(16-01-29) Chemo Session #3

Halfway done with chemotherapy.

I saw an improvement in my numbers this session, compared to three weeks ago.  For one, i only lost 1.5 pounds this time around, compared to almost 8 the last time.  More importantly, my neutrophils were higher: 1.8, compared to 1.2 before.  I was really stressing out about this.  If my neutrophils go below 1.0, my oncologist will put a pause on my chemotherapy until i can get them back up, and research shows that cancer patients are LESS likely to make it if their treatment gets interrupted.  Apparently, there is a plethora of ways that an oncologist will schedule chemo treatments (different drugs [types and dosages], different numbers of days per week, different ways to administer the drugs, and different lengths of time in between each session); it all just depends on what type and what stage of cancer an individual has.  Since my chemo treatment was based on my individual needs, it’s important for me to stay on schedule … and i was worried that it was going to get interrupted this time, for two reasons: (1) my neutrophils were already flagged as “low” last session, and (2) i got a UTI *and* bronchitis during the last three weeks.  I’ve been trying to buffer against this by taking astragalus, echinacea, and zinc – all supplements to boost immunity – every single day.  In fact, right before i had my blood drawn on Wednesday, i triple dosed on those – and then promptly threw up right outside of LabCorp immediately after leaving the building, while a stranger watched.  Fun times.

Still no word on whether the head honchos at ADJC will let me return to work on February 8.  That’s the current thing i’m stressing about.  People (medical professionals, volunteers at the Cancer Support Community of Arizona, and friends) keep saying things like, “If you can get away with not working during your treatment, don’t work.”  Um, that’s a nice fantasy thought, but my bank account is NOT equipped to allow me to spend the next six months without earning an income.  I could probably get away with working less than 40 hours a week, but ZERO hours?  I might end up being cancer-free, but i’ll be celebrating from a cardboard box out on a street corner somewhere … and then where am i going to store my tequila and four cats???

More updates:

(1) I tried something different with fasting this time around.  I’m trying to see if it’s more beneficial to fast multiple days PRIOR to treatment or multiple days AFTER treatment.  Fasting sucks.  It’s been 46 hours and 38 minutes.  I salivated when i smelled pizza cooking in the kitchen this morning, and i had an irrational urge to slap Jenna upside the head when she started rambling about how she was “starving” because she hadn’t had anything but coffee today.  My goal is to make it to Saturday evening at 6:00.  Last time, i only made it to 56 hours before i went to town on some jello, homemade soup from Amy, and a lactose-free milkshake.

(2) I haven’t hit the worst of the symptoms yet – just tired, lethargic, some achy bones from the shot today, and a LOT of irritability from food deprivation.

(3) I know i had more updates, but all i can think about is food.

(16-01-23) Zumba

I’ll never forget the first time i took a Zumba class in Phoenix.  I had just recently returned to Arizona after spending four months with family in Ohio.  During that 4-month stint in the armpit of America, i attended Zumba class regularly with my aunt.  On one occasion, my aunt’s Zumba teacher pulled me to the side.

“Have you ever considered training to become a Zumba instructor.”

I laughed.  “Um… you’re kidding, right?”

“Why not?  You pick the moves up quickly, and you’ve got a good sense of rhythm.  You should really consider it.”

I remember laughing a second time and brushing off the thought.  In the weeks to follow, she made similar remarks, and i got to the point where i thought to myself, “Maybe i *should* consider becoming a teacher.  I had no idea i was this good!”

And then i moved back to Arizona … and took a Zumba class in Phoenix … with a gay, Latin instructor … surrounded by classmates who were mostly Latino … and then i realized with dismay the truth of it all.

I was good at White People Zumba.

I decided never to return to Zumba class again.

