Sunday, October 16, 2011

I cried because I had no shoes, then I met a man who had no feet. . .

and then I laughed really hard. (Last part courtesy of "Strangers with Candy.")

In all seriousness, the original quote about suffering and perception being relative is something I've been grappling with recently. Since I started this blog and began chronicling the ups and downs of trying to beat cancer, I have received many messages from people sharing that my diagnosis has forced them to take a good look at their own struggles and put their troubles into perspective. In fact, most of my life, I feel that I've been the person that makes other people feel better about their own lives. Trouble with your relationship? "Well, at least you're not Melissa." Issues with your health? "Just thank God you don't have anything as bad as Melissa." Family issues? You get the picture. In one of my English classes a couple of weeks ago, I was writing an assignment on the board and different students began a debate over which one was more tired. "I'm more tired because I had to get up early." "No, I'm the most tired because I have P.E. and soccer practice today." This went on for a few minutes, and, finally, I couldn't take it anymore. I turned to face them and said with a grin, "I'm tired, and I have cancer. I win. Debate finished. Let's move on." Most kids just stared at me. A few returned my sleepy smile. The who's got it worse game is one I've nearly always won. So much so, that friends have shown me off to others as a freak example of what can go wrong in life. You think your story's bad? You haven't heard about Melissa. This voyeuristic attention gives me both a bizarre sense of pride and, also simultaneously, makes me resentful. It's not always fun being a poster child for the "it could be worse" campaign.

A couple of weeks ago, I went to a support group meeting for young people with cancer. There were five other young (under forty) cancer patients and survivors in various stages of different cancers and treatment. I sought out this particular group because I've been surrounded by the elderly in every single doctor's office waiting room (and, trust me, I've been in a lot of waiting rooms). It is disheartening and frustrating to walk into a doctor's office and have each and every graying head turn to stare at you as if you've just stepped off a spaceship. When they realize that I am the one going through treatment and I'm not there with a grandparent, they gawk unabashedly. Even my surgeon's nurse was acutely aware of this, she warned me not to attend any regular breast cancer support groups because I'd be surrounded by older women talking about their grandchildren. And, while dealing with the possibility that I may end up infertile because of my treatments, the prospect of hearing patients talk about their grandchildren makes me want to jump out the nearest window.

So, I joined the young people's group, hoping to find others with whom to commiserate. Everyone there was kind, reflective, and accepting; each one was also an all-star player of the "it could be worse" game. There was a man whose head was half-shaved and bore a giant curling incision from the brain surgery that he'd had two weeks before. He is currently dealing with his second recurrence of a brain tumor that cannot be fully excised from his brain. So, he waits, trying each new trial that comes along and crossing his fingers that something will shrink it. Another man, a single father of a three-year-old, has a rare blood cancer that he's been treating with crippling chemotherapy. Oh, and did I mention he's unemployed? Sitting next to me was a woman, my age, who has had three different kinds of cancer in her life, two of them resulting from the chemo and radiation she received for the first cancer. And, the previous week, she was hit by a car while riding her bike home from work. Take a couple seconds to digest that life story. Yet another woman suffers from chronic pain, a side effect of her radiation treatment four years ago.

After hearing each of their stories, I felt silly recounting the details of my little tumor. Yes, I have stage II breast cancer, which was taken out through a partial mastectomy. And, yes, I will have to be treated through radiation therapy then five years, yes, five crappy years, of hormone therapy. However, I left the group that night feeling blessed as well as depressed. Yes, I have cancer, but it won't kill me. And no, I may not be able to have children, but at least I have a job and a place to live. Their stories also made me fearful of what is yet to come. Will I have chronic pain from my radiation treatment? Will I get a recurrence, too? Is it possible that my cancer treatments will kill the cancer now but wind up giving me a different cancer years from now?

Many people fall back on cliches to explain the obstacles that face us every day, but I just can't stomach another "everything happens for a reason" or "things will turn out okay." You know what? It may not be okay. And what could possibly be the reason that one sweet young woman had to fight through three different types of cancer before she turned thirty? Yet through all of my struggles, one cliche does still apply - the old, I-had-no-shoes adage. That group reminded me that though I may have no shoes right now, I've still got my feet. And, though I may have a life that inspires others to feel better about their own lives, that's not necessarily a bad thing. I think I can live with being an inspiration.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

"I guess every superhero need her theme music."

I agree, Kanye, and that's why I've decided to put together a CancerGirl soundtrack including all of the songs that would be the perfect backdrop to kicking some bad guy ass.

"Cochise" by Audioslave

The magic of this song lies solely within the first minute. The buildup between the quiet chaos that begins the song to the screaming lead guitar that joins the building crescendo 48 seconds later is perfect superhero intro music. I remember thinking the first time I heard the song that the lead guitar should signal a tough protagonist's slow-mo "don't-step-outta-line-or-I'll-kick-your-ass" walk out of the foggy darkness of some back alley. Very Christian Bale First Knight vibe but with a chick in thigh-high black leather boots. You get the idea.

"Boys Wanna Be Her" by Peaches

As soon as I thought of CancerGirl, I thought of this song. It's on the soundtrack to Whip It, a movie about a girl joining a roller derby team. It's perfection for superhero status. Lyrics, pounding drums, ragged guitar, panting . . . yes, I said panting. Check it out. "You've got them all by the balls." All girls should love this song.

"Le Disko" by Shiny Toy Guns

I love me some Shiny Toy Guns, especially four years ago. Futuristic superhero? Makes me think of Janet Jackson from the "Scream" video she did with Michael. "Hold on to me, pretty baby, if you wanna fly." I feel like this could also be a laser tag team's theme song. Maybe not be as cool as some other songs I have listed, but I'm sticking with it.

