The Impossible Pleasure of Scrubbing a Tub

According to The Facebook, four of my friends have recently toured Italy, another France, still another Ireland, and one is currently posting from the Scottish Isles. At least three more just returned from or remain at the beach, and others have sojourned recently to Chicago, New Orleans, and New York. I’m loving the opportunity to travel vicariously to such beautiful and varied places, and I’m thrilled for the joy evident in their journeys.

I am equally thrilled to be cleaning out my closet.

I’m not being sarcastic. Okay, maybe just the tiniest, tiniest bit sarcastic.

But not very.

Back in 2015, hubby Steve and I moved into a new house, combined our two households into one, got married, and started a new school year—all within two months. I was one week into the 2016 summer break, Steve one week into a new job, when I was diagnosed with cancer. The Summer of Settling In we’d planned was replaced by two Summers of Treatment and Recovery. We still have unpacked cardboard boxes in more rooms of our house than not.

Having the energy to get back to tackling those boxes and cleaning the house is a profound comfort and surprising thrill. Before this past year, I’d never thought it would feel like such a massive accomplishment to be able to scrub my bathtub. Before this past year, I’d never thought about how much physical effort actually goes into scrubbing a bathtub: getting down to and up from the floor, kneeling for an extended period, bending and reaching and applying pressure. You don’t realize how many ways you use your pec muscles in everyday living until they’ve been scraped and radiated and permanently stretched over silicone implants. While I would much rather breathe in the aromas of fresh French pastries or a salty sea-breeze than Mrs. Meyer’s Lavender Counter Spray, I now understand just what a gift it is to have sufficient strength and mobility to wield a scrub-brush and push a mop.

And home projects—actual projects! the same ones I’ve been staring at for months, the ones I occasionally managed to purchase supplies for before my energy petered out somewhere in the aisles of Lowe’s—they are a source of deep satisfaction. Months ago I picked up a few cans of spray paint to refresh a couple of plant stands and a rocking chair. It felt great to finally haul (with Steve’s help) the items out into the yard a week or so ago and give them a few coats.

While I worked on the porch furniture, Steve took the design for some shelf bases he’d drawn back in the spring and put his carpentry skills to work. We still have to get at some more of those unpacked boxes to fill the shelves, but just having them in position on their handsome living room bases is a beautiful thing.

We lived in survival mode for so long, the patient and the caregiver, it’s exhilarating to return to being partners in the care and crafting of our abode. Someday in the not too distant future, I hope, we’ll travel abroad and taste fresh pasta in Italy, or sip a glass of single malt after a trek across the Scottish moors. For now, it feels pretty darn good to chop tomatoes together for a pot of chili in our kitchen, bumping elbows as we rinse the dishes, smiling at these, the simple joys of health and home.


This is the first of a series of short posts I’m calling “Survivor Snapshots.” Since going back to work, it’s been tough to find the energy to write on a regular basis, though there is much to write about. I hope to share a few more snapshots soon. Thank you, as always, for reading!

Hair’s an Update

Hello, friends. It’s been a while. 🙂

I’m glad to say my hiatus is mostly a result of lots of good things going on, combined with an awareness that I still need to apportion my energy. My June reconstructive surgery went well; I’m overjoyed to have soft-ish implants in place of those bricks they call tissue expanders. My hubby Steve and I had a nice beach week at Emerald Isle, and I returned to work at the beginning of August, where my colleagues have been welcoming and supportive. There’ve been some hard things, too. We lost our sweet dog Imoh suddenly and unexpectedly to kidney failure in July. I have one more minor surgery to go yet, chemo brain is real, and I still have to do some combination of physical therapy, yoga, and/or self-massage daily to address range-of-motion limitations and prevent lymphedema.

That last is the other reason I’ve been writing less: now that I’m back at the office, spending a lot of work hours at the computer, my neck and shoulder lock up within a few hours. I have to ration my desk time, a frustrating scenario for a writer. I like to think my tales here do some good, that they offer a kind of window into a world that too many of us have (or will have) a need to understand. And I fear that because I stopped posting, I may have reinforced the idea that the cancer story ends when treatment is done and the rogue cells are vanquished. I (along with every other survivor) probably wish more fervently than anyone that that were true. I would love to “get back to normal.” But I’m still trying to figure out what “normal” looks like.

