My last cancer-related post focused on my perception of myself measured against my perception of others and my perception of others measured against my perception of others’ perception of me.
Yeah, you gotta untangle that one, but you know I’m right.
I’ve been quiet here lately, some due to chemo-brain where I can’t hold an organized thought pattern long enough to think it would be worth plunking out a sentence, much less a post..
And some because my heart has been circling the wagons. As I become more self-conscious about my vulnerabilities and limitations, I am more aware of others’ gaze and aware that it’s not on me as much as I thought…or hoped…or something.
I try to hide the more gory details from those whose attentions I desire. I am more doting and protective of one fellow in particular, both wishing he would dote on me and hoping I don’t get caught alone for another awkward silence between two people who can’t say what they’re thinking. He opened up to me once, said something that let me knew he knew what it meant to love someone, and I was punch-drunk for a week afterward. I wanted more stories like that. I wanted his story. But I had no idea when I would get another taste. We both recognized the dangers. That’s what made it so exciting.
That was about a year ago. And I don’t have the psychological capital now to play our little game.
The Game where I can pretty much say whatever I want in the name of “I need to get this off my chest because, dammit, I can’t focus on my work at the moment.” So long as I was discrete. So long as I don’t put him in a position to have to speak honestly.
Because then he would have to lie to me, tow the company line. Or maybe he didn’t lie, because there’s this big fat asterisk next to everything he says. Such is the problem with conflicts-of-interest.
Maybe this is all in my head and he’s just flattered. I’m misreading social cues and his friendly managerial style.
That’s the story and we’re sticking to it anyway. And since I care about him I would never insinuate otherwise.
I’m also bursting at the seams with need of support. The cry-on-your-shoulder-and-wipe-my-nose-with-your-shirt-and-you-don’t-care kind of support. My Aunt is lovely, but she is more of a ball of fluff than the broad-shouldered oak tree whose arms I ache to climb into.
On a company outing I came across a woman whose name I don’t know, whose department I don’t know, but who is supposedly a “survivor”. That is how she introduced herself. “Excuse me, were yall talking about cancer?”
I give a two-fingered half wave of acknowledgement and half pointing to my obviously bald self. I stifled my facial expression of “Du-uh!”.
“I’m a survivor of [some number of] years.”
No name, no department. Her identity is Survivor. “Congratulations!” says my co-worker, who’s the dutiful daughter-in-law of another survivor of 20 years. I am well aware of the mother-in-law. In fact, her anniversary --um-- “Survivor Day” just passed this last week.
But to say “congratulations” seemed near-morbid, because it is a poor approximation to the complex nature of acknowledging the being a member of a club I did not ask to join. I feel the same about “Happy Veterans Day” or “Happy Memorial Day”, but those are perversions based on a willful disconnect from the somber purpose of the holidays.
So I ask: Is getting cancer and then getting early and aggressive treatment an accomplishment to be rewarded? Or is the near-death stroke of luck that the cancer was caught "just in time"? Is pride a valid expression of the title ‘Survivor’? I am misunderstanding the language as well as the secret handshake, apparently. Perhaps I missed the brochure at Orientation.
Or the happy expression of “Congratulations” toward members of the club happy for the attention, is that a willful disconnect toward the very scary and painful reality of tumors and chemo and blood count and the fact that my toenails are purple and my fingernails are cut halfway down the nailbed so maybe they can please stop oozing?
As I progress further into my treatment -- the last round of Taxol is this Thursday and the first round of the “red devil” is next week -- I am seeing the disconnect in those around me. I am no longer asked how I am feeling, which is both welcomed as well as missed, as my lies become less believable, as I’m tired of saying them.
I am also self-conscious of my fingernails and toenails (off-color toenails imply so many gross things), as such I mention my zombie nails more often than necessary. Miss Survivor, in response, a little too perky, a little too oblivious to what I just said, mentioned she’d been on the “red devil” like it was just the totally coolest thing. It sounded like she’d been on my same regimen.
“Oh yeah, I’ll be starting the red devil in a couple of weeks.”
“And you ALREADY lost your HAIR!” like this was completely unheard of, when about 70 percent of women lose their hair on Taxol in the second to fourth week. I was about to remind her when she launches into the story of wowing the nurses because her hair didn’t fall out until after her second dose of the red devil.
“So when did it start?” she finally asks.
“When did what start?”
“When did the pain start, when the chemo start, when did I find the lump—there are many starting points.”
With the blankest airheaded expression, “Oh, I didn’t have any pain.”
I wasn’t talking about you, darling, or didn’t you catch that?
Later on, I ventured too close to Miss Survivor again and she shouts “Hey! Check out my button! A nurse gave it to me!”
Cancer Sucks, it said on her purse. Does it? Does it really? That button did not imbue me with warmth and connection. Cancer itself did not suck. It was there, it was gone. It’s chemo that sucks, ergo the button holds misplaced sentiment, and I cannot let it speak for me. Perhaps I’m not a member of the club after all. Whew.
I was not initially inclined to doubt Miss Survivor’s story, only that she seemed a little too preoccupied with me believing it. Did you really get it from a nurse, dear? The “red devil” does sound spooky and dangerous and cool all at the same time, doesn’t it? Funny how you were focused on the losing of hair and not whether anything made you curl up and not eat and puke all weekend.
“Oh, I didn’t have any pain.” Hmm…sure, ok.
For what it’s worth, I have encountered a couple who gain the attention of the party by recounting the husband’s so-called testicular cancer—they removed the testicle—but he has an implant—and it metastasized to his lymph nodes!—but he’s not on chemo…"Watchful Waiting" is the buzzword they use a little too often. And I believed them until I had my own diagnosis and realized there’s a certain specificity to the language of cancer patients talking about cancer versus people who think they are talking like cancer patients.
People see themselves or separate themselves according to their needs.
I am in the fishbowl.
A lifetime of feeling alone in a crowded room has come down to taking this
one breath at a time.
To end this post on a lighter note, I’m back to pushing myself during my work out again. Powerwalking now. Trying to keep up with a long-legged amazon woman-coworker-friend. We don't talk about cancer. We talk about weight and diet and sweat and I feel normal and connected again. Seems I had let myself go just enough that half my wardrobe no longer fits. Oops. I could blame it on the steroids, but that won’t help my pants fit again. The important thing is I had forgotten how good a good sweat could make me feel.