Flash forward five years later, and i find myself timidly walking up the front steps of a historic house, wondering, “Why am i doing this, exactly?”  A recent online search had led me to the website of this non-profit organization, Cancer Support Community Arizona.  This group has tons of resources for cancer patients and survivors, and their main headquarters functions out of a historic house in central Phoenix.  I reached out to one of their contact people after noticing that they had a weekly meditative yoga class, but then on a whim i decided to sign up for the Zumba class happening later that night.  I have known for about two weeks now that i need to get back into exercising, but there are barriers now that weren’t in place before cancer: the threat of germs from equipment that does NOT get cleaned regularly; the self-consciousness that stems from being a bald female; and, most significantly, the fatigue, which is daily but somehow doesn’t stop me from silently berating myself on a regular basis about not being able to work out on the level that i used to.  I’ve been avoiding the gym, and i know it.  The problem is, the rest of my body knows it too, and it’s responding accordingly.  Sooo… i didn’t want to go to Zumba class, but “I don’t want to” isn’t a legitimate excuse.  I signed up.

When i walked into the house, i was immediately greeted by two females with smiles emanating from their mouths AND eyes.  “You must be here for the Zumba class.”

I nodded, suddenly shy.  “It’s my first time here.”

The prettier girl stepped forward and held out her right hand; i ignored the immediate fear that now creeps over me from the thought of stranger germs and shook her hand firmly.  “I’m Kristen.  Zumba is in the house out back,” – there’s a house behind this house?  Who funds this non-profit, anyway??? – “and Joy, the teacher, is expecting you.”  She gave me quick directions, and i hurried to get there with enough time to find a spot in the back corner of the room.

Space wasn’t an issue; when i arrived to the back house, there were only two people in the room.  It wasn’t hard to figure out which one was the teacher.  One lady was wearing a sweatshirt hoodie over old leggings; the other lady was wearing a white tanktop with blue and red hearts all over it, a red ruffle mini skirt, black stocks, and black flats.  I made eye contact with the latter womyn, who promptly said, “Are you Tarah?” After a nod from me, she continued, “Well, welcome to our Zumba class.  Have you ever done Zumba before?”

I proceeded to tell her about my experiences with Zumba in Ohio and then made a passing reference to how the Zumba there was way different than here in Phoenix.  She looked genuinely baffled.  “Now, that’s odd.  We all get trained by the same program … maybe it’s just about what is more popular in certain regions.”  I nodded, not wanting to mention my suspicion to the White blonde lady standing before me that White People Zumba was kind of like taking the short bus to school … sure, all the students are going to the same building, but the whole learning experience is rather different for one group of kids compared to the other.  Joy and i chatted briefly, and then i went to occupy a space in the corner of the room.

The class ended up being rather small – just the teacher and four of us students.  I immediately noticed that i was the youngest one there, by at least a decade.  I was also the only one without hair.  These are things i pay attention to a lot now, especially when i am in a space where i know there are other cancer patients/survivors.  After the warm-up song, i also noticed one other thing: There was no point in my earlier fears about attending this class, for this was clearly going to be another opportunity to engage in White People Zumba.  It was like being in Ohio all over again (which, for the record, i wouldn’t ever recommend to *anyone* unless i want them to be punished for something terrible that they did).  I was able to pick up basic steps with ease, and the times i found myself getting most confused was when the teacher was losing the beat (yes, i’m serious) to some trendy Rihanna or Chris Brown song.  (I had to fight the impulse to ask the teacher if she PURPOSELY put Rihanna and Chris Brown songs back to back on her compilation.)  At times, my arm mobility was limited, but for the most part i could have handled more of a workout.  I felt good, knowing that.

Will i return?  I think so.  It’s a relief to be in an exercise environment that i *know* is clean, since immunity concerns are common for anyone who has/had cancer.  It also helps that everyone in the room KNOWS why i have no hair, so i don’t have to deal with people looking twice at me in confusion.  Also, even though i know i could have handled more of a workout, there will be times when i will be more limited, so i like being in a class where they will understand if i need to stop and take a break.  And finally, now i know that there is a niche for White People Zumba, even in a city comprised of 41% Hispanic or Latino.

(16-01-21) – Chemo Brain

As i sat down to type up a long overdue blog entry, i had the urge to start off by saying, “Good afternoon.  It’s been nine days since my last confession.”  I’m not even Catholic, but clearly i am feeling a little guilty for going so long without an update.  I’m struggling to multitask these days.  To be fair, this is not a new struggle.  I’ve been on ADD medication since 2008, and when i am not on it, my friends and roommates see a *distinct* difference in my ability to calmly concentrate for extended periods of time.  I stopped taking that medication on the day of my mastectomy, and it seemed pointless to resume taking it even after i recovered.  After all, what do i need to focus on?  My messy house, which i am too tired to clean?  My unemployed days, which blur together to the point where i sometimes can’t figure out  whether it’s Tuesday or Saturday?  My growing list of TV programs, which consume more hours out of the day than i would care to admit?  I figured that the medication isn’t necessary until i go back to work; plus, with all this focus on diet and nutrition, it doesn’t hurt to wean myself away from prescriptions that have their own consequences on my body.