Consider: at the last check-up with my medical oncologist, I teared up talking about some trifling symptom—a headache, a knee that kept popping—that had worried me briefly. He nodded, and said “After what you’ve been through, for a while, everything that happens to and with your body, you’ll think— ‘It’s cancer.’ That’s normal.”

Process that for a minute. That’s normal.

It’s hard, then, to know what to say when you get an email that includes a genuine, well-intentioned “hope you’re feeling 100%.” It feels cranky and self-pitying to reply, “Well, actually, my doctors keep reminding me that it takes 18 to 24 months after the last major treatment or surgery to get back to baseline.” Or what to think when a colleague asks “How are you? Really, how are you?” and when you begin to answer honestly—you’re good, but still have another surgery ahead and some big decisions to make—she interrupts and says, “But you’re here, you’re good, you look great, you’re healthy.” More than once I’ve felt chastised, like I’m supposed to be so grateful to be alive and cancer-free, I’m not allowed to have any other feelings about the losses I’ve endured. Or if I do, I’m not supposed to talk about them.

The messy truth is that oftentimes people don’t really want to know the messy truth.

I think these kinds of responses are motivated by the same basic impulse: people want a happily ever after story. They want it for the person who’s been ill, because they sincerely care about that person and wish them health and happiness. But they also want it for themselves, because it’s reassuring. If my mortality no longer seems to be under immediate threat, they aren’t reminded of their own when they see me. None of us has to think about just how close we stand, every day, to the brink.

Maybe that’s why my still-short hair confuses and unsettles people. After chemo finished last October, my hair began to grow back by late December, but remained somewhere just shy of peach fuzz until February. As it filled in, people commented, “Your hair’s really coming back!” My returning hair was seen as a proxy for restored health. When I finally had enough for a haircut, I opted to keep it pixie short. With my range of motion issues, and more surgery on the horizon, spending half an hour with my arms lifted above my head every day to style it would be painful if not impossible. It was much easier to manage it short. Besides, I thought it looked kinda cute.

But friends and colleagues, especially those I haven’t seen in a while, continue to comment on my hair growth, often with puzzlement or concern. Most know that treatment ended some months ago. There’s an unspoken question under their words: if everything’s okay, shouldn’t I have more hair by now?

I’ve come to wonder if there’s yet another reason I’ve kept my pixie. Since I don’t, nor do I want to, go around flashing my scars, it’s the primary way I have to telegraph to people that things have changed for me, permanently. That I am still processing through this experience physically, mentally, and emotionally, and I will be for a while. That there really isn’t any “getting back” to normal; “normal” is different than before, something I’m still negotiating, still learning to navigate.

I didn’t plan it that way, but I recognize now that my pixie cut is a kind of signifier. Maybe for myself, as much as anyone. It’s a reminder to be kind and gentle, with myself, and others. It’s a cue to take care of myself, to be patient with this long and often circuitous healing process.

Last year around this time, Steve, my father and I visited the first annual Sunflower Festival at Beaver Dam Farm in nearby Fincastle. It was a chemo weekend, but usually after a Friday infusion I’d have a reasonably good Saturday afternoon before the side-effects would hit hard. Sunflowers make me happy, and we had a good, but short, visit. This year Steve and I returned, and though the flowers themselves were a bit droopy due to lack of rain, it was sheer joy to stroll leisurely through the fields of their sunny faces, goofing around, sharing ice cream. Steve and I will celebrate our second wedding anniversary in a few days. For our first anniversary, we squeezed a trip back to the site of our honeymoon in between chemo treatments. I’ll happily supplant a fancier celebration with this year’s simple dinner at a local restaurant, accompanied by cancer-free body and the relative sense of peace in my heart.

