In the urban institutional expanse of the hospital where I see an oncologist, I am taking a moment to recoup my emotional energy. I just saw my breast cancer specialist. She spent 3 minutes walking her fingertips over my breast and armpit area. I am full of gratitude. She is spending time on my damaged body. She is examining it for traps and hidden venom, pitfalls, lumps, tumors, ways that my body can betray me, silently and surreptitiously.
It is nothing. Just scar tissue. This time.
I am overwhelmed for some reason. Why? This is a journey I have made innumerable times now. It is June 12, 2019. My abbu’s birthday, by the way, as far as we know. The first birthday we will not celebrate, because he died in September.
It is also the tenth anniversary, plus one month, of my discovery of breast cancer the first time. May 2009, when I was completing my first year on the tenure track, and preparing to enjoy the summer and the time to enjoy health insurance checkups like ‘free’ mammograms. Hurrah.
“There’s something,” my kind, young Indian doctor back in Oklahoma had said, “but it’s probably nothing. Come back and we’ll check.” It was something. Come back, and we’ll do a biopsy. Oh, wait. That’s something. And then the phone call. I had been alone at home, and there were the words: aggressive; so sorry; surgery.
Most of this journey, despite my little family, I undertook alone. The American workplace was relatively kind to my husband, allowing him a few hours a few days here and there, but most of my journeys were alone.
Burned into my memory, that first drowsy drive back to Stillwater from Oklahoma City, alone, from a Surprise We have Chemo For You, Sooner the Better. And a kid’s birthday party in the evening, where I couldn’t understand why I didn’t want to socialize, and I emerged to vomit all over the parking space. Then the mercifully short drives to and from chemotherapy in town. The helpful offers to pick and drop my 3 year old from preschool; the helpful offers drying up, turning into an occasional impatient snide comment – rarely, but oh it hurt, how it hurt, how it still hurts, because of how alone I was.
That night in summer 2009 when I was putting away food and the post-chemo meds hit me, and I wilted over the stove in the kitchen, and my 3-year old found me there. She took one look at me, asked me, Mama, are you okay? And then took my hand, and told me firmly, “Let’s go to bed, Mama” and led me to my room, and snuggled down with me. She shouldn’t have to be my parent, but how alone I was. In those hot, baking summers, miles and miles from family and friends, relying only on a man.
We hadn’t been married long – eight years seems like a lot, but we were still working out the rough edges of the relationship. We were living out in Oklahoma – no family, no friends, and an astoundingly toxic workplace. I was still bald when I got the letter that said I wasn’t going to be reappointed because of teaching issues (student evaluations: the score was skewed by one student in a class of five. See how I feel like I have to explain?) Exhausted in body and mind, I was plunged into a world of legal discussions, diversity officers who didn’t do anything, an incestuous world of faculty and administrators who ended up being a united front against the brown Muslim interloper who had the audacity of opinions, who kept publishing stuff and didn’t just hand out A’s. Most of the women in my program, including the White feminist scholar and the immigrant woman of color, shook their heads in saintly compassion at my disease and then stabbed me in the back with relish. The provost overruled their decision and I was reappointed, but they were going to hound me out, he implied; “you don’t really want to stay with a department like this, do you?” I knew I was alone.
At that time, in 2012, I was courted by the small private college, Millikin University. The mentor gave me a hefty course teaching schedule that started at 8am, with a one hour commute. Could we please start a bit later? I didn’t want to use the c word. I am a survivor, but I just started here so I can’t tell them my sob stories. The mentor snapped at me: “First do your time, then ask for accommodations.” I did my time. A year later, the Dean, a poet, in a turf war with my hiring department, handed me my termination. No reason. Cutting costs. Nobody came to my aid. People withdrew into the safety of their offices and said not a word.
There were those few months when I had one boob, and wore a prosthetic. My boob was alone. It was a relief to get the full mastectomy and not be asymmetrical. There was the time when I was still vomiting and drowsy after a partial mastectomy. Around midnight, the hospital resident told us we had to leave. Not allowed to stay overnight, he said. But I’m nauseated, I said. They handed me a paper bag, put me in a wheelchair, and carted me out to the car. An endless hour-long journey from Oklahoma City to Stillwater, in and out of consciousness, fresh from surgery. Oops, the Oklahoma University Medicine folks said afterward, too bad.
But let’s return to today. Let’s check one more checkup off the list. Symptoms, I say, the same and more. Side effects of the hormonal therapy. See the eye bags? Insomnia.
Last week, I came in for an ultrasound. I’ve been feeling what might be lumps for months now, embarrassed to tell the doctors, embarrassed for a Gah It’s Nothing visit that costs me $100. Include the day it takes me to get to the downtown parking garage, and the writing I could be doing instead of this. The lump today was nothing. Cancer is a bloody waste of time. it is a research project. It is a running around from office to office. And then the potential employer says, “Wait, you didn’t publish anything that year? Oh, cancer. But that’s too bad.”
The lump today was nothing. Until the bulging black and white images on the screen, it was Something. This could be another. This could take up the entire summer, like the summer of 2009, of 2016. Or it could be the end of summers. There’s always that possibility. You have to live with a trajectory mapped out in your head. Cancer messes up your trajectory, because your satellites have to be ready to create a new navigational path at any time. It’s tiring to be ready. All the time. And you have to be ready alone, because nobody has the bloody time or energy to do this readiness with you. It is not time-limited. The readiness is open-ended and endless. And the readiness is all. You are a vacuum, a lack of plans, an openness, in sweat pants, ratty sneakers, and eye-bags surrounded by a whole lot of planning in tailored suits and coffee cups striding to the train station.
And there’s always something. A lump. A tenderness. A twinge. Fatigue. They just throw up their hands and say Sigh. There is no clarity. Just Cancer.