For the seventh time in the last two years, I balanced on one foot in the surgery center changing room. I pulled on the sticky socks and attempted to tie the non-matching strings of the hospital gown. This time though, I wasn’t allowed to keep on my underwear. I was getting ready for a right inguinal hernia repair. At least it was a non cancer related problem, I thought.
After I gave the purple gloved nurse my urine sample, I was ushered into one of the bays with a bed. I lay down and was immediately covered by microwaved blankets because someone thought up the rule of keeping the pre-surgery area at 60F.
My nurse was a really nice lady who smiled a lot and actually seemed concerned for me. She looked me in the eyes and hovered around while another nurse did other tasks.
“Are you OK if A. inserts your IV?” The nice nurse, G., asked, glancing at a young looking nurse.
I frowned. Why shouldn’t I be OK? I had been laying there under the impression everyone around me is a highly capable nurse.
“Uhmm…yeah.” I mumbled and my internal alert went on orange as I started to expect a painful stick.
A. inserted the IV with a moderate amount of wincing on my end and only a slight wave of nausea rising up from my stomach. Meanwhile, an anesthesiologist stopped by and took my hand in his, holding it as if he was comforting me.
He stared at my face for a few seconds and asked how I was, then let go of my hand and walked away. I wasn’t sure if that was just a friendly gesture or if it was some secret anesthesia ritual of feeling the patient’s temperature and nervousness level.
He returned about twenty minutes later and I answered, for the third time at this point, questions about whether or not I had dentures, implants, lose teeth, metal particles in my head etc. I requested a nausea patch and he peeled it off the paper and stuck it behind my right ear.
Then the nice nurse informed me that we were just waiting for the surgeon to show up.
“She’s probably having a glass of wine with lunch somewhere.” I told my husband, who was freezing in an uncomfortable plastic chair next to my bed.
About 30 minutes later, we heard some commotion and the curtains around my bed flew open and my surgeon literally danced in.
“Hey there! How are we doing?” She exclaimed loudly.
“Good.” I answered, watching her twirl around.
“I decided to wear a dress today”, she said, “I always wear scrubs, so I was like, I am wearing a dress today!” She smiled wide.
I glanced at my husband. DID she have a glass of wine with lunch? Or two?
“Let me go change and we’ll do this, OK?” She called out after me as she sashayed down the hallway.
Suddenly, all the nurses were on high alert and lifted up the rails on the side of my bed, serious look on their faces and I started the short trek to the OR. I waved my husband good-bye just as I started feeling very drunk. I didn’t even notice anyone pushing anything in my IV.
I made it to the operating room table, wondering about the fact that soon all the personnel will see me completely naked and I was out.
I woke up in PACU, shivering and felt a nurse tucking warm blankets around my body. Another nurse was snaking an oxygen tube by my nose. The blood pressure cuff inflated in uncompromising 5 minute intervals. In my hazy mind, I thought it was very important to always swivel my head as far as I could to see the blood pressure readings.
When I was awake enough to keep my eyes cracked open a little longer, the first wave of pain hit me. I moved an inch in the bed and tears cropped in my eyes. How could it hurt so much already? I glanced around and tried to summon one of the nurses. They kept typing at their computers.
Finally one of them came over.
“Whenever you are ready, we’ll dress you and you’ll sit in that arm chair over there. Then your husband can come back here.”
“It hurts.” I whimpered.
The nurse frowned. Her face had the expression of disbelief.
“It really hurts.” I said again and one tear rolled down my cheek.
She bit the inside of her cheek and said she would go get some pain medication.
A couple minutes later, she squeezed something in my IV. I felt better for about 10 minutes.
Meanwhile, she arrived with my plastic bag of clothes. She flicked off my blankets and I shivered. She took off my sticky socks and instructed me to lift my legs alternatively, so she can put on my socks. When I tried to lift the leg on the side of my hernia, sharp pain shot through my body.
“I can’t lift it.” I whispered. “It hurts.”
She stared at me uncomprehending and wiggled my foot as in ‘lift your leg’.
“I CAN’T.” I mustered all the strength I had. I hated her at that point.
She snaked the sock halfway on and asked me to sit up.
I couldn’t. That would involve my abdominal muscles. I started to doubt she knew what a hernia surgery involved.
Another nurse came by and lifted the bed’s back rest into a sitting position. I managed to pull on my clothes.
By the time I made it into the arm chair, I was in so much pain I couldn’t pay attention to anything the nurses said. I tried really hard to not cry and kept blinking my eyes to stop the tears from falling.
They wheeled me to another area and sat down a mini can of ginger ale and saltines in front of me. Great, I thought, high fructose corn syrup, chemicals, sugar and hydrogenated oil product. Nothing like healthy foods in a hospital. I couldn’t remember last time I had soda.