I suspect that, eventually, I’ll grow my hair out, and take its color back again to the blond of my youth. But for now, if my pixie prompts me to spend less time in front of a mirror, and more time drinking in the wonders of this too-fragile world, it’s more than enough hair for me.

Photos taken at the second annual Sunflower Festival at Beaver Dam Farm, Fincastle, Virginia.

Independence Day: New Blog Title Debut!

At the party with friends Cheryl and Brigitte

Yesterday was Independence Day in the US, typically celebrated with cookouts, parades, and fireworks. Steve and I have an annual tradition of attending a pool party thrown each year by a hiking friend, Jeff, and his wife. They grill hotdogs and hamburgers, everyone brings a dish to share, and we sit outside in camp chairs (or inside if it rains) and occasionally take a dip in the pool. Jeff always takes lots of fun pictures, and it’s a great afternoon spent with friends.

At last year’s July 4th party, Steve and I were still trying to get our heads around my recent diagnosis; it was so recent, in fact, that we’d told a few of our friends, but not yet all. I had an appointment on July 7th to get my port surgically implanted, and my first chemo was set to begin on July 8th. I remember feeling strangely calm—I managed to talk with some of the friends who knew what was happening about my illness without ever crying. But it was hard to feel genuinely celebratory, anticipating a year whose few certainties included pain, grief, and loss. It didn’t feel much like freedom, of any kind.

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Rose bouquet

This year felt much different. Two weeks out of my last major reconstructive surgery, I’m doing well and feeling stronger each day. This year’s Independence Day was marked by a return to a sense of personal independence, of healing, hope, and looking forward to regaining health and strength. My friend Cheryl surprised me with some beautiful roses, a happy acknowledgment of a day that had more significance than even she may have realized. There’s still a long road of recovery yet to travel, but I’m so grateful that this holiday, my struggle was trying to get my head around just how much can and has transpired in a year. I am once again free from cancer. It feels like a whole new world.

So, in honor of Independence Day, I’m making the name change of the blog official: Still Life, Beyond Cancer. As some wise friends have pointed out, I may wish to make still another change in the future, as I continue to heal and my world shifts and changes further. For now, I think the word “beyond” acknowledges both my cancer-free state (hooray!) and the fact that the physical and emotional effects of this past year still affect me daily. I hope that continuing to tell my story helps others who are themselves survivors or who know and love survivors.

Cheers!

Survivor: sur– referring to beyond, in addition to; -vivor as in vive, life. There’s life beyond cancer, something I’m thankful for each day.

Over the next week or so I’ll be updating some of the images on the site, too, to reflect the change visually. Now that my last major surgery is complete, I hope to resume a weekly posting schedule in the near future as well.

As always, thank you for reading, and stay tuned!

And—better late than never—cheers to freedoms of all kinds, to (re)gaining independence, and to those fighting for both.

 

 

Mountain Meditation: The Climb Down Begins

On Tuesday evening, June 13th, I went on a silent meditation hike with a few friends to commemorate the anniversary of my diagnosis. The hike was my friend Sarah’s idea; after reading my post “Climb Every Mountain,” she suggested that hiking down an actual mountain might be a good way to mark the end of the year-long uphill climb of diagnosis and treatment, and honor the path of ongoing recovery I’m on now and will be for a while: the (metaphorical) climb down.

Sarah and I planned to start at the top of Mill Mountain, and two friends would begin at the bottom, meet up with us on the trail, then turn back, and together we’d hike the rest of the way down. Two more planned to meet us at the bottom. I also carried several notes from friends and loved ones in my pocket, who’d shared words such as “hope,” “grace,” and “serenity,” and wishes for the coming year.

Sarah and I visited the overlook at the summit before we started down. I was almost moved to tears to see the sunset. Last year, Steve and I spent a few anxious days at the beach waiting to find out whether or not my cancer had metastasized. As I walked on the beach the first evening, the sun shone out from behind a dark cloud, its rays forming a kind of halo. In that moment, it felt like hope. As Sarah and I stood at the top of Mill Mountain, the sun once again shone its rays from behind the clouds. It felt like coming full circle.

