Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Where Did I Go?

Today I completed my 10th radiation treatment. I am a third of the way done. If I were a glass-half-full sort of cancer patient, that would be something to celebrate. My cancer personality, however, tends to lean toward a more morose interpretation of events.

I have 20 more treatments to go.

Ugh, that sounds like a lot, doesn't it? That’s a full four more weeks of radiation – even longer if you deduct for the Christmas holiday.

If I’m being honest, I don’t hate radiation. I got off to a pretty rough start, but it has steadily improved since then. (Ativan has certainly helped.) I’m an old pro now. I walk in the place and the receptionist waves me on, chirping, “I’ll get you checked in, Shannon.” I take off my top and put on the hospital’s stylish-in-a-1970s-wrap-dress-gone-horribly-awry-sort-of-way pink-on-more-pink smock. Then I am almost immediately taken back for radiation where I perform a sad table dance flat on my back and naked, while breathing heavily in front of three young 20-something technicians. (Weirdly, it’s not nearly as fun as it sounds.) Every Tuesday, I see my doctor who assures me that I am looking fabulous (despite irrefutable evidence to the contrary). I let myself believe her for a minute or two, and then I am on my way. Sure, it’s a hassle to drive all the way to downtown Saint Paul at 7:00 every morning, but a skim turtle mocha with white chocolate from Caribou often helps ease the pain of the round trip.

You may find this hard to believe but – despite my cheerful exterior – I am feeling rather down today. I feel at this point that I might just have survived cancer. Maybe. It’s not over, of course, but I am feeling somewhat confident that maybe everything will be okay. Maybe I will not die after all. Maybe I will see my children grow up. Maybe I will hold my grandchildren one day. If nothing else, maybe I will live long enough to get an iPhone 8.

So if I am feeling so positive about my prognosis, why am I down?

This is going to sound totally ridiculous, but…I don’t like the way I look. (*cringe*)

I beat cancer. I am almost done with treatment, and I fucking lived to tell the story. Who cares what I look like as long as I am alive, right? How shallow can a person possibly be?

I am not a vain person. Really, I’m not. I never have been. I know I am not a beauty queen. I am “pleasantly plump.” My hair has always been too wavy to be straight and too straight to be curly. My nose is big and I have a giant chin that rivals Jay Leno. Why would I care what I look like?

Well, I don’t really. It’s more complicated than just “I don’t like the way I look.” The thing is that I don’t look like ME. My body is not the body that I lived in for 43 years before being diagnosed with breast cancer. I used to know myself intimately. I knew what my body was capable of doing. I knew what it was not. I knew how it would react – to my movements, to my thoughts, to stress and anger and love and happiness. I knew that if I missed more than one day of my birth control pills, I would undoubtedly get a zit on my chin. I knew that my knees would hurt every time it rained and randomly for 4-5 days every six months or so. I knew that I would gag every time I brushed my teeth, even 10 years after it first began when I was pregnant with my twins. And I knew wine was my friend and beer was a life-long nemesis to my gastro-intestinal tract.  

I knew my body.

These days, my body is not my own. My hands fall asleep whenever they feel like it and refuse to wake up no matter what I do. There are days when my legs act like they’ve forgotten how to hold me up. I can fall asleep anywhere, anytime – except in my own bed at 2am. I’ve gained twenty pounds, but it feels more like fifty since my lack of boob accentuates my overabundance of belly. And the lack of boob is probably not noticeable to other people, but to me it feels like I am walking around with a missing arm or a missing leg. Part of me is gone that should be there. And I am certain everyone sees it. Everyone sees me. Or rather, everyone sees the lack of me. It’s hard to explain the feeling, but it compels me to pull my cardigan close around my body and fold my arms across my chest in an attempt to shrink myself right out of sight.

And then there is my hair. It is coming back in thick, but entirely too slow for my taste. I have friends who wear their hair as short as mine is now and they are beautiful and bad-ass and bright stars in an otherwise dark sky. But their style is not my style. I don’t look like me with extremely short hair. I don’t feel like me. I am self-conscious ALL THE TIME. The woman at IKEA calls me “sir” and I shrink a tiny bit more. It is quite ridiculous to be so consumed by one’s appearance, but I just want to look like me again – with all my foibles and flaws, I just want to be me.

I have breast inserts that I can wear in a bra. When I wear them, I feel a little less conscious of my differentness. I feel a tiny bit less dissonance between who I am and who I once was. I don’t feel the need to fold in on myself. But the bras are uncomfortable. The inserts are hot and heavy. The holes where my drains once were are healed, but still tender. The bra band sits right on these scars. And it needs to be tight to keep from riding up. I sometimes feel like I am being choked when I wear my boobs – as if an invisible snake is constricting me until there is nothing left of me but a spine and a couple chunks of silicone. The choice to be boobed or boobless is a no-win at this point.

Last night, my children had a performance at a local Barnes and Noble. Sophie played the violin and then Sophie and Lucas sang with their respective school choirs. I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. I wore jeans and a t-shirt with a hoodie over the shirt. I chose not to wear my boobs for the reasons outlined above. Unfortunately, when the crowds gathered, it became so hot in that little corner of the bookstore that I couldn’t possible wear my hoodie. Without my protective covering, I sat with my arms crossed, trying to hide my concave chest – my belly hanging out below my arms. After a year with no sun, my arms were paler even than my wife’s normally translucent skin. The hair on my head was wet with sweat. I was incredibly uncomfortable throughout the entire performance because I was so wrapped up in how I felt about how I looked that I couldn’t focus on the reason we were there.

This is not me.

I do not like this person. But I do not know how to get rid of her. I am told that I will eventually get used to this new normal, that I will reach a day when I will feel comfortable in my own skin again.

Right now I am doubtful.


keisma1109 said...

How do you so perfectly explain how it feels? I swear I felt the same way. I felt jing-jangly and miserable for a long time after I was done with all the treatments. I didn't realize that it was that I just didn't feel like me. Your writing is a gift to me. Thank you.

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