The nurse who forced me to lift my legs called out from her computer on a scale of 1-10, how much pain was I in.
“Eight.” I stared hard at her. I thought that ten only qualified for when one screams in bursts of agony and nine qualified for loud whimpering.
My answer seemed to surprise her. She glanced at me with her head lowered, probably gauging if I was lying or not. I held my stare.
She got up and brought over two pills in a cup and some water. I took them and within about half an hour, my pain finally felt manageable. Meanwhile, my husband showed up and as the nurse kept asking me about the pain level, I realized that unless I say three or less, I will not go home.
Next time she asked, I claimed a pain level of three. She shot up from her desk and brought over paperwork to take home with me.
“Can I go to the restroom first?” I interrupted her.
I limped to the bathroom and she told me to call her when I was done.
I sat down on the toilet, the urge to pee overwhelming.
Then nothing happened. I felt like I needed to pee but nothing came out. What the hell was that? I sat there trying to go pee but it just simply wasn’t coming out. After about three minutes a couple drops escaped. Another couple minutes later a tiny stream lasted about four seconds. And that was it.
I felt like I had the worst case of a UTI and as if someone stabbed me in my lower right abdomen. I put my head in my hands and cried, still on the toilet, my pants down by my ankles. I couldn’t get up, the pain overwhelming me once again.
I called the nurse.
“I can’t pee!” I exclaimed in alarm.
“That’s normal.” She said.
“What do you mean, it’s normal?” I asked. “I could always pee after my surgeries.” In fact, many times the nurses would not let me go home unless I peed.
“It’s normal to have trouble peeing after surgery.” She repeated in a monotone voice.
I sat back down in my armchair and intercepted a different nurse. She kindly explained to me that with my TYPE of surgery, it was normal to have some problems urinating.
My husband drove us home, trying to avoid pot holes. I lay down on the couch in our living room, covered myself with a blanket and took my prescription pain pill. The pain was manageable if I didn’t move much and I stayed functional till bedtime.
I woke up at 4:45AM in pain. It hurt so bad I couldn’t go back to sleep. I blindly felt for the pain pill bottle by my side of the bed and cursed the child safety lid on it. I twisted it and it wouldn’t open. I got hot and cursed under my breath. I think it was pure adrenaline that forced the damn lid open. I felt for my water bottle and took the pill. Then I waited for half an hour before it kicked in and I drifted off to sleep again.
It is now four days after the surgery and the swelling is almost gone. The only thing gaping at me is my 4cm scar.
“Oh…it is you…just your hair is different.”
He didn’t hide his disapproval with the change of my look. His voice was screechy, like a goat.
I bit the inside of my cheek and held my tongue. I wouldn’t know what to say anyway. I had a thousand come backs jetting like F-16s from my brain to my mouth but they all crashed in my throat.
While walking out of the mall, on the street on the way to my cancer support group, while buying groceries, I hear the “Oh, what a cute haircut” comments. I say nothing and sometimes even smile and say Thanks.
But the other day, I got tired of it. I got tired of having to speak the expected norm like some automaton.
I was in the Post Office for my passport application and the clerk said:
“I like that short haircut. It’s cute.”
At that moment, I decided that I am tired of being the Stepford Wife. I looked her in the eyes and said:
“Yeah, well, I didn’t really choose this, I had cancer.”
I watched her for a reaction, feeling elated for letting the truth escape my lips.
Her eyes shot away from mine and her mouth quivered. She lowered her gaze back to the application and stuttered something inaudible.
Should I have felt bad? Maybe.
But I didn’t.
I felt relieved.
I didn’t try to march on the pre-paved road and turn on my signal when I wanted to turn.
I swerved into the shoulder and covered her with dust and pebbles.
And it felt great.
Because that is what my life is. It is not a perfectly paved road with rules and limits. It’s more like a Monaco Grand Prix course. Or like the winding road on the side of the mountain from the beginning of The Shining.
When people asked me how I was doing on email, I used to only say the gravelly road truth to a few, but pretended to be a smooth asphalt cruise for others.
I don’t think I can do this anymore. People need to know I am on a back road, country road, side street, badly lit alley, road covered with a mudslide, cracked from an earthquake, flooded by a hurricane.
I am not smooth sailing. I am not coasting. I am not drifting. I am not faring happily along.
I can’t try any more.
I won’t try any more.
I am tired.
I can’t pacify others by painting a picture of what they want to see.
All I can do is take a Polaroid of myself and my life.
I know that those who truly care will not be offended. And for the rest, well, I suppose they can return to Stepford.
As I near the completion of my active treatment for cancer, I often think of what others call the landmarks and milestones I reached and passed. The biopsies, surgeries, the chemotherapy, the hair loss, the reconstruction, the PET scans, the follow ups, the blood work, the hair re-growth. It sounds as if I walked around the Earth but yet, strangely, I feel unmoved, immobile, even paralyzed.