Then Sarah noticed a smiling, shining sun painted on a rock that someone had left on the overlook sign. It was from the “Kindness Rocks” project. I snapped a picture and left it there to bring the next person who spotted it a smile.

At the trailhead I said, “Here’s to a new and different kind of year,” and then we started down in silence.

The metaphor is almost too easy; it practically writes itself. Much of the trail was rocky, though there were also smooth stretches, times when it was easier to look up and really take in the woods surrounding us. Some parts were wide and almost flat; others narrow and crossed by root-tangles. Once the trail jackknifed so hard to the left I almost missed the turn and became disoriented for a moment. One of my friends had to point the way. I walked in front, and there were times, especially when the trail grew narrow and steep, when I felt as I walking alone. But I knew I could just turn around and see people I loved were there, always behind me.

The downhill was relentless, and more than once I thought, “I didn’t think this trail was this long.” I also looked up at the slope we’d descended and thought, “That’s one big mountain. And I actually climbed it.” Metaphorically, vis à vis the physical Mill Mountain; literally, the mountain called Cancer.

At the start of our hike I mostly heard leaves rustling in the breeze, the soft thuds of my feet on the trail. In the middle I became aware of cars passing on the nearby road, the world outside the forest going about its business, unaware of our walk in progress. The closer we got to the bottom, the more birdsong I heard: owls hooting, wood thrushes whistling and trilling.

I stopped a few times to rest my cranky knees, to listen, to look. I saw a piece of glass on the trail and left it there because it wasn’t safe for me to pick it up and carry it; in my mind it represented worry, the thoughts and fears that can rob you of joy in the present. When I saw a golden glint, I bent down to investigate and found a tiny golden charm. I turned it over to see it read “create.” I laughed and put it in my pocket, thanking the Universe for the reminder and encouragement.

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At the bottom Sarah said some beautiful words: “In all the noise of living, remember the silence. And in the silence hear your soul’s voice. In all the rushing of living, remember the stillness. And in the stillness feel the pulse of life. In all the living of life, remember the dying. And know in the dying there is new life.” I had gone through a kind of death in the last year, she said, and now I was emerging, stepping into a new life, a new start.

There were hugs shared all around. I wanted to say something eloquent, too, express how much the love, kindness and support of my friends and family has meant, somehow capture all the ways my heart has broken and mended and split wide open in the hardest and most wonderful ways this year.

In the moment I squeaked out a teary “thank you.”

Two words that contain multitudes. Maybe, sometimes, “thank you” is enough. Sometimes, maybe, it is everything.

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Thank you to all who voted on a name change for the blog, and for the thoughtful suggestions that I consider a title without the word “cancer” in it at all. The clear preference (at 85%) of the poll choices was “Still Life, Beyond Cancer.” While I’m still on the mountain, as I will be for a bit, I think that title fits—but the comments have made me think about entertaining another name change in the not-so-distant future that reflects moving beyond even “beyond.” Thank you, dear readers and friends.

Tomorrow I’m scheduled to undergo my final major reconstructive surgery. I’ll be reporting soon on the new bionic boobs (an improvement, I hope, over the tissue expanders, also known as “bricks in your breasts”), and sharing more stories, resources, and fun hats. 

New Beginnings: One Year Post-Biopsy

Today is the one-year anniversary of my biopsy.

I had big plans for the blog these past few weeks: a post about anniversaries and milestones, a post about a coming name change, another capturing the weird world of living with tissue expanders (among other things, I now have a superpower: my boobs can predict weather changes). But then I got walloped with the respiratory virus/sinus infection/germfest from hell, and instead of writing prolifically, road-tripping to a concert, and enjoying daily walks on the local greenway, I’ve spent the week in a state of anxious exhaustion, worried about how long I’ll be sick, and angry that all my plans have been derailed by unexpected illness.

It’s a strange throwback to this time last summer.

