Saturday, June 16, 2012

It all started with a book, and a haircut.

I'm reading a pretty amazing book right now: Five Lessons I didn't learn from breast cancer (and One Big One I did) by Shelley Lewis. The basic premise is that not everyone has a huge spiritual epiphany from breast cancer. Not everyone suddenly wants to sport all things pink and in fact, some of us get downright pissed. For many of us, cancer affirms who we already are, and enables us to draw on inner strength and skills we've spent a lifetime learning. Shelley is snarky and brutally honest, two traits I admire (and possess)! While our specific cancer and treatment was different, our inner thoughts are eerily similar. Her words helped me solidify a lot of things I've been thinking but just couldn't manage to convey, even to myself: yes, I had cancer. Yes, it changed some things about me (more on that in a minute), but what it really did was solidified who I already was. I am not - and do not need to become - fundamentally different. I like who I am!

I've heard it said that when confronted with a life crisis, many people who self-identify as agnostic or atheist will turn to religion. As a self-professed agnostic (often bordering on atheist), I had no idea whether that would be true for me. But not long ago I realized that not once through this entire crisis had I fallen to my knees or turned to a "higher power." I believe that I have softened, become kinder, more understanding about some things (and much more annoyed about others), but I have not suddenly found religion, nor do I think that's likely to change. What I did discover is that I have an immense well of inner strength that I never dreamed possible. I joke that if "what doesn't kill you makes you stronger" then I must be Hercules, but now I know that for me it's the truth.

That said, I have also discovered that when the constant stream of doctor's appointments, surgery, treatments etc. wind down, the brain kicks into high gear. From Shelley's book: "When you're in the middle of treatment, you've got a team of doctors working with you and you put your head down and do what has to be done. It's actually scarier when it's all over... " This is my truth as well as many women I've spoken to. Suddenly there's nobody doing for me, telling me what comes next, giving me instructions on how to handle whatever's going on. Now I'm on my own up here in my head, and that's a dangerous place for me to be alone, let me tell you. Since last September when I had my first abnormal mammogram, I've been waiting. Waiting for tests and more tests, results, surgery dates, pathology results, healing, more surgery, more healing. Even now, 4 months out from my mastectomy and a month out from revision, I'm still healing and waiting. I can't buy bras yet, I can't buy pants yet (my hips are still hypersensitive at the ends of my abdominal incision), and I'm still in pain. I can't go braless for any length of time or my chest aches. I still have a few stitches from revision. 

But today I realized that there are improvements. I'm not really sure what clicked in my brain, but whatever it is I welcome it, because I realize that with it comes a feeling I'm completely unfamiliar with on this journey: the beginning of acceptance. Shelley describes what she calls "controlled panic" like this: "I look calm on the outside, but I'm mentally stripping off all my clothes and running naked down the street screaming 'Help!'" What a perfect way to describe the state I've been in for almost 9 months. Having cancer, a woman in Shelley's book says, is "like having a news ticker that's always running across my brain, displaying the words 'you've got cancer.' I go about my life and try to act normal but really, I can't think about anything else." Except for the first time since the beginning, I can. I can hang out with friends and talk about their goings-on, about knitting, about learning to spin my own yarn. I can joke, I can laugh, I can dye my son's hair bright blue and make up late-night jokes with him. And through it all I glimpse moments of grace, of realizing later that I've gone hours without thinking about cancer. 

So, the haircut. I'm a member of a group that's curly-hair obsessed. I used to be pretty damn obsessive about stuff like hair and nail polish, but then cancer got in my way and all that fell to the wayside. Recently someone asked what I'd done with my hair when I was in the hospital, and when answering her, I realized that not only had I not cared a lot about my hair since my mastectomy, I'd largely been wearing it up and I really didn't like it anymore. It never looked good no matter what I did to it. A month or so ago when my son wanted to bleach and dye his hair, I had a fit of adolescent pique and bleached my bangs (not that they qualify as bangs when they're past my chin) and started playing with all kinds of fun temporary colors. I realized it was a thing I could control, and I had a blast with it. But then when I was posting in my curly-hair group, I realized that I wanted to feel pretty again. I can't speed my body's healing, but I can do something about my hair, petty as it may seem. So I gave myself a haircut! Curly Girl by Lorraine Massey and Michele Bender includes a chapter on trimming one's own hair, and a DVD with a short demo. Using their technique, I lopped a bunch of hair off. I'd been trying to grow it out, but I'm thinking maybe I'm not destined for long hair, as it just never looked great.  (I'm not sure how long it is wet, but it's roughly chin-length dry now.) Last night, I got actual compliments on my hair, and not just on the purple/blue/teal gradient I have in my bangs, either! It was a great feeling, because I took control of something and just went for it. Is it a professional-grade cut? Hell no. But I like it, and that's what matters. Something about this hair thing, about taking control of something and liking my hair again has had pretty far-reaching effects that I couldn't have imagined. That acceptance thing. Some self-esteem, which is really hard to come by when you've had your torso basically rearranged. And yes, even some joy.

