PART 1: Late last year a mammogram revealed cancer in my left breast. I haven’t written about it because I’ve wanted to keep sitting with the ripples of it—the shock, the fear, the openings. It’s been a life-altering process on so many levels, not the least of which has been the reminder that my life could end at any time.
The fact that it coincided with the coronavirus was even more of an impetus to use it as a chance to pay attention, to wake up to what I took and take for granted: beauty, love, friendship, breath, life itself. Just the word “cancer” was enough to terrify me. Within a few days, I knew that there were two levels of meeting the cancer diagnosis: the first was the physical. How big. How much had it spread. What were the actions to take, surgeons to meet, decisions to make. And the second was my state of mind. The meaning I gave to the diagnosis. I remembered when we lost our money and my friend told me that "nothing of any value had been lost." I remember how radical that was. And so, I began paying as much attention to the stories I was telling myself about the cancer as I was to the physicality of the cancer itself.
For many years I wondered who would show up if/when catastrophe struck, if I was suddenly given a terminal diagnosis, if my partner died suddenly. My story was that no one would. That love was for other people, not for me. It was an old story but I’d been telling it for so many years that it was believable. When you tell a false story a hundred thousand times, you no longer question its validity. The very repetitiveness seems to groove it as truth deep in the brain (as we can see in the news these days). But within a few days, I couldn’t deny the presence of caring, of love. This photo is of the altar of collages and cards and statues that close friends gave me. The biggest one in the photograph is the Long Life collage my friend Taj made when I told her about the diagnosis, and from there, as I told close friends and they gave statues and cards, a palpable expression of tenderness was created, almost on its own. So, the very first story that being diagnosed with cancer evoked and soon dissipated was that love was for other people. The story was that love itself is conditional, is somewhere out there, and I need to try hard to get it because there’s never enough of it.
It seems as if I have a hard enough head and a protected enough heart that it takes multiple car accidents, losing our money and cancer to pierce the trance of unlove. But I am learning, I am learning. Love, it seems, abounds.
PART 2: It’s so tempting when there is a diagnosis to look for a cause. And of course, being someone who — how can I say this kindly — believes that I can control things (events, illnesses, relationships, anything, everything), I did look for a cause. Here’s what I came up with: I worked too much. I didn’t work hard enough. I drove myself too hard. I didn’t drive myself hard enough. I traveled too much. Or not enough. I had an abusive childhood. I ate a diet of sugar for 28 years: Twinkies, Yodels, Ring Dings, donuts, Oreos, coffee ice cream. Oh yeah, and I shopped too much. Bought too many sweaters, boots, earrings. As I was mentally making up the list, I knew that it was fruitless. That for every situation, there are countless causes. That perhaps, as the doctor suggested, this cancer started developing 30 years ago, who knows?
One of the biggest benefits of believing I could have controlled the outcome is that I don’t have to feel the helplessness or the sheer impact of whatever the situation is. I get to believe that “If I had done ________, then I wouldn’t be feeling ___________.” Which is an incredibly seductive lie, as my years of believing that have revealed. It keeps me in judgment, shame, blame. So in my round up of “things I believed were cancer-causing,” I started asking myself instead what the invitation was now. What could this diagnosis offer me. Open for me. Because why not ask that question, since it was already here and I couldn’t magically disappear it? And what immediately came up was “Kindness.” Despite working with compulsive eating for decades and emphasizing kindness, there was and still is a lack of it in how I turn to myself. It’s gotten so much better over the years, but still. Still. The patterns of treating myself with shame and judgment are so inscribed in this nervous system. And the willingness to fall into the pattern of having blown it is strong. So when I asked myself what the cancer was offering me, the answer came back: look at the way you treat yourself. Then I added the word “sweetheart” so that the question itself didn’t trigger more blame.
PART 3: My friend Barbara accompanied me the day of the biopsy, since Matt was in New York at a conference. The radiologist had skipped the training in communicating life-threatening diseases and as he looked at the mammogram images and extracted six vials of cells from my breast, said, “you have cancer alright.” Shocked at the immediate diagnosis — I thought I needed to wait for the results of the biopsy — I devolved into a pre-verbal shut down. When I told Barbara what he’d said, she pushed back at him, the nurse, everyone she could. "But isn’t it even possible she doesn’t have cancer, she asked?" Nope, he said, it’s not. And that was that.
As we still had the whole day in front of us, I looked at Barbara and said, “Let’s go shock shopping. I am desperate to touch fabric, see color, do anything but think about cancer.” We rambled on Sacramento Street and walked into a store with clothes more appropriate for a twelve year old than for us. The skirts were too short and tight. The tops were cinched in to the point of cutting off circulation. The heels on the shoes were so tall that I was certain I’d break my neck after two steps. With the vision of us falling down the street in skirts that rode up to our navels in tops that cut off air to our lungs and on shoes that were insanely dangerous, we sat on the floor of the store and collapsed into laughter, after which we decided to eat lunch at the restaurant next door.
Therefore, in this photograph, everything on my body is mine, especially those mirrored sunglasses which make me feel like a heavy metal singer. Do you think there is such a thing as a 68-year-old heavy metal singer with cancer who can’t sing?