I’ve been thinking a lot about markers and milestones lately. I attended my twenty-fifth college reunion back in April, and at our class meeting on Saturday morning, we went around the room and heard an update on everyone’s lives. As I thought about what to say, I realized just how eventful—and if you’ll pardon the cliché—what a crazy roller coaster ride the last five years had been. In the time between my 20th and 25th college reunions

  • I walked away from an on-again, off-again relationship that wasn’t working;
  • Met, fell in love, planned a wedding with, and married my now-husband Steve;
  • Created and wrote a regular blog about being a forty-something first-time bride;
  • Bought a new house with my new husband and moved for the first time in ten years;
  • Lost two beloved cats;
  • Acquired two wonderful stepsons (and saw both graduate from college and get settled into their first apartments);
  • Acquired a dog-by-marriage and a new cat with the new house.

That was between April 2012 and June 2016. From the last year alone, add

  • Got diagnosed with breast cancer;
  • Underwent chemo and radiation treatments;
  • Had a bilateral mastectomy;
  • Created and wrote a regular blog about having cancer;
  • Completed treatment and was declared cancer-free.

And that’s just the short list.

It’s been, shall we say, a lot to absorb.

What’s in a name?

So, as my final major reconstructive surgery approaches (nine days and counting), I’ve been thinking about how to recognize the shift—the end of a year of illness and treatment, the beginning of healing and long-term recovery—here on the blog. Language is powerful, and “Still Life, With Cancer” no longer accurately reflects the state of my body, and I think it’s important to reinforce my cancer-free status in my mind.

I’ve been considering several different alternatives. My first thought was “Adventures in Cancerland,” fitting for several reasons. It makes a nice literary allusion to an alternate world full of surprises and absurdities, and I suspect most of us who’ve come to inhabit Cancerland would agree that a diagnosis feels very much like diving down the proverbial rabbit hole. And while I no longer have cancer, I still feel as if I am in Cancerland, with more surgery ahead, ongoing side effects from treatment, and the fact tripping over my own mortality has changed my experience of the world forever.

Apparently, I’m far from the first to have thought of this comparison, as the title has been used, more than once. I could do a slightly different iteration of it, or add a “my” or a “further,” but that triggers resistance in my gut. I don’t want to “own” Cancerland so fully at this point, and I definitely don’t want any “further” adventures beyond recovering from this one. So I think that one’s out.

I also considered another allusion, “The Cancerland Diaries,” which seems accurate enough, and pays homage to a writer I much admire, David Sedaris, author of The Santaland Diaries. Sedaris is also a chronicler of moments of absurdity and surrealism that are only too real. But I’m not as funny or biting as Sedaris, so the echo may not be entirely apt.

I could keep it simple with “Still Life, After Cancer,” which is clear and accurate, but perhaps belies some of the complexities that remain even after being declared free of the disease. Since I kept coming back to the titles that evoked how surreal the whole year has felt, my inner nerd was compelled to look up the etymology of the prefix “sur.” According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, “sur” derived from the Latin super, the root of the Old French sour or sur, and means “over, above, beyond, in addition.” It also has a nice connection to “survivor.” That led me to consider one more possibility: “Still Life, Beyond Cancer.”

The current URL will still take the reader to my blog, so no one else need remember the new name, unless inspired to do so. But I am curious, dear reader: what do you think? I’d love to have your input, via the poll below.

In the meantime, I’m resting up, taking antibiotics and cough syrup, and repeating to myself—as I have so often this year—“This, too, shall pass.” Here’s to reporting on a happy and healthy five years at my 30th college reunion.

Here’s to the Husbands and Partners

caregiverOn October 31st, 2016, then-President Barack Obama made a Presidential Proclamation declaring November “National Family Caregivers Month,” honoring “those who give of themselves to be there for their family, friends, and neighbors in challenging times.” At the time, I missed the announcement, still in a pretty pronounced post-chemo fog of pain and fatigue. And I was especially distracted that week: on November 1st, I was scheduled for a post-chemo mammogram and ultrasound, followed by an appointment with my oncologic surgeon to review the results of the scans, which would tell us whether or not chemo had been effective. November 1st was also hubby Steve’s birthday. When we’d met with the oncologic surgeon pre-chemo to talk scans, the news had been tough, so we’d held off scheduling any birthday festivities for the evening, just in case.