There's another thing that I've debated talking about, but I'm gonna give it a shot. 

I'm one of those people who needs to hear words. I need people to speak slowly and spell things out for me when it comes to feelings; I'm crap at reading gestures. I'm married to a man who speaks fluent gesture, however, and somehow I never get it. I'm always terrified that one day it'll all be too much for him: my crazy brain, my defective body. Now cancer and the loss of my breasts. My self-worth has been so shot that nothing he ever said or did got through to me, because I finally, finally get that it was never about him - it was always about me not believing I deserved this incredible relationship we have. Recently he left on the first business trip he's been on since my diagnosis, and I was a mess. I knew it would be good for him to have a break from my constant neediness, and that I had to start standing on my own and not relying on him for everything, but I wasn't sure I could. 

The other day he sent me a beautiful bouquet of flowers, and I broke down and sobbed. I called him and it took a minute for him to understand me, because I was completely unintelligible. Why that simple act of him sending flowers, of the little card in someone else's handwriting that said he missed me, broke through my addled brain in a way nothing else ever has, I can't say - but it did. I get it. Finally. 

See? Acceptance. 


Ack!Tivity said...

That sounds like a great book! It reminds me of Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America by Barbara Ehrenreich. She talked about how so many people try and get cancer patients and survivors to "THINK POSITIVE" with the insinuation that if you don't anything bad that happens to you is your own fault.

Also, I didn't realise you had a blog going, somehow missed previous posts about it. I now have you on Google Reader. :)

Jo said...

Wow. Steps upon steps on your life's journey, not just your cancer journey. I was going to say "Not all who wander are lost"...... I don't think you've been wandering... I think you've been marching forward, over mountains and hills, through woods and rivers. Now you are able to slow down and look behind at the terrain that's been covered. It's understandable that you're looking back over your shoulder and going "Holy Heck", I came through that?!" I, for one, am so glad and grateful that you did. I am also very proud that you are willing to do the very hard work to continue your progress down the road. When you feel like it, get in the (metephorical) car, throw the top down, and race down the road, yelling "YEEEEEEEEEEHAAAAAAA!!!!!!!"

wintermoon said...


I can't tell you how big I'm smiling right now and how happy I am that things are looking up in your brain. I've been thinking about you, and when I have bad days and feel like I'm useless and too needy and too broken and I wonder why I bother, YOU are one of the people that inspire me to keep going, to keep trying, to keep reaching for a better day, to keep believing that one better day can turn into more. Love you.

debbie hagen said...

Loved the cut when I saw it on Facebook, and love it even more when I read this post! Again I tell you, just keep writing and saying whatever is in your mind at the time. Your voice is beautiful (as are you) and every time you write I hear your strength, even if you don't. You are on a journey, even if it feels like you are stumbling all over the place (you are not, no matter how it feels). All change takes time and how much time is so variable. I have had nothing compared to you and I am just barely able to feel "normal" again. My point is just keep going, one wobbly step at a time, one stinking day at a time. You are getting better!! And you are still the gutsiest babe I know! Love you with big hugs! :) (and of course lots of rainbow energy)

The Accidental Amazon said...

Wow, are we having a mind-meld or what, M!! I wrote a post a few years ago about the theme of the book you are reading (written when Barbara Ehrenreich's book came out coincidentally). It drives me buggy when people claim that cancer made them better people. I'm with you. I already was a very decent person, full of inner strength, compassion, etc. And I'd already been kicked around, had my heart broken, all kinds of things that, in their way, were a lot more emotionally painful than having cancer. Cancer did not break my heart. It did a lot of other things, like rock my world & deplete my energy, but it's nice to discover -- isn't it? -- how much we can draw on our inner reserves to get through even cancer. Now I have to see pix of this new hairdo!!!