I feel like I have not moved an inch but yet I do not belong to the world before cancer either. I am not involved in cancer awareness campaigns; I did not start some awe inspiring project to thumb my nose at cancer. I am not the upbeat face from the pink ribbon movements. I hate running and I don’t do walks or runs or whatever to cure cancer.
I am also not a terminal case where doctors scramble to do whatever they can to prolong the life. Youtube videos of my last days won’t make the viral status, I won’t be featured posthumously in some documentary where everyone would say what a wonderful human being I was.
I am an average, boring, cancer patient, like so many by my side. I blend into the grey ranks of the survivors but yet no one can guarantee me life. I am expected to move on with my life but no one has answers to my what ifs. People ask how I am and their eyes glaze over when I say anything else but I’m fine.
How could I explain to a healthy human being what it’s like to have the basic existential assumption of life shaken and shattered into pieces? How could I explain that I measure my life not by when Christmas is or which Thursday Thanksgiving will be on, but by the PET scan dates and blood work result appointments?
How could I explain that it feels like my body is the enemy that I must pacify with meticulous nutrition and avoidance of any potentially harmful substances? How could I explain that I lay awake at night or stare in space during the day wondering how much time I really have. How could I explain that planning more than a few months in advance seems futile to me.
All it takes is one scan. One bad scan and I would be back where I was two years ago or one year ago. How can I possibly explain what it’s like to teeter on this razor thin fence, not ever knowing if a gust of wind will blow me over to the bad side.
People would tell me to try to forget about it and move on . They would say live your life and don’t worry. But that’s like saying to a hostage to forget about her previous life and enjoy her current cell. Move on from what you want and enjoy the few items the captors left in your vicinity. Live your life looking through the bars on the windows. Don’t worry, they won’t kill you right away.
People would say to have faith or to hope for the best. I gave up on that a long time ago. It got me nowhere and as I watch the news from around the world, it gets other people nowhere as well. Hope is an empty word. It’s like a pink sheath I am forced to look at the world with but yet I know what’s behind that curtain.
So where do I go? I can’t go back, I am not who I was two years ago. I don’t know who I am now. I know who I am supposed to be according to healthy people, according to the media, according to the popular image of a cancer survivor. But that’s not who I am.
I am a person who is afraid that one day the cancers come back. I am a person who lost a lot of self esteem. I am a person with a lot of doubt. I am a person who cries a lot more often now. I am a person who is a lot more cynical. I am a person who has to fake smiles even more now in front of others to appear normal. I am a person standing on a road that no longer has a few clear forks and turns. Instead, it has an infinite number of paths, some paved, some gravelly, some just plain dirt. Some extend to the horizon and some end as soon as they start.
So where will I go? I have no idea which path I will walk on. I take a step and the ground morphs under my feet. I no longer have a free will and a choice. It is being made for me by my captor.
As I dread going to bed every night because of my persisting nightmares, I take comfort in watching my dog sleep. I have always loved watching her sleep and took pictures of it. Maybe one day, the peace that settles over her, will rub off on me too.
My naturopath thinks I have PTSD and my body is cleansing itself of the negative emotions from the past two years. Whatever it is, it sucks. I can’t sleep and I cry all the time. I dread going outside and talking to people, I have a hard time following even basic conversations.
I feel like I have not got a break since that day, July 2nd, 2012 when my first cancer was diagnosed. It has been two years of bad news. I don’t remember a week when I wouldn’t have to go to some kind of a doctor.
It is a wicked Catch 22. I am supposed to go out and “do things” to feel better emotionally but I can’t force myself to confront the world yet. So I stay inside and the cycle deepens.
If it weren’t for my dog, I probably wouldn’t leave the house for days. I get up, I work from home, I take my dog out and then I dread the evenings because I know I will have to go to bed soon and experience the nightmares over and over again.
Maybe one day I will get back to a semblance of what I used to be. In the meantime, I will keep watching my dog sleep.
Sleep is a hated necessity for me. A dreaded occasion. A chore. A nightmare.
Every night, I embark on a twisted ride like Charon on the river Styx. I glide in my kayak on the black water of the nightmare world. The water is thick like oil and sticks to my paddle and skin like molasses.
It takes so much effort to get through the bad dream. I strain, pushing the oar through the murky liquid, afraid what will happen to me before I can get out. I have my eyes set at the distant light, a small opening, far away.
There are mud covered heads with missing eyes bobbing up to the surface of the water as I try to push my way through them. I strike some of them and it splits their skulls in half, dark brown liquid mixing in with the onyx water.
Skeletal arms and hands try to grab for my paddle, pulling on it, tilting my kayak from side to side. Sometimes they latch their bony fingers onto the side and I have to drag them with me until they get tired of it.
