tots, and corned beef hash for comfort, and the next I’m sipping on a smoothie for its nutritional value.
One day I’m brainstorming all of the jobs, side hustles, and GoFundMe campaigns I will need in order to pay off my medical bills, and the next I’m planning adventures like Luisa in Y Tu Mamá También.
Do I want privacy, community, or intimacy? Do I feel like screaming, crying, or laughing? I don’t know. All of the above?
On Valentine’s Day, I walked into a bar with the intention to enjoy a drink in silence as I waited for a friend to get off of work. Within a couple hours, I was chatting it up with an older gentleman and ended up explaining that I have breast cancer. It turned out that his wife had been diagnosed with it when she was about my age. We had a good talk about her and their life together and all of his encouragement for me.
Hell, I ended up talking to the salesperson at the Apple store about having breast cancer. I honestly had no intention to raise the subject. She kept asking me all of these questions about what I wanted in a new phone. I explained that I had decision fatigue and that my needs were simple. I had been holding onto the same phone for almost five years. I usually kept my phones until they are absolutely done, but that was not an option here. My phone had unexpectedly turned off several times within the last few months so I thought it was best to buy a new one before my upcoming surgery. Eventually, she asked if she could ask me what type of surgery I was having, and I briefly described my diagnosis and situation.
“God bless,” she responded.
It occurred to me that today I’ve been able to have conversations about my diagnosis with so many people: bosses, friends, doctors, nurses, social workers, colleagues, my landlord’s wife, strangers, and certain family members.
I didn’t mean for the first person I told to be my former boss. It just came out when I started crying as I was asking for time off. Then I explained that I needed it because I had breast cancer.
Next I told a stream of friends.
I told my sister. Then I had lots of conversations with her, one of my cousins, the estranged wife of one of my other cousins (I talk to her a lot more than to my cousin), and friends while determining how to share the news with my parents.
My medical news came a few days before I was scheduled to visit family for the holiday season. After debating whether or not to continue with the trip, I opted to travel at the advice of my breast surgeon and oncologist. They didn’t think I should have to give up my family time for the holidays.
My time visiting family brought about so many ambivalent and somehow conflicting emotions. On one hand, I was happy to be near family, but it also felt lonely as hell. I was at family gatherings, but most people were not openly acknowledging my diagnosis.
People said hi to me, they might have hugged and kissed me, and they gave me looks of pity. They knew that I had breast cancer, and I knew that they knew because my immediate family members told me so—but nobody was raising the issue. When relatives asked me about myself in a group setting, the main focus was on my job.
If I did have open, candid dialogues with relatives, it was when I was pulled aside for private one-on-one conversations.
FYI there is cancer history in my family. Although I was aware of a couple cases, I learned about more of them AFTER my diagnosis. Then I heard about different cases from various family members.
When one cousin asked me how family was taking it, I told her about how most people were not bringing up the subject to my face, but that I could tell how they knew through their tone, facial expressions, and body language. She wondered if they were waiting for me to say something first.
She had a point. I had not observed open, honest dialogues about any difficult issue ::cough::health::cough::abuse::cough::divorce::cough::drugs::cough:: in a large group setting in my family. Again if you want to find out about the really substantial topics, someone has to pull you into a one-on-one or highly selective small group setting.
I know that my family is not unique in any of this.
That’s why I decided to write about it.
After two and a half weeks of being in situations where some family, some friends, some medical providers, and some informational materials from the hospital didn’t know how to cover this topic with me, I couldn’t take it anymore.
There is so much information about breast cancer that is accessible to the public, but somehow that doesn’t always increase our comfort and skills with communicating about it. I can say that about any difficult topic really.
I certainly am not the best about sharing what’s on my mind all the time. Sometimes I’m so careful about how I might sound that I might say nothing at all. Most of us do that to some extent for our own self-protection. In a situation like mine though, it’s hard to consistently live like that.
Someone told me about the website Cancer and Careers and said that it helped her brother with his diagnosis when he was concerned about discrimination. That framing of the situation both helped and didn’t help me. I appreciated her for sharing the website, but it sent me down a lot of thoughts I wished I had never ever had to consider.
I already have had to worry about discrimination. I’m a woman of color. I’m the daughter of immigrants. I’m a sexual violence survivor. I’m a lefty. You can’t grow up with those factors and never experience judgment, discrimination, or oppression in some form.
Then I was realizing I had to worry about discrimination because I had cancer.
Damn. I can’t.
What can I not do? I don’t know yet. I’m still figuring it out.
It’s times like this that the words of Wanda Sykes, one of my favorite comedians and breast cancer survivors, resonate with me.
Wanda told Ellen in 2011: “I was like, I don’t know, should I talk about it or what? Because man I mean how many things could I have? You know Black, then you know lesbian. And I’m like I can’t be the poster child for everything … And you know, at least with the LGBT issues, we get a parade, and you know a float, and it’s a party and all that … But I was real hesitant about doing this, because I hate walking … I got a lot of walks coming up.”
As much public information as there is about breast cancer, Wanda’s interview with Ellen is one of the few resources that spoke to the many emotions I have been feeling. She shared her story in a way that was truthful, educational, and comical.
Multiple times, Wanda acknowledged that breast cancer was scary. She expressed how lucky and blessed she was that doctors found it early, especially since she had lost loved ones to it. Furthermore, she encouraged viewers to share their diagnosis with family members so that they could be informed about what to monitor with their own health. Ultimately, she found the light and humor in her diagnosis, but she didn’t minimize it.
Now I’m not Wanda (I don’t even know if private Wanda is really like public Wanda), but I would like to have some version of what she was portraying in this interview. She was not sugarcoating her situation like how other survivors have told me they did in some situations, but she was highlighting the silver lining and lessons from her lived experience. She even found a way to address how hard it is to confront a health issue when you’re already someone who belongs to multiple marginalized communities.
It has been hard for me to find resources that address all of these issues and more when you get hit with this kind of diagnosis. Sometimes a new challenge amplifies all of your other challenges. The response can be, “Think positively,” but you can’t solve problems if you don’t acknowledge them. Positive thinking is good, but do you want to know what’s great? Critical thinking that takes into account both the light and darkness of a situation.
Don’t believe me? Follow thecancerpatient on Instagram. A breast cancer survivor recommended it to me. I wasn’t sure if I’d like the account, but it’s another one of those few accounts on social media that speaks to both the light and darkness of cancer. I love writing as a medium, but there are certain emotions that only pictures can illustrate such as this one about getting the “you have cancer” phone call.
I’m not sure how I’ll feel after surgery, but I’ve been told I likely will feel a lot of ambivalence. No sugarcoating there. The Wanda interview with Ellen may or may not make me laugh then. Following thecancerpatient on Instagram may or may not make me smile then. That’s okay if they don’t right away, but I hope that I can genuinely find peace and joy after surgery someday.
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