In the past week, though, i have needed to get more tasks accomplished, and i am SERIOUSLY STRUGGLING.  The combination of Vyvanse medication abstinence and chemo-induced fatigue have been challenging enough, but now i am experiencing a third barrier: chemo brain.  I almost though this was a joke the first time i saw the term when reading “Chemotherapy and You.”  Chemo brain … is that like pregnancy brain?  These things aren’t actually real, are they?  I mean, they sound like an easy excuse for when people forget things … except it’s not an excuse at all.  My thinking and memory patterns right now are seriously clouded.  I’ve noticed it in bits and pieces, but it really became apparent on Tuesday.  I had a business appointment in Mesa, and i got lost.  No big deal … Waze took me to a residential neighborhood instead of to the strip mall that i needed to get to.  In any other circumstance, i would have just rerouted myself and arrived a few minutes late.  However, in that moment, i couldn’t figure out what to do.  I didn’t think to double check the address online or call the person i was scheduled to meet.  Instead, i made repeated U-turns for several minutes.  I got out of the car to ask someone for directions, and i forgot everything they told me by the time i got back into my car.  I got confused when the address numbers started going down, then up.  I sent two text messages that didn’t even make sense when i read them back.  I forgot that we were meeting at a Starbucks inside a Barnes & Noble, so i sat at the wrong Starbucks across the street for several minutes.  I ended up being twenty minutes late to that appointment; thank goodness that guy knew me from 10 years ago, so this wasn’t a first impression.  I was mortified.  I take pride in being on my game at all times, and i am just NOT these days.

Even though i am experiencing these moments more and more, i haven’t been very understanding in those moments.  I silently berated myself all day on Tuesday – for NOT leaving the house earlier, for NOT double checking the address online, for NOT utilizing better directional skills, for NOT remembering what people told me about how to get there.  In moments like this, I haven’t been attributing the confusion to chemo brain, mostly because i wouldn’t let myself use this rationale as a crutch.  Plus, i didn’t even take chemo brain that seriously … until this morning, when i was looking at the programs offered at the Cancer Support Community of Arizona and saw this:

 

Managing Treatment Side Effects

Wait – what?  Chemo brain is a real thing?  It’s actually a real side effect, serious enough to warrant workshops facilitated by specialized neurologists???

This whole time, i have been beating myself up for a side effect that is (1) out of my control and (2) potentially manageable.  It took some fishing around online before i validated my symptoms; in the meantime, though, i was being overly critical of something, when instead i should have been more open to patience, understanding, and further education.  Lesson learned.

 

http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/chemo-brain/home/ovc-20170224

http://cscaz.org/programs-services/education/

 

(16-01-12) Breaking Myself Down

I’m growing more aware of how much of myself i have to let go of, in order to maximize my chances at beating this cancer.