Ash covered winged creatures like pterodactyls swoop down from the charcoal sky, flying so low, my hair flutters. I can smell their musty aroma. I feel the specks of dust from their feathers falling on my cheeks. Their beaks are large and curved, hungry for my eyes.
I keep going, the opening to the light getting closer.
But before I reach it, my kayak runs aground and I must get out and sink into the mud. I trudge forward, stumbling, falling on my hands, my whole body covered in the earthy, wormy layer of dirt.
There are cliffs on either side of the muddy river and suddenly, as if by osmosis, they produce a score of men.
Some look like Vikings with long braided hair, bulging biceps and muscular thighs. Some are tall, lanky, menacing, enveloped in long black trench coats. Some have masks on their faces. But they all have one thing in common: the look in their feverish eyes. All of those eyes zoom in on me, like a cluster of lasers focusing at a common target.
I feel my heart bang in my chest. I can’t swallow. I try to speed up but keep getting sucked down by the mud.
They are getting closer, starting to raise their various weapons of choice. Bows and arrows, knives, guns, sticks. Some hold a metal string or a rope between their hands, snapping them as they approach. Some of them just clench their fists.
I finally find my footing and pull myself from the mud onto the dirt and grassy bank. I feel tears and desperation run down my face. I open my mouth to cry for help and all I can hear is a slight whimper.
I start running towards that light opening, still so far away.
The dream world becomes a vortex of my escape. I bound over meadows, zig zag through a forest, crash through thorny bushes, jump over fences. I run down the stairs, sometimes taking a whole flight at once, I roll under wooden panels descending to the ground and burst through swinging doors.
I feel the men’s fingers brushing my back and I arch it to get away from them. Their rancid breath shrouds me like a cloak. I hear them rustling behind me, clinking their weapons, grunting, bloodthirsty.
Suddenly, I feel a surge of energy and I am lifted up in the air and I fly. But it is not a pleasant flight like a bird. It is a manic horizontal swirl, propelling me across the sky and pushing me higher ever so slightly. I know that if I don’t stop this, I will end up higher and higher and fall that much harder.
I see tree tops in the distance and try to grab the top branches. They whip me in the face and burn my palms but I manage to hold on to one and I cling to it. I anchor my body to the tree limb. I wrap my arms and legs around it, willing the flight force to go away. But it won’t let me.
I am torn from the branch and I am flying higher and higher. I can barely see the ground and I know I am doomed.
I tilt my body downward, I might as well get it over with.
I jet down, in almost a straight vertical trajectory, my hair like lightening bolts on the side of my head, my eyes squinting in the whoosh of the wind.
I see the rooftops now, I see the grass and pathways in the fields.
My body levels off but teeters dangerously left and right just like an airplane about to land with an inexperienced pilot.
I see the rocks and pebbles in the dirt.
I am about to hit the ground.
My eyes snap open. I realize I am in my bed. I am panting. My T-shirt and the sheet I was under are soaked in sweat. My hair is stuck to my head. My heart is drumming as fast as hummingbird’s wings.
I try to see the men in the darkness wielding their weapons. They are not here. But they are there, in the dream, waiting for me.
I force myself to stay awake for at least ten minutes hoping I won’t go back into the same dream.
I don’t go back into the same dream. The next dream I have is worse.
I strolled with my dog on a winding sidewalk that lead around a pond. It was warm and windy thanks to the distant hurricane. Suddenly, as I walked by one of the trees, its little branch smacked me on top of my head. I could almost hear it say:
“Stop stressing out! Stop thinking about what’s next. Just enjoy the walk!”
I turned around to look at it and I saw it bobbing up and down in the air as if nodding in agreement with itself.
I noticed how small the leaves on it were, trembling in the breeze, whipping around their stem. The sun colored them the brightest green I have ever seen. I looked up to the crown of the tree and my head spun as the branches swayed in the air.
I remembered how we used to play hide-and-seek when we were kids, counting down by the birch tree in the middle of the park. I would run and hide behind the thick oak trees or climb up to the second set of branches on the pines.
What would I have thought back then if someone told me that less than 30 years from then I would be living more than 4,000 miles away, across the world, recovering from two cancers.
I felt my German Shepherd tug on the leash. I looked back down, pulled to the reality, the mirage of a childhood game disappearing into the air.
I started walking again, passing the white painted gazebo. My thoughts swirled back into the thick stew of worry and anticipation of bad news. It had been a year since my breast cancer surgery and two years since my eye cancer surgery. July was not my lucky month.
It used to be though.
The weather was warm, perfect for swimming, summer camps and riding our bikes till almost nine at night.
We all had the same kind of a bike, just a different color. We used to meet at the red corner bench in the park.
We rode fast on the paths, whizzing by the old ladies perched on the other benches, gossiping the day away. They would shake their canes at us every time we dashed around them.
We laughed and then slammed our bikes on the ground and lay in the grass, its blades in our mouths, talking about what we would be and do when we were grown up.
