Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Preventable My Ass

I've been battling a cold for the past week, and I swear, it has legs. I guess I was due for one this severe, because I haven't had a cold since I left the Great White North two-and-a-half years ago. I think that's a personal record. I never got sick while I was on chemo, despite my non-existent immune system, so I think my body is treating me to a long overdue comeuppance.

Besides being stuffy and achy, I'm pissed off yet again by some things I found in my Facebook feed. An article that appeared in the Washington Post the other day set off the mammogram alarms, with it's "gloom and doom" title masking the real intent of the story, which is to bitch and moan about the over-diagnosis of breast cancer.

“Right now, we have women getting bilateral mastectomies for ductal carcinoma in situ, which is not a cancer,” Otis Brawley, chief medical officer of the American Cancer Society, said. “It’s the world turned upside down.” Otis - my man! Thank you for telling me I lopped off my tits for nothing. If someone diagnosed you with testicular carcinoma in situ (I don't know if that exists, but I'm making a point), would you put your balls at risk and let it go untreated? My guess is "no".

The Post article was shared by my favorite militant-feminist breast cancer organization, Breast Cancer Action, and the comments that followed truly blew my mind. There are women out there who actually think cancer is preventable; that diet and exercise will spare you from the blight, and keep you healthy until you gently pass on into the night. You know what? In some places, that might be true.

North America is known for it's pesticide-bombed, sugar-laden, genetically modified, processed "Frankenfood", along with myriad chemicals polluting our groundwater, soil, and atmosphere. We refuse to embrace solar energy, we still mine and burn coal, and now we're "fracking" the hell out of the planet to get our hands on natural gas deposits and bitumen. All this is likely responsible for the increase in breast and other cancers, but eating metric tons of kale and cauliflower isn't going to put the brakes on those cancer cells. The truth is, we don't know what will. Science is getting closer to finding out, but right now, we do what we have to do if those nasty cells manifest themselves in our bodies.

Maybe one day, I will buy myself a romantic villa in Tuscany, or a fabulous chateau in Provence (when I finally get published). I'll grow my own pesticide-free fruits and vegetables, slaughter my own hormone- and antibiotic-free animals, and drink enough wine to keep me in a glorious stupor for the rest of my days. My cancer might come back, despite any effort made to escape the filthy, disease-ridden, industrialized world.

Cancer is like a nuke; it will find you wherever you attempt to hide. Preventable my ass; let's stop kidding ourselves, shall we?

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Why I Like Not Having Breasts

I thought I'd do something a little different today. I'm sharing an essay I wrote a couple of months ago, and have been attempting to flog for publication. So far, no bites. I hope you enjoy it.

Why I Like Not Having Breasts

In June, 2014, I was diagnosed with early-stage cancer in my left breast. The news came about ten days after my very first mammogram. I had spent most of my adult life half-heartedly performing self-examinations, and never felt anything resembling a lump, so my diagnosis came as quite a shock.

It turned out my cancer was the kind that was not in lump form. It was in my milk ducts, and is known as invasive ductal carcinoma, and ductal carcinoma in situ. I was lucky enough to have both. There were about four centimeters of fully-developed cancer cells in total, and more warming up in the bullpen. To make things even more interesting, the doctors suspected that my lymph nodes also contained some malignant cells, and a biopsy proved they were right.

Lumpectomies are not an option with the type of cancer I had. When the surgeon told me it would be best to have a mastectomy, I looked at him, and without hesitation said, “Fine; take them both.” He sensed my certainty and replied, “Alright, we’ll do a double.”

I realize that most women are not particularly eager to part with their breasts. Boobs, titties, girls, knockers, fun bags, headlights – whatever you care to refer to them as – are the embodiment of womanhood. Without them, some of us tend to lose our identity. I never felt that way. At 47, I never had children, and, quite honestly, I never thought my breasts were particularly attractive. I am of Eastern European Jewish descent on both sides of my family, and I’d inherited a pair of low-hangers from my mother and grandmother. My nipples pointed towards the ground ever since I was a teenager.

