By Judith Basya
Though Denial may present gradually depending on how and when you discover your lump, it begins in earnest when the radiologist reading your mammogram looks at you funny. Nah, it’s nothing, I’m fine, you think while waiting three-to-five business days for the biopsy results. Your aunt, two great-aunts and three cousins have all had breast cancer, but they’re not immediate family. The lump must be Cheerios that went down your bra the wrong way or something—the kids really need to start pouring their own cereal.
Denial is aided by distraction: Your phone dies—I mean breaks, sorry—a bird poops on your arm (when you can’t shower for forty more hours after the biopsy), your daughter gets bitten by a dog, and you get a ticket for that illegal left turn you’ve been making daily. You’ve practically forgotten about the lump when you scramble to your follow-up and the word malignant hits your eardrum, followed by other scary words such as invasive, surgery and chemotherapy—honestly, though, why are you surprised? Because tomorrow’s your birthday?
While the news tries to sink in, you’re busy making appointments for tests and with specialists, which isn’t as straightforward as it sounds. The surgeon won’t see you until you’ve had an MRI, but you can’t schedule an MRI until your insurance company OK’s it. Though nobody doubts they will OK it, that’s how these places work and offering to pay upfront won’t help. It’s byzantine. It’s insulting. Welcome to cancer.
Seriously? Four hours and thirteen phone calls to schedule one goddamn MRI? And the earliest available slot is in three weeks? You want to know if the cancer has spread beyond your breast, and it’s like they’re waiting for it to spread so they can be certain. If in the midst of all this your partner isn’t responding pitch-perfectly to your ranting texts, remember s/he isn’t to blame for our abysmal medical system.
If you’re lucky—statistics are on your side, at least—when you know more about your particular cancer this low point will pass. But for now you have to live with it—live with the idea of death, ha, ha, the human condition. This isn’t the everyday version. Think Thelma and Louise going over the cliff, except it’s dark, raining and the cliff is indeterminate.
Why you? Because you should have eaten better. Because you should have taken more vitamin D. Because you enjoy a glass of wine. Because you smoked in college. Because you were one of those Moms who pulled her shirt down from the top when breastfeeding in public, shame on you. Because you don’t always buy organic. Because after a religious upbringing you became an atheist. Because you are riddled with guilt.
Go ahead and develop all those healthy habits you regret not adopting sooner. It’s never too late, plus it affords you a sense of control.
When you realize your sense of control is a fallacy.
WHAT TO TELL THE KIDS/PARENTS/BOSS/FRIENDS/
Fallacy notwithstanding, you do what you do and hope for the best—that’s the lesson of this next phase, unless you’re an extravert social media addict who enjoys unsolicited advice from far-flung acquaintances, in which case skip ahead. If you’re an introvert, have young children or fragile parents, or maybe you simply have too many toxic detox-pushers in your life, you’re not going to post “My breasts are trying to kill me WTF!!!” on Facebook. Obviously. Less obvious is how to break the news to the right people while keeping it two degrees away from the wrong ones.
WHOM TO COMPLAIN TO
Just because your friends are aware you have cancer doesn’t mean they’re prepared to listen to you whine about it, unfortunately, or that they’re capable of listening without making assumptions based on what they’d rather hear. Learning to interpret social cues in a whole new way—if you care—will be an ongoing process, but this brief quiz can help you get started:
1. You’re allowed to complain in public if:
a. You’re asked a general question such as, “How are you doing?”
b. You’re asked a personal question such as whether you plan to freeze your eggs.
c. You’re offered a drink and could use one but chemo has rendered you alcohol-intolerant.
2. You’re allowed to complain on Facebook:
a. As much as you want because the algorithm blocks negative posts from other people’s feeds.
b. As part of a political rant about healthcare, marijuana, reproductive rights, gay rights, etc.
c. In the form of a humblebrag, i.e. “I’m honored to be chosen by cancer for the challenge of digging for strength I had no idea I possessed.”
3. Name a single good thing about breast cancer:
a. Self-tweezing eyebrows.
b. Handicapped parking!!!
c. You aren’t dead yet so really, it’s all good.
Fretting about cancer’s non-lethal indignities beats panicking about dying—but it’s hard to appreciate that when you haven’t slept in however many nights since your diagnosis. Exhaustion should have tipped the scales by this point; instead, you’re mentally trying on wigs at three AM, cursing the gender bias that allows men to shave their heads and be done, plus you’ve got an Alanis Morissette earworm because isn’t it ironic that you’re going to bed earlier (see: Bargaining) only to spend more hours lying awake.
When your treatment starts messing with your hormones, Insomnia will be even worse, so get used to it.
There’s always been somebody smarter, prettier or wealthier than you, but now, ugh, healthy people! Healthy-seeming people, anyway, shopping for groceries, sipping lattes, imagining they’ll make it to retirement age while you wonder if you’ll outlive your dog, let alone be around to play with your grandchildren. This blanket envy of strangers is ridiculous, of course, but it preserves your empathy for your new friends on the cancer ward or in your cancer support group whose prognoses are direr.
Acceptance is simply a matter of recognizing that your old life, the one with spare vacation days and illusions of infallible health, isn’t coming back. That’s all. It’s not your job to don a pink ribbon and smile for the front fold of those pamphlets at the mammography center. Your new life may eventually resemble the former, improve upon it, or head straight downhill from here. Or you might get a reprieve only to have cancer return. Whatever your future holds, you’ll be aware of the disease constantly, not just in October.
Judith Basya writes the “What’s Wrong With You” advice column for HeebMagazine.com, where she’s Literary Editor. Her book reviews and random musings have also appeared in the Village Voice, LA Weekly and the Forward, among others. More of her thoughts about cancer can be found in the anthology Shivering in a Paper Gown, and she’d be thrilled if you followed her on Twitter@JudithBasya.