As I stood there by the pond with my dog, I wondered if my ten year old brain back then could have even grasped what happened to me in the last two years of my life.
I stood there looking at the murky water. It felt like I was looking at my future. What happened to the clear, brilliant lagoon I imagined my future to be as a child? I threw a rock into the pond and all I saw was a cloud of mud obscure the water even more.
When will my pond clear up?
When will the mud go away?
And will it ever?
I sat down in the grass and put my arm around my dog as she settled next to me.
Maybe it is not about the pond, I thought. Maybe it is about how I look at the pond.
Maybe, instead of seeing the muddy water, I should see water that gives life to all the frogs and little fish that live there. They are happy with it, in fact, they need it.
Maybe I just need to accept that this is what my life pond looks like. It is murky but maybe it has to be. Maybe I have to take a chance and go in, not knowing what to expect. I may slip, I may sink into the mud but I may find a hidden treasure. Who knows.
As I recovered from each chemo, I often wondered what it would be like if my Grandma was still alive.
I imagined myself staying at her house or, rather, a one bedroom apartment in the city. A fifth floor walk up, I used to run up the stairs, sometimes taking two at a time.
Breathless, I would ring the doorbell, a black toggle switch on a square white plate. I would hear the tinkle of the peep hole cover and in the next second the door would open and my Grandma would have the brightest smile on her face, her eyes lit up, her arms outstretched inviting for a hug.
I would bury myself in her soft embrace as she would kiss my forehead with a loud smooch and usher me inside, into the tiny hallway.
It was so small, she had to step into the living room so I could take my shoes off and hang my coat.
I would then follow her in the living room, my nose hungrily inhaling that day’s lunch smell.
As I struggled with nausea during my chemotherapy and stood on the cold tiles of my kitchen, I imagined instead sitting at my Grandma’s kitchen table, watching her mash cooked vegetables through a sieve, pouring cream in and creating the best svickova I have ever eaten in my life.I would eat eight, even ten dumplings instead of my customary three or four.
Her little kitchen got steamy in the winter and cover the window panes with condensation. When I was a child, she used to let me draw with my fingers in the watery layer on the glass.
When I lay in bed, the chemo fever racking my body and making me dizzy, I imagined instead sitting on the couch at my Grandma’s living room. She would be across the coffee table in her arm chair, talking, sipping on her afternoon coffee.
When I was little, we would play cards or battleship for hours. She would listen to my stories about school, my friends and my teachers and always took my side.
When I struggled to take my dog out because the post chemo vertigo almost knocked me down, I imagined instead walking down the street, my Grandma holding my ten year-old hand. I loved going shopping with her because we never rushed. She was a little heavier and sometimes pressed my whole forearm against her soft body as she waddled on with me like a stick figure attached to her hip.
When I lay in my bed, crying because I felt the chemo would never end, I imagined instead sitting on my Grandma’s lap, her arms folded around me, my head on her chest, sobbing. She never minded if I made her shirt wet with my tears or if my nose ran. She would hold me until I felt better. Until my tears dried out.
When I stood in the bathroom, looking at my bald head and circles under my lash less eyes, I imagined instead standing by the bathroom sink with my Grandma fixing my hair. She would wet the comb under the running faucet, holding bobby pins in her mouth, comb my hair and twist the strands in the style of a 40’s movie star.
When I made hot tea in the morning, several days after chemo, and tried to work for a few hours, I imagined instead making tea with milk with my Grandma. We would stand at the kitchen counter and she would slowly pour the milk in the darkly brewed tea. The milk bubbled up from the bottom of the mug and we called it making clouds. She always waited for me to come to the kitchen to make clouds.
When I tried to fall asleep, scared of what I would feel like in the morning after chemo, I imagined instead falling asleep at my Grandma’s house with her sitting on the edge of my bed, caressing my hair and singing a lullaby.
Time at my Grandma’s house stood still. It was an oasis of calm and unconditional love.
It was a meadow in the middle of a scary forest.
It was a calm segment of an ocean.
It was a slice of paradise with no deadlines and no demands.
Her wise words always pulled me from whatever abyss I was falling in.
My Grandma died suddenly, in January, 2001. I received a postcard dated with the exact same date. She walked to the post office to send it off and died later that day. It was one of the worst times of my life.
I wrote a poem about her a little later, when the pain subsided a little:
You always patiently listened
Even when you were tired
When my eyes with tears glistened
Or when my heart was on fire
You never said: “Just wait a minute.”
You never left me lonely and sad
You never said; “Go away, I mean it.”
You never even got mad.
I always felt love coming from you
I always felt incredible warmth and feeling
Everything you said rung the truth
Talking to you I could feel my soul healing.
I wish you were still with me here
I wish I could hear your voice
I wish I could hear you call me “Dear…”
Living without you was not my choice.