  • EATING HABITS – No sugar.  No sugar substitutes (save Stevia, a plant extract).  No alcohol.  No processed foods.  No white bread/pasta/rice.  No dairy.  No peanuts.  No egg yolks.  Seemingly everything needs to be raw, and/or plant based, and/or vegan.  This has turned eating into a very tedious chore, one that involves an overwhelming time AND financial commitment.  When i break the rules, my body screams in protest, and it retaliates by whipping my insides with a switch so strikingly sharp that i feel the lashings for hours (sometimes days) afterwards.  Today, for example, i was feeling good – meaning, i could get ready to leave the house and actually run multiple errands, without needing to lie down – so i took an opportunity to treat my best friend to lunch.  I ate one poached egg and 1/6 of my double-decker pineapple upside-down pancakes, and i drank a hot chocolate; i barely made it home before i spent the next two hours almost crawling back and forth to the bathroom.
  • DIVA STYLE – Getting ready at the beginning of my day used to be a 1.5-hour-long process.  Makeup always had to be put on the exact same way.  Hair had to be washed, blow-dried, and flat-ironed – even when i was just going to end up putting it back in a bun or ponytail for work anyway.  Outfit had to be perfectly color-coordinated, right down to the socks and undergarments that no one really ever actually SAW.  Now, i can get ready in 20 minutes – shower included.  It’s hard to care about whether the stripes on my knee socks match my undershirt, when i look in my full-length mirror and see a bald-headed, no booty, pale, scarred up, bra-less, bony shadow of myself.
  • INDEPENDENCE – I literally cannot make it through parts of this cancer treatment process without leaning on others for assistance.  There are times i cannot drive myself home from a surgery, or lift groceries out of my shopping cart, or take myself to my weekly doctor appointments, or get myself washed/dressed, or feed myself, or get out of bed to address the pets’ needs, or clean my own bedroom.  I – tarah muthafuckin ausburn, A.K.A. Instructor Ausburn, A.K.A. Princess Tarah, A.K.A. Gladiator Olivia Pope – had to come to terms with how much i now need people to help me on a regular basis … and i don’t like it.
  • REGIMENTED FITNESS  – I never actually *enjoyed* exercising.  Some people love it.  Not me.  It gets me all sweaty and smelly, and in the back of my mind i worry about whether i will repeat that one occasion where i got so worked up during my 5th racquetball game against Tyler that i actually had an asthma attack – and i don’t actually *have* asthma.  Regardless of how i felt about exercising, though, it was a weekly requirement.  Hiking.  Racquetball.  Elliptical.  Push-ups.  Stair climber.  Weight machines.  I had weekly goals of how much time and distance i had to spend exercising.  I grumbled almost every step of the way, but i appreciated the effect it had on both my outer appearance and my stress level.  Now, that’s gone.  Sure, i have been medically cleared to work out now, after 2 months … but chemo drugs have hijacked my muscle mass and my energy level.  I once ran a half marathon on the elliptical, at a moderate-to-intense resistance level; now, i can barely do cardio for 30 minutes, and afterward, i go home and take a nap.  Racquetball is out of the question; so are weight machines that target my upper body.  I complained for all these years about working out, and now i would give my third breast (ha, ha – that’s a joke) for another opportunity to have an asthma attack on the racquetball court.
  • INSTRUCTOR AUSBURN – Anyone who has ever dated me knows that work comes first.  I’ve calmed down a lot over the years (yes, ADJC folk, i am actually *serious*), but even in my less intense work state i still consider it normal to work on the weekends, check my work email multiple times at night, and spend my sick days and holidays lying in my bed searching online for resources that i can incorporate into my curriculum.  Being “Instructor Ausburn” has often taken priority over being “tarah” … and while i can’t say i miss the nonsense of my workplace, i do miss being a teacher.  I’ve been out of work for two months, and i still have 3-4 weeks to go.  Even then, even if/when i am allowed to return, i won’t be able to teach in the capacity that i did before.  I may not be physically capable of teaching at all – not until chemo and radiation are over.
  • HEALTH – Admittedly, i both took this for granted and exaggerated its extent.  Vegetarian = healthy.  Physically fit = healthy.  Hot fudge sundae binging = extra time at the gym tomorrow = everything A-okay.  ‘Nuff said … except that wasn’t true at all, was it?  And after having to admit that i was wrong about that, i have had to quickly adjust to a world where every ache and pain is a possible indication that there is a larger problem at hand.  I’m only 1/3 of the way through treatment, and i suddenly find myself with cavities (first time in 12 years), a UTI (first time ever), a bacteria infection (okay, those are a common issue for me), and a daily burning sensation in my chest that might actually be an ulcer.

 

They all seem like such little things, things that should not really be what defines who i am as a person … but cumulatively, when i am having to change virtually all of my habits, it feels like i am breaking down me as a PERSON.  And as i am doing this – as i am breaking down all the little pieces that create my psychological self, the chemo drugs are rampaging my insides to break down all the little components that create my physiological self.  I can’t help but wonder: Who will i be after all of this is over?

(16-01-09) Pushing Through It

No snarkiness today.  Not enough energy.  “Chemo brain” is in effect; apparently, that is a real thing.

