Dear Readers: This is a bit of a rant. I hope you enjoy it. If you’re still with me at the end of it, you’ll find my health update there.
Why is it that my first reaction to being diagnosed with breast cancer was shame?
shame. Shame. SHAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAME.
Oh, yes, I was mortified. I wanted to turn off my phone (imagine!), hide in my house (with some of the most beautiful scenery in the world outside), watch a lot of feel-good TV (which never makes me feel good), and NOT. TELL. ANYONE.
“You’re a very private person,” Dreamboat said.
I am not a very private person.
“You will tell people when you’re ready.”
I was never going to be ready. I was a very humiliated person and I wanted to know: Why me?
We could delve into my background for an answer to why I reacted this way. We could even discuss the issue with some of the psychotherapists I’ve seen over the past, say, dozen years—if not for the fact that two out of three of those psychotherapists have died from Metastatic Breast Cancer.
But we don’t have to delve, do we? Because most of you get it, don’t you? Bad stuff happens and we say, “Why me?” We say, “What did I do to deserve the wrath of God/the universe/evolution?”
And then we might say… If you’re me, you might say… I found myself saying, silently:
WHY NOT YOU?
And when I say, “Why not you?” of course I don’t mean you, in the abstract. I mean YOU-the-real-you-instead-of-me-the-real-me.
That’s hideous, isn’t it?
I think it started when I asked Dr. Dear if it was safe for me to eat tofu. At that time—way back in the dark ages of my first diagnosis—2013—there was talk among the medicos and pseudo-medicos online and elsewhere about how soy foods contained estrogens. I had an estrogen-positive (estrogen-consuming) cancer at that time. But tofu was one of my nutritional staples.
“Estrogen in soy foods is probably the least of my worries,” Dr. Dear said. “I worry about my patients who are 50- and 60-pounds overweight, carrying that weight in fat on their arms and waists. That fat has far more estrogen in it than a little tofu.” (She was right, as subsequent studies have shown.)
But for months, I noticed every woman with significant arm fat or a bulge around the middle and thought-assaulted her with, “Why me? Why not you?”
Then, I started thought-assaulting everyone, thick and thin. I was meeting my cohort: women with breast cancer. We were everywoman—every shape, size, ethnicity, and age of woman. Only we were unfortunate us. (“Why us?”) We were not lucky you.
Sometimes I still wonder: why not you?
Though no, I don’t mean Progeny. That’s a given. Or Adorável—Progeny loves and needs her husband. I don’t mean Progeny’s father or Dreamboat, her stepfather. I certainly don’t mean Angela-instead-of-me, or any of my siblings—anyone in my family—or my girlfriends whom I love so dearly, or any of the people who’ve been so kind and helpful or…
You see? If it came right down to it and I could choose to trade places with someone else—to give this lethal dragon of Metastatic Breast Cancer to you-Dear-Reader-instead-of-me, I wouldn’t do it.
Only now that I’ve got all this shame and embarrassment out on the table, let’s turn the damn table and talk about how it feels when I get the question: why you?
“How do you think this happened to you?” people ask, or “Why does your cancer keep coming back?” tilt of head, bat of eyelashes. I get a question like that every once in a while—i.e. last week—and I do not appreciate it.
The thing is—when someone who is not sick asks someone who is sick why the person who is sick is… sick, the real question is, “What can I do to make sure I don’t get sick, like you?” Or, put another way: “You have somehow attracted the wrath of God/the universe/evolution. By pretending I care about you, let’s see if I can get you to tell me how to avoid making the same pathetic mistake.”
I have dwelt in this land, Dear Readers, this Why-I-Got-Cancer Land. It takes up real estate in my brain. It is not friendly territory. So, now I’m going to take you on a trip in there.
Don’t eat the tofu.
Why I Got Cancer
I grew up on processed foods of all kinds: frozen, boiled in bags (plastic bags!), formed into imitation potato chips, packaged as cookies, etc. You know that glamorous-looking divorcee down the street when you were growing up? The one who fed her kids TV dinners (your mother saw them in the divorcee’s shopping cart) so she’d have more time to do her hair, watch afternoon TV, and try not to have a mental breakdown wondering what was going to become of her with four fatherless children and no child support because her ex got depressed reading Moby Dick in grad school and ran away to the east coast? That was my mom.
We were also early adopters of toys you could make at home. Some of them were “edible.” My brothers and I (not Angela, not my baby sis) ate them. How we survived that alone is a miracle.
Trans fats : unctuous mayonnaise, crispy crackers. (Oh, the deliciousness of the truly original Wheat Thin!) I ate a lot of trans fat before it became “banned” fat.
I ate a lot of candy—mostly when I was thin, when it probably mattered more, because it was a larger part of my nutritional intake. (Though: operate on that theory at your own peril.)
From 1997 until 2009, I was addicted to cough drops. Cough drops also are candy.
I drank a lot. Of alcohol. A lot. When I was in my teens and 20s and 40s. (Do the research. So many studies suggest that alcohol is seriously bad for women’s health, especially in terms of cancer incidence. Others say, pshaah—the stats are inconclusive. Those who say the stats are inconclusive… drinking on the job, do you think? Okay, I did not just write that.)
Moving on from food and drinks, I used:
I spent most of my days in front of a computer, then a tablet, then a cell phone—from 1991 until… I sat down in front of this laptop tonight.
I ran with a cell phone tucked into my running bra.
I left my first husband. Yes, I believe that karma can be carcinogenic. I know that doesn’t gel with my avowed atheism but there you go. I’m complicated. Being “complicated” is probably carcinogenic too.
That’s only the beginning, my dears. The more research you do, the more reasons you, I mean I, have to fear past choices and behaviors. Another time, I will tell you about the negative health effects of having negative health—like anemia and neutropenia. Tonight, I’m stopping here because we’re both exhausted, aren’t we? Shame is carcinogenic. Missing sleep is carcinogenic, too.
I have certainly never met anyone so full of shame as the gentleman I once helped to file a Social Security disability application based on his diagnosis of/medical history with what he insisted we call “chest cancer.” One per cent of all breast cancers befall men. It’s a tiny number compared with the incidence among women (268,600 new cases expected in 2019). This guy certainly wasn’t at greater risk for breast cancer because he was a guy. But guess what? Behind those hairy nipples, men have breast tissue, too. I imagined that this guy thought he got “chest cancer” by being less than sufficiently masculine. I don’t know. He died before I could talk to him again.
I will add this to my Don’ts List: don’t ever ask me why I think I got breast cancer, or why it came back. YOU, Dear Reader, needn’t ask me for sure. I have given you the answer. It’s on this page. See it? Right there. See?
No, me neither.
Health update: As you may remember, I had a first treatment with a new chemotherapy drug last week: Doxil. And I’m still feeling unscathed. Since I’m a worrier, I worry that a lack of side effects means the drug isn’t taking effect. Despite the fact that my doctors tell me (and so does my internet research) that you don’t need side effects to prove you’re getting primary effects. If I could set my worries aside, I would celebrate. “Glory Normalujah!” I would shout. “I feel normal today!” Say it with me, folks.