I miss you more than you can ever know
I think about you every day
You were my hope’s bright glow
My life stopped when you went away.
Reading your past letters makes me strong
In this difficult time of my life
Falling asleep I try to hear your lullaby song
And sorrow pierces my heart like a knife.
Exactly two years ago today, July 3, 2012, I was told I have two cancer tumors on the conjuctiva of my eye.
They both turned out to be melanoma.
The causes of these eye tumors are not 100% known. However; my doctor, a top notch specialist, did mention the sun and the thinning ozone layer and the dangers it poses, especially to people with light eyes like mine.
This is me about three months before the diagnosis. I already had a little visible blob on my eye but ignored it because I never thought melanoma could happen to me. I always wore sunglasses, never laid out in the sun and if I was exposed to the sun, I used sunscreen. At that time, I didn’t even know you could get melanoma on your eye.
On July 6, only three days after my devastating diagnosis, I had my eye surgery. The recovery was rocky and difficult. Eight months later the cancer came back. I was treated with a radiation cap that was sewn directly on to my eyeball.
I went from searching ebay for great deals on designer clothes to looking up information on blindness, braille and eye enucleation. I went from enjoying NYC to spending days after days inside a house with drawn curtains because every speck of light felt like knives in my post surgery eyeball.
I have long term side effects. My vision in the bad eye went from 20/16 to about 20/40 and it is not corrigible with glasses. It will only get worse until I have a full blown cataracts. The glands in the eyelid got messed up by the radiation so I get styes all the time. My eye is red very often. I have to go back to NYC once every four months for a checkup. I live in fear of another re-occurrence and the possibility of losing my eye.
We won’t even talk about the financial burden of all this. You may say “I have insurance, I am fine.” I thought the same. Only to learn that the really good doctors may not accept insurance at all.
Nowadays, I get really irked when I see people laying out in the sun. I get angry because there they are, basically calling the cancer to settle in their body, to sink its claws in their skin and flourish into a metastatic nightmare. They lay there baking in the UV rays, roasting like meat.
I want to stick my head through the planks of their backyards, hang on the chain link fence around the pools, wave my arms in alarm stomping around them on a beach. Wake the hell up! Every minute spent out in the sun gets you another minute closer to skin cancer, eye cancer, or at least an epic burn.
Read this story about how quickly things can go bad. Melanoma accounts for less than 5% of all skin cancers, but for more than 80% of skin cancer related deaths.
What possible justification does anybody have who still goes out and tans on purpose? To look healthy? No, sorry, the only look achieved by tanning is one of extreme ignorance.
Perhaps the tanners want to look like this woman on the beach? Or the infamous trucker? Or they want to damage their eyes like many surfers do?
I know this blog post won’t change the world. I know I will have to keep walking by the browned bodies laid out on the towels and chaise lounges. I know people will keep getting melanoma and keep dying.
But maybe, if at least one person pauses and changes his or her habits, it will be worth it.
And finally, to my fellow non-tanners: Here is to getting carded way into our late 30s because we didn’t accumulate the tanner’s wrinkles.
“Liv, you whore, where are you? Are you fucking someone in your room?” Liv’s father slurred, stumbling along the hallway towards her bedroom.
She sat up in her bed, covers drawn close to her face, heart beating, listening whether or not he was going to pass her room and leave her alone. She held her breath.
Her bedroom door flew open and he teetered in the doorway. Liv jumped out of her bed.
“Well? Where the fuck is he?” Liv’s father demanded. “I know you got him in here somewhere, you whore.”
Liv was sixteen at that time and still a virgin.
She crept along the wall and as her father’s blood shot eyes groggily scanned the room, she managed to slip by him into the hallway.
“Come back here!” He yelled as he wavered and turned around. “Come back here you slut, or I’ll whip you one!” Liv’s father lurched after her.
Liv ran down the hallway to the stairs leading down to the living room. At the top of the stairway, she turned around only to see her father pushing off the walls as he staggered approaching her.
When he reached her, they stood face to face, Liv only a few inches shorter than him.He grabbed her arm, twisting her around to go back to her room.
Liv’s body went rigid. She felt her anger bubble to the surface and all sounds suddenly seemed muted. Her vision completely filled with her father’s face. The hatred she carried around with her for the past six years took control of her mind and body.
She looked her father in the eyes and spit in his face. He jerked his head back and at the same time let go off her arm. The sudden motion destabilized him and as he realized he was about to fall down the stairs, he extended his hand toward Liv for help.
Liv stared at his hand. She lifted her eyes to his face and made a decision in that split second. She extended her arm in front of her, but instead of grabbing him, she put her hand on his chest. Their eyes locked and just before Liv pushed with all her strength, her father’s eyes sobered up with the realization of the inevitable.
10 years later
“Well, what do you suggest we do now?” Joe sneered at his girlfriend Liv.