Though anxious, we were hopeful, and thankfully, the news was good. Still, I felt guilty, filling Steve’s birthday with yet another set of medical appointments. He’d been right by my side for most every single doctor’s visit or test since June, whether surgical consultation or CT scan or hours-long chemotherapy treatment. Going to the doctor isn’t much fun even when it’s your own body you’re trying to heal, and a sterile medical office with outdated magazines definitely does not scream “birthday party.”

My Sweetie Pi
My Sweetie Pi

In his proclamation, the former President lauded the “incredible generosity” of family caregivers, a description that itself seems almost not generous enough for the reality of spouses and partners of women with breast cancer. Along with accompanying me to appointments, Steve has driven me to offices and errands near and far, waited patiently, lent a second ear, helped me manage the information overload. He’s taken on the bulk of the household chores. He’s held me when I needed to cry; he makes jokes so I don’t forget to laugh. He’s encouraged me to take naps and go on walks, and he’s fetched my prescriptions and the occasional Coca-Cola Icee whenever I craved one. After surgery, when I was especially unsteady, I took over his bathroom because the shower there was easier to get in and out of. Meanwhile, he slept on a mattress on the bedroom floor for a month because I needed to keep the head of the bed elevated to prevent tangling my drains.

And speaking of drains, he gently, and diligently, stripped my JP drain tubes each morning and evening, without batting an eye, kneeling by the bedside, eye level with my bruised, scarred, and misshapen chest. Seeing my altered landscape must have been weird for him; I mean, it was, and is, weird for me. Yet Steve has never let on that he’s bothered by the changes in my body. (Okay, he admitted he was a little grossed out by the stringy chicken-fat-like gunk that occasionally showed up in my drains, but—so was I. Major yuck.)

I think it’s safe to say Steve has gone above and beyond. Seriously: this is a man who let me demonstrate the discomfort of my tissue expanders by allowing me to reach around his chest from behind, grab his pecs, and squeeze as hard as I could.

Maybe once you’ve made your vows and declared “for better or worse, in sickness and in health,” it’s just expected that you’ll be fully present for your partner in a medical crisis. But I don’t think a spouse’s ability to be a good caregiver is a given, and I don’t take my husband’s compassion or support for granted.

Obama opened his proclamation honoring family caregivers with the observation that “[o]ur nation was founded on the fundamental idea that we all do better when we look out for one another.” And so we do. So here’s to all the husbands and partners, who drive us to appointments and do all the dishes; who listen and lift up; who help us grow comfortable—physically and emotionally—with our changing bodies; who stand beside us through the tough times.

Artist & Scientist
Artist & Scientist

Steve recently marched by my side in our local Women’s March. He identifies as a socially liberal, fiscal conservative, while I am (I took a test) left of the Dalai Lama. He does support a majority of the March’s official platform, but we hold different enough views that when we discuss politics, we often find ourselves baffled and frustrated by the other’s perspective. Still, we listen, and we learn. We don’t expect we’ll come to consensus about every issue, and we don’t make consensus a precondition for civility or respect, and certainly not love. I knew, when we found each other, that what we’d found was rare. After traveling through cancerland together, I understand that truth even more deeply. And after watching the world in the past week, I understand, and value it, more deeply still.

Radiation begins on Monday. Steve still helps me into my coat every day. And until my range of motion improves enough for me to put it on by myself, I know he’ll be there, holding it open and sliding it over my shoulders, ensuring I stay warm and protected through the long winter’s chill.

Past Perfect: The Grammar of Healing

My husband is the math mind in the family; I’m the English nerd. But lately I’ve found myself thinking less about settings and symbolism, and more about symmetry and statistics.