Since I was a bit unlucky in the genetics department, my breasts proved challenging when it came to buying bras. I wasn’t burdened with a pair of mammoth, back-breaking breasts (I was a D cup), but as I got older, finding bras that fit me well became harder to procure. I was once molested by a saleswoman in a lingerie shop – the kind where they measure you and attempt to “fit” you into the best bra for your size and breast shape. The woman became extremely frustrated because my nipples refused to hold their place in the center of the cups. I kept trying to explain I’d been dealing with that problem most of my life, but she couldn’t find a shred of empathy for my plight. I was 34 years-old when that happened, and from that day forward, I had a sneaking suspicion that maybe I wasn’t meant to go through life with such troublesome appendages attached to my body.

Don’t get me wrong; I wasn’t wishing for cancer. I was thinking maybe I’d go for a breast lift, or a breast reduction when I was older. I knew several women who were diagnosed with breast cancer, and watched a cousin to whom I was very close, suffer with metastatic disease. She’d had a lumpectomy and chemotherapy in the early 90s, and the cancer came back in her other breast. Then, it spread to her spine, and eventually to the rest of her body. When she died in 2005, I vowed that if it ever happened to me, I would “lop off my tits” without hesitation. And that’s exactly what I did.

The breast cancer lottery awarded me with the full enchilada. Because cancer was found in my lymph nodes, I had to undergo chemotherapy, and as I write this, I am preparing to embark on six weeks of radiation. In addition to that, having 26 lymph nodes removed (five of them cancerous) left me with nerve damage and lymphedema in my left arm.

Despite all that, I am not sorry I got rid of my breasts. There will be no more mortification in the lingerie department, and gravity no longer has dominion over my nipples. Yes, my cancer might come back, but I’ll sleep better at night knowing I did everything I could to hopefully prevent that from happening.

Science and unchecked vanity might say that I mutilated my body, but I disagree. I made an informed, educated decision to do what I thought was best for me. And I’ll never get poked by an underwire bra ever again.  

Tuesday, April 7, 2015


Life has been very interesting since I last posted, mainly because I had a complete meltdown following the conclusion of roasting. I didn't realize that, like the roast you let rest on the counter after removing it from the oven and tenting it with foil, you keep cooking after you're cooked. Yes, as bad as I felt the last time I blogged, I started to feel even worse a couple of days later.

I went back to see my medical oncologist the Friday after I had the CT scan, and that disastrous cardiac ultrasound. Thankfully, my scan was clear and my heart is fine. The rest of me, however, was a huge mess. I was in horrific pain, and I believe I had a slight cold/flu, because I had a runny, stuffy nose and a fever. He took a look at my left chest/underarm area and promptly wrote me prescriptions for a strong antibiotic and painkillers. I was also supposed to receive my first jabbing with Lupron, but on top of everything else, I could not handle being thrown into menopause. I went home and spent the remainder of the weekend on a merry-go-round of chills, sweats, and nausea. It felt like someone sneaked more chemo into my lemonade. I was begging for mercy, and a few times, the phrase "kill me now" crossed my lips. The high point was when I barfed up a roast beef sandwich, mere moments after consuming it. There are no adjectives to describe the frustration you feel when you're hungry, and your body rejects what it craves.

Happily, I am feeling better, but there is still residual discomfort from roasting. To say that I was rendered well done, and extra-crispy, is an understatement. Again, I know it is impossible to predict how one will react to cancer treatments, but like the overachiever I tend to be, I went above and beyond expectation. Sure, I heard all the waiting room-gossip about the horrors of radiation, and my hubris got the better of me. "I'm no wimp", I kept telling myself. "I am strong like bull!" The truth is, no one here gets out alive.

When I was in high school, all the big Doors fans read that Jim Morrison biography (it was first published in 1980). You were beyond cool if you were seen carrying a copy of it with your school books. Not being the biggest Doors fan, I passed. I still haven't read it. I have no intention of ever reading it. It's a snappy title, however, and a solid aphorism when used to give perspective to what it's like to go through cancer treatment. You have to literally kill off parts of yourself - physical and emotional - to get through it.

My grace, humor, dignity, and general "fuck you" attitude towards cancer seem to have collectively left the building. I've reached the point where giving a shit is too bothersome. This is an inevitable phase of the experience, and I'm not quite ready to claw my way out. I've postponed menopause, at least until the end of the month. I am, however, going ahead with the immunotherapy study, and am scheduled to receive my first Herceptin infusion this Thursday. Despite my current attitude, I feel I still owe a debt to all the people who have helped me, and to all the people who might have to get on the same merry-go-round. Now is not the time to be selfish or self-destructive. I can say it, but part of me doesn't mean it. Sometimes, it's easier to just be weak.