They were way off the trail, walking around in circles it seemed. Both in their late 20s, they were fit and dressed in hiking pants and layered long sleeved shirts. It was her idea to come to the Roosevelt State Park. Liv sighed and studied the map on Joe’s dying cellphone.
“Why did I even agree to this stupid hike? We are probably in the middle of some hunting trip.” Said Joe referring to the loud pops they have been hearing for the last hour.
“Man, I wish I never –“ Joe’s words were cut off by a strange short buzz in the air. His eyes widened and he fell on the ground.
Not comprehending, his eyes focused on his leg before his brain caught on. A dark wet spot started spreading on his right pant leg, about halfway up the thigh. It grew alarmingly fast.
“What…what…what is that?” Liv stammered. “Is that blood?!”
“I think so.” Joe’s eyes looked at her in alarm and reflected the newly registered pain. He clutched his leg but the blood kept flooding his pants, trickling between his fingers. “I think someone shot me.” Joe said incredulous.
“We have to take them off!” Liv ordered looking at Joe’s pants. She tried to remember the little bit of first aid training she got many years ago.
She unbuckled Joe’s belt and gently tugged his pants off down to his ankles. There was a small hole in the upper part of Joe’s thigh. It looked innocent enough but the amount of blood coming out was alarming.
“Joe, this is not good.” Liv said pointing to the steady gush of blood. He nodded, paleness entering his face.
“Liv, I am sorry, I…” Joe started.
“Please don’t, not now, it’s OK.” Liv interrupted him. “I am going to tie it off, I have to, OK?”
“OK.” Joe breathed out heavily.
Liv slid the belt out of Joe’s pants and tied it above the wound. She tightened it one hole at a time until the blood flow stopped.
“Joe, I am going to try to find help. Don’t move. You lost a lot of blood. But I think it’s stopped for now. I will come back with help, OK?” Live spoke to Joe’s closed eyes.
He nodded in agreement. “The phone is dead.” He whispered.
“I know. I am going to run and call from my car in the parking lot – my phone is there.” Liv said, patting Joe on his hand. There was no nod in return.
Liv checked his breathing and heartbeat. They were both still there, but Joe had lost consciousness.
Liv got up and looked around. She heard another distant shot. She started making her way through the dense forest. She stumbled on the uneven ground, stepping carefully on big rocks and moving tree branches away from her face. She stopped for a second to look around, leaning on a tall pine. She took off her long sleeved shirt and wiped her forehead. A long thin scar marked her right arm, from elbow almost to the wrist. She remembered that well. Joe did it.
Two years into their relationship, she thought he was the best thing that ever happened to her and she was completely entangled in his artful webs. Then one night, she came home to him triumphantly holding her journal in his hand. Her journal that she had hidden in a box under their bed, among other stored things.
Judging by the look on his face, he read the whole journal where Liv described in detail the events from the night at home years ago. When they first met, Liv told Joe that her father fell down the stairs and the coroner ruled it an accident with Liv being the main witness. Her father’s blood alcohol level supported the whole story and as he did not have many friends, the whole incident faded in everyone’s mind. But now Joe knew.
Soon after that, Joe’s charm soured into a condescending and controlling attitude that made Liv’s life miserable. A year later, three years into them dating, she suggested they break up. Joe blew up and then threatened her that if she left him, he would go to the police about her big secret. They fought for hours and finally Joe ended up pushing her. Liv fell, grazing her arm on the stove, creating that long scar she was now looking at.
As Liv stood by the tree, taking in deep breaths, all this flashed through her mind. Life twists in so many ways she thought. Ever since that night two years ago, she managed to find a comfortable zone in their relationship. She hung on to the few nice times and tried hard to forget the numerous bad episodes. She pushed off the tree and continued her trek through the woods.
Liv stepped out of the soft forest floor onto the gravelly road. She saw her Jetta in the distance with only three other cars in the vast parking lot. She walked over and unlocked the car door. As she slipped into the seat, she caught a reflection of her eyes in the rearview mirror. The hollow look did not disturb her. She reached over for her cell phone and dialed 911.
“911, what is your emergency?”
“My boyfriend…”, Liv screamed, “He is laying there…they shot him!”
“OK, hold on, Ma’m. Where are you?’ The dispatcher calmly asked.
“We are…uhmm, I am in the parking lot by the Roosevelt State Park. He is there in the woods, they shot him in the leg!” Liv stuttered in a panicky voice.
“Did you see who shot him, Ma’m?” The dispatcher inquired further.
“No…I mean…I think there were hunters there. Please hurry, he is really hurt!”
“I’ve got ambulance and police on its way already, Ma’m. Now what’s your name?”
Liv hung up. She looked at herself in the rearview mirror again. Empty stare looked back at her.
She hoped that sounded hysterical enough. Her heart beat calmly.