"Supermassive Black Hole" by Muse

While listening to this, you should probably be wielding a supermassive black whip, yes?

"Temptation Waits" by Garbage

"I'll tell you something. I am a wolf, but I like to wear sheep's clothing." Shirley Manson. Now, that's a tough chick. This whole album is unbelievable.

"Teeth" by Lady Gaga

My favorite on The Fame Monster. Stomping and clapping. Get it, Gaga.

"Kiss With a Fist" by Florence + the Machine

Whenever I hear the opening lines, I feel the need to grab the nearest breakable object and throw it as hard as I can against the wall. Needless to say, show caution when choosing where to listen.

"Rock Star" by N.E.R.D.

If you need to feel like a badass, play it. Period.

"The Jump Off" by Lil' Kim

"I Just Wanna Love U (Give It 2 Me)" by Jay-Z

I believe that every woman needs a Strut Song. A Strut Song is a piece of music that instantly inspires you to stand a little straighter, raise your chin, and narrow your eyes. In short, a song that makes you feel like you are the hottest creature that has ever walked this earth. I put these two together because they are my favorites.

"Power" by Kanye West

Thanks for the blog title. Yes, his ego is more inflated than a hot air balloon, but a superhero needs a superhealthy ego.

"Violet" by Hole

Live Through This is included in my list of the top five albums of all time. It's incredibly gritty and angry, and as far from "ladylike" as you can get. Ms. Love in all of her bruised, baby-doll-dress-wearing glory. It also happens to be my favorite "I'm going to scrub this toilet till it shines like it came from Tiffany's" song. Nothing beats angry cleaning music. And, nothing beats the line, "If you live through this with me, I swear that I would die for you." CancerGirl thanks you, Courtney.

I'd love to hear what would be your choice for superhero theme music. What songs should I add to my playlist?

Stefanie LaRue - an inspirational survivor

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Lumpy - the disfigured eighth dwarf?

About three weeks before I was scheduled to have surgery on the tumor in my breast, I found another lump. Running my hands over my middle and lower back, I caught a round bump about the size of the tip of my little finger. I didn't quite know what to think of it. It was only palpable in certain positions, and it seemed to be inside of me, not a simple cyst in my skin.
Can this be canceritis? I thought. "Canceritis" is an obsession with looking for lumps on your body that is a common affliction among cancer patients. Totally understandable, not at all helpful.
I didn't say a word for weeks, wanting to spare friends and family members the news that I had a new lump. I could hear the chatter, "Geez, all Melissa does now is talk about her lumps! She's such a downer!" Seriously, though, I was especially worried about freaking out my mom. I'm sure it was hard enough for her to go through the process of finding out that the first one was cancer; I didn't want to bring up a second one.
As the weeks passed by, the lump weighed on me. If I could grow one cancer, why not another? Was it a metastasis? Why is my body failing me?
Thinking I could not take another day without knowing what it was, my oncologist sent me to have a fine needle aspiration (biopsy). Used to all of the needles, I lay down in front of the doctor, submitting to being stuck one more time.
In the past two months, my body has not felt like my own. It has belonged to the imaging machines, the endless pricks of needles, the sterile hands of doctors. It has become everyone else's property it seems. You know the "community chest" cards in Monopoly? Well, that's what my chest has become. The UCSF Breast Care Center's community chest. Oh look, I've landed on that space again! What does this card say? An ultrasound? Another MRI? Could it be another radioactive injection? Biopsy? Definitely no "won second prize in a beauty pageant" card here.
The lump turned out to be a lipoma, or a benign fatty tumor. Interestingly, my dog Winnie has about ten of them all over her body, and I now joke that my tendency to call her "Lumpy" has been the reason that she can now consider her mom "Lumpy" too.
In addition to my new lipoma, I have two big lumps beneath my incision scars. Though my surgery went well and the incisions healed nicely, the unexpected chunk of scar tissue just under the surface is impressive. Before my surgery, I was surprised at how worried I became thinking of the possible disfigurement from having part of my breast cut out. Would I be able to feel comfortable looking at myself again? Would someone else feel comfortable looking at me? The fears struck me as superficial, but they ran so deep I couldn't ignore them. Like most women, I've struggled with body image issues, but, as I've gotten older, I've come to accept or even be proud of my body. With all its faults, it's still given me the greatest gifts: to walk, run, dance, cry, laugh, play with my dogs, hold the hands of loved ones, embrace my friends. Until recently, I didn't fully understand how much I've truly loved it, and how much beauty it possesses.
When I lived in State College, there was a particular big, old oak tree, which stood at an intersection on campus, that I'd pass on the way downtown. Each time I'd get stuck at a red light, I'd study it. The trunk split into two like a wishbone just above the ground: one section growing into the yard behind it, the other trying to reach out over the intersection. At some point, years before I first noticed it, the section of truck growing out into the intersection was sliced off completely. Over the years, the yard side of the tree flourished while the naked trunk gradually began to cover the wound with its bark. The sharp circle of the sliced trunk was enveloped by the soft curve of its protective cover; slowly but surely, it was trying to heal itself. The tree's effort to mend always struck me as beautiful, miraculous. Here at this busy intersection full of speeding cars, honking horns, and a haze of invisible toxic exhaust sat a tribute to the adapting, evolving power of nature.
I don't specifically remember any of the other oak trees on campus, though I saw them all countless times: walked by them, sat under them, was blessed by their shade. But I remember the one that was special because of its scar, because of its effort. It wasn't beautiful in spite of it; it was beautiful because of it.
Throughout this process, I've been reminded that our bodies are miracles. Our scars are beautiful. And resilience is vastly more interesting, more powerful, more inspiring, and more lovely than perfection.