Today feels like i got jumped by a group of people who knocked me to the ground, then proceeded to bash my ribs, chest, and head in with their feet.  My whole body feels like it’s one big bruise.  It hurts from the inside, down to the core of my bones, and it hurts from the outside.

 

(16-01-08) Fasting Might Actually Work

Have you ever had that moment where you want to verbally acknowledge how well something is going, but you’re afraid that you’ll jinx it if you do?  I am experiencing that moment right now.  Yesterday was my 2nd of 6 chemo infusions, and this time i decided to fast before and during my session.  After listening to one very long and boring podcast by two White guys who really enjoyed talking about themselves, reading through an online forum filled with a little too many Jesus references for my taste, and skimming through research done by a professor at USC, i decided to see if fasting would expedite my side effects.  Here is what my fasting/modified fasting schedule looked like:

Wednesday (day before chemo): water, Pedialyte, and hippie tea all day

Thursday: I ditched the Pedialyte (after discovering there was sucralose in it) and replaced that with Smart Water, which would give me the electrolytes without the artificial sweetener.  I drank only water until around 5:00pm, when i modified the fast to get a few calories in my system by sipping mushroom broth (10 calories) and two types of vegetable broth (30-40 calories).  One of the broths had cabbage and spinach in it, and i ate one piece of each.  At 11:30pm, right before bed, i ate two Saltines.  This might seem weird, but i was actually trying to trick my brain.  See – the Friday after the first chemo session, i woke up feeling like i had a hangover.  Obviously, i didn’t go home from chemo and drink alcohol, but that’s what it *felt* like.  Soooo… since i usually end a night of drinking with water and Saltines in my body before i go to bed (it prevents hangovers for me), i decided to try that trick and see how i felt the next morning.

Friday (today): Drank Smart Water only until 4:00pm.  At 4:00, i ended the 64-hour fast by eating 27 blueberries and a piece of toast with vegan butter and coconut sugar spread on top.  After waiting two hours and feeling no adverse reactions to the food, i ate a regular dinner.

 

RESULTS: I think the Saltines trick worked!  Okay, most of the credit probably should go to the overall fasting, but the point is i did not feel like i had a hangover today.  I woke just before 4am (insomnia), with less than five hours of sleep in my system.  At 6:15, i was headed to the gym with my roommate – the GYM!  You know what i was doing at 6:15 on the Friday morning of my last session? hugging the toilet bowl.  This time, however, i did 33 minutes of cardio (1/3 of my pre-cancer routine, but it’s a start), picked up my dry cleaning from two months ago, and drove myself to three separate appointments:
(1) chemo shot to boost my white blood cell count,
(2) 2nd energy healing session with Annette, and
(3) wellness check with my PCP.
In between two of those appointments, i also went to Loose Leaf to buy essential oils and more hippie tea, as well as Whole Foods to buy pH strips that can tell me how acidic my body is each day (cancer thrives in acidic bodies, FYI).  I came home, cleaned up around the house a little bit, ate dinner with my roommate while we laughed over Modern Family, and now i sit here – at 8:23pm – feeling just fine.

I’m not kidding myself.  I remember that the REAL symptoms started surfacing the Saturday after my infusion.  However, there is a world of difference between “the day after” this time around, compared to before.  Thus, in this moment, i feel truly grateful: grateful to Melinda, for suggesting that i listen to a very boring but educational podcast; grateful to Maya, for finding more research on the topic for me and also for fasting with me on Thursday (the hardest day); grateful to Annette, for helping me heal the energy within me; grateful to Jenna, for laughing with me this evening about funny TV shows, cute pets, and mischievous behaviors; and grateful to myself, for having enough hope and dedication to push through it all.

 

P.S. Today was the first day i went out in public with my shaved head and no hat covering it up.

(16-01-07) Chemo Session #2

Now that i know what to expect, chemo sessions are clearly the easy part of all this.  Once every three weeks, i just drive to a location where i spend six hours chilling out in a Lazy Boy recliner, passing the time with all the Netflix watching, Words With Friends playing, casual texting, reading, and zoning out the window that my heart desires in that moment.  There is no pain yet, just relaxing and processing.