She looked around the empty car. She used to come to Roosevelt Park every week when she was younger, to hide away from her parents’ arguments. She knew it like the back of her hand.
The younger version of herself would have taken a mere 20 minutes to get to the car, maybe 10 if running. This Liv took three deliberate hours. This Liv knew when the hunting season began. This Liv also loosened up the tourniquet after Joe passed out so that a steady stream of blood kept coming out.
He’s dead by now, she thought blankly. She took a deep breath and looked at her hands. She slowly took off the promise ring Joe had given her almost three years ago. She sat motionless, looking through the front window as the sirens drew closer and closer.
The one and only guy swaggers in.
We each have our own make up artist as we perch on the bar stools. Our front is covered with a black plastic bib and we look at our changing images in the mirror illuminated by a row of bright bulbs.
The make up palettes litter the tables with brushes and combs and eye shadow sets. Lipstick and gloss and fake eyelashes teeter on the pile of cosmetics that take up every inch of the available space.
The mirror in front of me reflects the studio. The snow white wall and floor, the camera stands, the video rails, the umbrellas and light filters hanging from the ceiling.
Yards of cables snake their way from the ground up to the various apparatuses.
Dance music blares from the speakers. The air vibrates with anticipation.
You won’t find Karl fanning himself here or Donatella blinding us with her perfectly straight blond hair. You won’t find Gisele or Naomi.
You will find us.
Normal, every day people.
Except that we all had cancer at one point. Some of us are still in treatment.
You can tell by the length of our hair and the freshness of our scars how far we made it.
The Prevent Cancer Fashion Show promo shoot is about to begin.
They call me to the set. My Jessica Simpson strappy heels click clack on the white floor to the designated mark in front of the camera.
“Are you nervous?” The director asks me.
“No, not really”, I swing my arms by my side, “I just don’t know what exactly to do.”
“Do whatever you want.” She and the photographer say.
I stand there. What do I want? What do I want? I have no idea. I have not asked myself what I want for so long, I forgot. I have been doing what I have to in order to survive two cancers. I have been following doctor’s orders and eating and drinking what I should, not what I want.
What do I want? I stand there frozen to the spot. My mind goes blank.
Just think of Tyra Banks I tell myself. But it’s not working. Tyra Banks is beautiful and has long hair. All I have is a one inch growth that sticks out in all directions.
“Just look in the camera and try different poses.” The director helps me.
I start moving a little. My brain battles the paradox of me finally doing what I have always wanted to do but yet doing it because I had cancer and also while I feel the least attractive.
I manage to somewhat satisfy this first portion of the shoot. I walk off the set and another girl walks on. I think she feels similar to me.
We are all stunted in our inhibitions. We are like snails slowly sticking our eyes out. Slowly but surely. She starts moving around too and smiling ear to ear.
The next girl dances to the music, pausing momentarily for the shots.
Another girl makes a hand stand and holds her whole body in the air. She giggles as she does it and I feel my mouth smiling. My eyebrows loosen up, I feel lighter.
As I am getting my make up touched up, I see the guy model bite down on a flower and pose for the picture a la tango dancer. I smile wider.
The next set of pictures are taken on a red Snoop Dog like couch. As per the direction, we pose with an attitude. We can do that one real well. We channel our inner frustration with the cancers and our life. We look pissed off. We look tough. We are the mafia.
I am called to the red couch by myself to take a few more photos. This time I find the poses faster and easier. I am starting to feel good about myself. Maybe I can do this. I just have to forget about my short hair and all the scars crisscrossing my body.
We conclude the photo portion of the shoot with a group dance in front of the white wall. Wind blows in our hair from a huge fan aimed in our center.
The interviews are next.
We feel the seriousness settle over us like a light veil. A silky layer of reality that we have to reveal.
I hear a story of a 20-year old whose tumor was so large, it bulged out of her body and she fainted every time she walked up three stairs.
It is heartbreaking to hear about a Mom in her first trimester getting the cancer diagnosis and then undergoing surgery under local anesthesia only in order to protect her unborn son.
It is hard to come to terms with the fact that a lady with a family history of cancers pulled the short stick too.
It is maddening to hear that a new Mom was shuffled from doctor to doctor, her concerns dismissed only to find out that her cancer spread to the lymph nodes in the meantime.
But for each cancer story, there is also a tale of pushing forward. Starting a wellness company, elevating one’s dream to be an interior designer, or being a cancer navigator for others in need. There is my story of wanting to be a writer. There is a story of a Mom wanting to rebuild her relationship with her son because she missed so many important milestones due to the disease.
We all have this powerful wave in our backs. This rush of foaming water that carries us further and further. We taste life and we see it in more color hues that usual. Something sneaky tried to take it away from us. We are taking it back. We are the models, the writers, the entrepreneurs and we are not giving up.