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Mirror, Mirror…

Many years ago, I did an experiment where I held a small mirror up to the center of my face while looking in a second larger mirror, so I could see how I’d appear if my face were perfectly symmetrical. All of us are at least a little asymmetrical, so the trick quickly reveals the differences, large or small, in the two sides of one’s face: the right eye has a little more tilt than the left, maybe, or one cheek is a bit fuller than its counterpart. The altered reflection, for me, almost felt like looking at different person, perhaps a sibling of myself.

notetnc2The process of bilateral breast reconstruction has a tendency to highlight other asymmetries. The first thing my reconstructive surgeon said to me when he looked at my pre-surgery chest was that my left rib cage sat a little more forward, was a tiny bit more prominent, than my right. I’d never noticed this particular (minor) anomaly, but it’s apparently just as common for there to be asymmetry in the rib cage as in the face. The difference in my bone structure became most noticeable immediately after surgery and during my early tissue expander fills; for a while the right expander lagged behind the left, making me look lopsided. I also discovered I have a pocket of fat on my right upper back, unmatched on the left, which appeared only when I didn’t have breasts to pull the skin forward and keep it flattened out.

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Even Olympic athletes’ bodies vary dramatically. (Photo by Schatz and Ornstein)

Studies indicate we equate higher levels of symmetry with perception of beauty, so it’s only too easy to worry over our various anatomical irregularities. But there’s so much about our bodies that’s out of our control: the set of our features; our bone structure; height; the size and shape of breasts, booty, genitals, hands and feet. We can exercise and lift weights to affect our body composition—but the ability to bulk up muscle mass, and the places our fat cells are predisposed to distribute themselves? That’s pre-determined. Significant elements of our health are hardwired too: some suffer multiple allergies from birth, for example, while others are born with immune systems seemingly hewn from impenetrable stone.

Bodies are glitchy and unpredictable in surprising ways, for better and for worse. The fact my body grew a malignant mass is somewhat mysterious: I am, as best we can tell, the first person in my blood family on either side to develop cancer of any kind. My body’s responsiveness to treatment is, to my mind, equally mysterious, and awe-inspiring: I learned this week that only 20 to 30 percent of triple negative breast cancer patients have, as I did, a “complete pathologic response” to chemotherapy. I was thrilled when we got the pathology report stating they’d found no evidence of remaining cancer during surgery, but the news felt weirdly abstracted. Learning the actual statistical probability of achieving that response was sobering. It made me realize just how incredibly fortunate I am. Having a complete response lessens the chance of recurrence dramatically, dropping it from 35+ percent down to 5 percent. As my oncologist said, it’s cancer, so there are no guarantees. But short of never having developed it in the first place, the odds for long-term survival are the best they can be.

davinciI’ve often felt lucky to be in the body I am. Aside from some cranky tonsils, a couple bouts of pneumonia, and one broken bone, I’ve been hale and hearty most of my forty-seven years, and I’ve managed to stay active and maintain a healthy, if not altogether svelte, weight into my middle age without Herculean effort. Excepting the sixth grade, when my legs had a sudden growth spurt separate from the rest of my body that briefly turned me into a sort of hybrid stork-human, my parts are mostly proportional, and my face, while perhaps not symmetrical enough for Hollywood’s standards, is reasonably attractive.

I did nothing (unless you count that bane of puberty, wearing braces) to “earn” any of these features of anatomy. They just are, like my cancer, like my cancer’s responsiveness to treatment. Why did my body grow malignant cells in the first place? I don’t know. Why were those cells especially sensitive to death-by-chemotherapy? I don’t know the answer to that either. I do know I’m extremely lucky and profoundly grateful to be in the relatively small percentage of survivors who have that experience.

survivorship4I’m just vain enough to feel relieved that the obvious asymmetries that appeared in my chest and back are slowly evening out as reconstruction progresses. But I’m far more reassured by a different realization. As I walked into the dining room Tuesday night, preparing to sit down to dinner with my hubby, it suddenly occurred to me: I no longer have cancer. Granted, my treatment isn’t quite done–follow-up radiation is the standard-of-care for triple negative diagnoses, even with a complete response to chemo, and reconstruction will take a while longer. But the chemotherapy worked; the surgery confirmed it. No more need I say, I have cancer.  Now I can say, I had cancer.

My inner English nerd reappeared, rejoicing: the simple past tense has never sounded so beautiful.