I was half the age of the other patients around me, for the second time.  I’m not sure why it matters to me to mention that, but it seemed significant.

 

(16-01-06) Remembering to Socialize

One of the consequences of being immersed in cancer treatment is that my life is suddenly micromanaged.  There are specific days and specific hours of those days when i am allowed/not allowed to drive, go outside, eat fats, eat lightly, work, work out, medicate pharmaceutically, medicate herbally, etc.  My routine is no longer my own.  Socializing has also become micromanaged for me, although that is not so much about needing someone’s permission as it is about needing the stamina (and, admittedly, needing the body to be okay being away from the toilet for several hours at a time).  I learned, during this first chemo session, that there is a small window of opportunity where i will feel strong and healthy and energized enough to go out of my house and do something fun, with friends; that window of opportunity is the Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday before my next chemo session.  Three days to fit in visiting hours with any interested coworker, friend, roommate, girlfriend, ex-girlfriend … no problem, right?

Today, for one day at least, i got something accomplished in this area.  It was a busy day.  I met up with Joann to disclose my cancer diagnosis.  I went to Jeanette’s to pilfer her extensive hat collection.  I met up with Amy and Christie at the Polish Room to treat ourselves to mani/pedi time.  Today, i got to be a real person again – a person with friends, a person with energy and interest to leave the house, a person with time to kill.  Today, i hid my mastectomy under my favorite T-shirt and a bra that no longer fits.  Today, i hid my chemo under my curly-haired wig.  Today, i told myself that i could get a latte from Starbucks if i needed the caffeine to make it through all the socializing.  I didn’t, though – need the Starbucks, that is.  The thrill of just being out in the world, flitting from engagement to engagement, kept me on a bit of a high.  I was out in the world socializing with friends for seven consecutive hours today.  For some people, that wouldn’t even be worth mentioning, but for me it was the most productive day i have had in a while, and i.  was truly. grateful.

(16-01-05) Prepping for Chemo Session #2

The first round of chemotherapy was awful.  There is no way to sugar coat it.  I wasn’t surprised by the gamut of side effects i endured, but i *was* surprised by how long the side effects lasted.  I mean, technically, the side effects from my first session are still occurring, but the major ones – the debilitating ones that rendered me incapable of getting out of bed or off the toilet for more than a few minutes at a time – lasted six days.  I had anticipated a weekend of hell and then a diminished-but-still-fairly-capable ability to get out of bed on Monday morning and resume normal programming.  That did not happen.  My 1st chemo infusion was on Thursday, and i was only *starting* to feel better the following Wednesday.

This isn’t going to work.  I can’t keep my job if it takes me an entire week to feel better every time i have a chemo session.  I need a new plan.

Since i am still ironing out the kinks with getting the naturopathic treatments covered by insurance, i created my own Plan B.

Monday – Load up on carbs and fats. (I lost 8 pounds since the mastectomy, but i need the cushioning and insulation on my body.)

Tuesday – Load up on protein and greens.

Wednesday – Fast.  (After listening to a fairly boring podcast, i learned that fasting might be helpful because an empty body could pave the way for the chemo drugs to run their course more efficiently, without wading through or binding to any of the waste that my body is holding onto.  Fasting will leave me weak, and that might make the side effects more devastating at first, but my priority is side effect EFFICIENCY, not side effect magnitude.)

 

Wish me luck.

 

(16-01-03) Identity Struggles

“You look like such a bad ass right now.”

My tear-streaked, swollen red eyes scrutinized both Maya and myself in the mirrored reflection.  In just a matter of minutes, she had taken the one remaining piece of my physical exterior that mattered to me: my long hair.  It had to be done.  Two days ago, i noticed the excess amount of hair clinging to my wet hands after i shampooed and conditioned my short-but-still-sorta-girly locks for the 2nd time in a week; then, yesterday, i was making softball-sized balls out of the hair that was falling out.

The hair loss wasn’t how i expected it would be.  I anticipated that i would be brushing my hair one day, and this huge clump would just fall out of my head and onto the floor, leaving a bald patch on my head and a tug of panicky fear in the pit of my stomach.  Instead, the loss was more subtle.  I would brush my hair out of my face, and there would be half a dozen strands entwined in between my fingers … or i would get up from bed after reading for an hour, and i would see the entire pillowcase covered with what my head had left behind.  The subtlety, while appreciated during these last two days, still managed to make it very clear: the hair had to go.  Images of some awful TV show i watched as a child lingered in my head. Stop stalling; you don’t want your hair looking like that Tales From the Crypt narrator – do you, tarah?

