As the rain pounds–hard– on my roof, my feet tucked aimlessly underneath me until they become pins and needles, I cry. Not the pretty-girls-in-movies-tears-silently-and-slowly-rolling-down-your-cheeks kind of cry, but the awful, is-there-a-wild-animal-in-the-house, nobody-should-ever-have-to-see-me-like-this kind of cry. I put my book down and wipe my nose across the sleeve of my sweatshirt, letting my body slump to one side.
I am crier. Some of you may already know this and those of you who didn’t necessarily know it are probably not surprised to hear it. It doesn’t seem strange that I cry at things like movies (Rudy is my go-get-’em-I-can-do-anything movie and it always makes me weep, especially the scene where he’s sitting outside on the bench and finally gets the acceptence letter into Notre Dame and HE starts to cry. That’s when I just lose it! Cue the music swelling!). I cried like a baby when I got into the rental car with my parents after college graduation, once my Mom saw the look on my face after saying goodbye to my friends and whispered, “It’s OK, you can cry.” I did exactly that, all the way to the airport, the 3.5 hour flight home, and OK until I crawled into bed in my parents house and wondered what I would ever do living so far away from my best friends now. And I’ll secretly wipe away little soft tears any time my six year-old nephew tells me that he loves me. I am a big pile of mush when it comes to Rom-Coms and anything baby-related and the underdog stories where the true heroes ultimately fight and win (Hence, Rudy). Also if I’m having a heart-to-heart with a friend over a cup of coffee or Sean and I are cooking in the kitchen together and he wraps me up in his arms as we stand at the stove stirring, I may tear up just at the closeness and connection between myself and another. These connections are the crux of life.
But the strange thing is, I hardly ever cry when it comes to my own diagnosis.
This has been true all along, even when I was first diagnosed with eye cancer at the age of 28, though I cried more back then than I do now, even though the prognosis supposedly is much worse now. It’s as though all of the bad things that have happened to me over the years have perhaps toughened me up or gave me thicker skin than I had when I was younger. Or maybe, it’s that I’m afraid if I don’t “toughen up” I will just crack, like that egg with the guts running out.
So sitting on the couch on that rainy day, waiting for SHL to get home from work and reading my book, my tears surprised me almost as much as it does on a daily basis that I have cancer. Sometimes I’ll pass by a mirror and catch a glimpse of myself and think, “That girl has cancer” before remembering that girl is me.
Once I started reading this book, I just couldn’t put it down. It’s a memoir of a woman who I will be lucky enough to meet next week for coffee, and I wanted to hear her whole story beforehand. All I knew is that she had breast cancer and treatment over 10 years ago when she was in her 20’s, lives in NY with her husband who she had a child with after the cancer, and she is an author, a motivational speaker, and has worked for ABC and shows like 20/20.
I could tell from the one voice mail and texts that she is somebody I am going to immediately like. (You know how sometimes you “just know?”).
Sometimes when I read about breast cancer I feel removed from it. I know that I could get it, that anybody could, and I of course do know people that have or had it. But I think that there is so much info/awareness/support around breast cancer (after all, as I write this in October pink ribbons are everywhere; some years even yogurt covered lids are licked in support of breast cancer research). I think that there is so much talk about Susan G. Koman and the Race for the Cure that sometimes it just gets filtered through my brain and strained out and not really paid as much attention to as it should. And maybe that’s all because the thought of losing a breast (or two) absolutely terrifies me, or maybe it’s because I want eye and liver to get some glitz too– what color ribbon would we have? How many miles can we walk to save our body parts– more importantly, our lives? But, breast or ovarian or cervical or liver or kidney or brain… It doesn’t really matter in the end, does it?
Cancer is cancer.
We’re all in this together.
But reading this woman’s story– diagnosed with breast cancer right before her 28th birthday, deciding between a lumpectomy and a mastectomy, married but no children, wondering if her eggs can survive the poison of chemo– was like reading my own, which caught me off guard because our cancers are completely different, our treatments like night and day, and yet– she’s so real, raw, and authentic. So scared of the same things that I am, the things that very often I’m too scared to actually say out loud, afraid that if I give them a voice, they will come true.
She even talks about some of the horrors of being sick that most people would never really admit (like being unable to control your bodily functions). Her courage makes me feel courageous enough to tell this story that I’ll never forget: After getting colitis from my first round of treatment three years ago I was driving to my acupuncturists office when I had an accident in my car. I ran into their office to use the bathroom and came out crying, the receptionist sitting compassionately but confusedly at her desk trying to figure out what had just happened and calling out after me: “Are you OK?” her voice echoing down the hallway. But I was too ashamed to tell her, too embarrassed to even reschedule the appointment, and I ran out of there and never went back.
Cancer is ugly, and sometimes we want to hide the ugly for fear that others will think that we are ugly (or we simply don’t want to be pitied).
So as I read Geralyn Lucas’s Book “Why I Wore Lipstick to my Mastectomy” (to make her mark, to feel alive, to remind her doctors in the operating room that she is a real person and not just a procedure, that she was here, IS HERE), and as I sit in awe of this amazing woman who refused to wear a wig because she wanted people to see her (and not feel invisible), I get it. I haven’t lost my hair, but I have lost. A lot.
And I get it.
It is because of women like Geralyn Lucas that I too feel like I can take off my “wig.” (i.e. be myself. Not hide. Show the world my “scars”).
Maybe it’s not my hair that is “releasing,” and I understand from what I’ve read and heard how and why that is an extremely traumatizing thing to happen to a woman. I don’t know about losing my hair but I have looked different through my treatments. I have been sick. I have been so puffy from steroids that I looked like the marshmallow man from Ghostbusters (I make a joke, but in actuality as life-saving as those steroids were, it was very hard to not feel embarrassed about how different my face looked while on the steroids for months. And going to Vegas when you’re 28 years old to celebrate your best friends bachelorette party while having to stop in the ladies room every hour to put ointment in your eye while who knows what oozes out of it isn’t exactly the “What happens in Vegas Stays in Vegas” story I was hoping for).
I have been sad, and scared, and tired. I have felt invisible, and I have felt too much in the spotlight. I have wondered if SHL wishes that my left eye wasn’t branded with a huge red scar on my eyelid or droopy, wondered if he was ever embarrassed by my puffiness or the dark circles under my eyes or annoyed at my fatigue. Just like she wonders about how her husband honestly and truly feels about her illness. SHL has never once made me feel less than, but what woman wouldn’t ask the questions, at least to herself? I have lost more than just my cheekbones; I have lost my ability to not think about death late at night when the rest of the world sleeps.
I have lost my ability to have children.
And as I start treatment again, this time for more tumors than I can count, she says that she is now wearing lipstick for ME.
And in turn, I will wear lipstick for any other woman who sits in the darkness of cancer and even with an army standing behind her, sometimes still feels overwhelmed. Numb. Terrified.
And so I shed my thick skin by writing, and I tell the stories that others maybe want to tell but are too afraid to. I look at the monster under my bed, I cry on my couch, and because of Geralyn Lucas I think:
I will be brave too. I will show the world my “scars,” my “flaws,” my suffering. Because in the end, this is me, and I was here.
I AM here.
We are not invisible. We are not just cancer.
We can handle the truth. We may be the underdogs, but we can win.