Maya, thank you.  Thank you for being you.  Thank you for intentionally starting with the back of my head, in order to give me time to work up the courage to see myself in a whole new way.  Thank you for allowing me to sit in that chair and just openly sob as you gently discarded the eggplant-colored hair that i have been so diligent about keeping long and healthy.  Thank you for knowing which minutes needed your silence and which minutes were opportune for light-hearted jokes about winning Sinead O’Connor impersonation contests.  Thank you for understanding me enough to know how much my feminine lesbian identity means to me – and therefore not minimizing the situation by saying things that you KNOW would have infuriated me (“It’ll grow back.”  “It’s not permanent.”  “It’s just hair.  It doesn’t change who you are.”).  Thank you for cleaning the piles of hair off the floor so that i didn’t have to dwell in my loss, and thank you for gently putting a knit cap on my head afterwards so that i can hide my sickness from the world a little while longer, until i am ready to advertise it.

shaved head - back side

… cuz I’m not ready.

(16-01-01) Feminism & Cancer

“It is not my intention to judge the woman who has chosen the path of prosthesis, of silence and invisibility, the woman who wishes to be the ‘same as before’…. Each of us struggles daily with the pressures of conformity and the loneliness of difference from which those choices seem to offer escape. I only know that those choices do not work for me….”

~ Audre Lorde, The Cancer Journals © 1980
Ironically, in her clearly stated non-judgmental stance, I stand in judgement before myself, ashamed by my decision to have reconstructive surgery. Why did it not even cross my mind to wear my battle on my chest, showing the world, “Yes, I removed them. They were going to kill me, so I annihilated them … and now that they are gone, my warrior body stands here triumphantly in front of you, missing a piece but still stronger, regardless”? When my breast surgeon passed along her recommendation for a reconstructive surgeon, I never even considered the possibility of NOT calling, NOT adding that doctor to my list of doctors I see from week to week, NOT adding more surgeries, stress, and battle on to an already traumatized body. I accepted the referral without question, and as I sat there in Dr. Walsh’s fancy Scottsdale office, I talked with her about implants as though they were my only option. Why wouldn’t I want implants, right? Why would I want to advertise to the world, “I’m a breast cancer survivor who had to sacrifice during battle in order to win a war”? I didn’t, though. I leafed through pamphlets, and I tossed different types of implants around in my hands, never making the connection between this gesture and the Hot Potato game I used to play as a child. I sat in that office, complacently listening to Dr. Walsh boast about how far silicone implants have come since the 1990’s. I never even took one moment to embrace the suffering that so many womyn (cancer survivors or otherwise) went through getting silicone implants in an effort to conform to society’s standards of beauty, only to later get sick (and, in some cases, DIE) once those implants started leaking out into other areas of the body. I didn’t think about them. I left my feminism at home that day and instead sat before yet another doctor, nodding my head in agreement about how memory gel silicone implants are such an advancement compared to what was available 20 years ago, and I perked up when I heard the question, “So, would you want to go smaller, stay the same, or go larger?” I get to CHOOSE my size – for free? How awesome is this?”

 

Audre, you were so much stronger. On top of that, you refused to judge womyn like me … but that doesn’t mean we don’t deserve to be judged – or at least recognized for not being as strong as you in our feminist perspective. In my head, I place 36-year-old Tarah next to 20-year-old Tarah, and I realize that growing older does NOT always mean getting wiser. If someone had told 20YOT that, in 15 years, she’d be getting Botox injected into her chest to decrease the post-mastectomy muscle spasms and breast implants to go up a cup size, 20YOT would have laughed out loud in contempt. She would have gone off on a rant about how the medical model of illness feeds poison into womyn’s bodies for profit, and how sexist and heteronormative mores have destroyed an individual’s opportunity to grow up and just be themselves, without restrictions, without fear of their differences.

People keep telling me how strong I am for going through this. In this moment, I am not so sure I agree.