Drugs, Hugs and Losing My Jugs: A Breast Cancer Journal - July 16, 2015 - I Am Resilient
This is the twenty-eighth entry in a 31-day Breast Cancer Awareness Month exclusive series featuring the real journal entries of breast cancer survivor, Jessica Sliwerski. Read the previous entry here.
When I walk into the hospital, I take my hat off.
It is very important to me, despite the niggling anxiety, to celebrate my baldness there. At the hospital, I am amongst my people. I want the other women there to see I am bald, but I am OK.
My hope is that upon seeing me, they may think, “She’s going through this and she is bald, so she has it bad in some kind of way. But she is still smiling, so she must be OK. So maybe I will be OK, too.”
Today as I waited for my doctor, I sat blatantly staring at two children (obviously sisters based on how much they resembled one another) and the way they were fighting. I was completely absorbed in their argument over a Barbie doll and simultaneously wondering, “Are they here with their mother or their grandmother? I hope it’s not their mother,” when another patient approached me.
“They’re funny, huh?” she remarked.
“Hilarious. I’m thinking about my sister and how we used to fight.” Specifically, I was thinking about how the older sister kept fucking with the younger sister and then bossing her around, which was and still is the nature of my relationship with my sister.
“It looks like you’re going through a tough time,” the woman said, looking at my head. This annoyed me because this was not what I wanted people to think when they looked at me, even if it’s the truth because, technically, I am going through a tough time.
“Yup… Almost finished, though,” I said. “Well, I guess I’ll never truly be finished, but you know what I mean…”
“You got that right. You know they have those cold caps now. You can save your hair. They didn’t have those when I did chemo.”
“I know,” I said. “I chose not to. I wanted everything gone.”
“Because I have a baby. Psychologically, I needed to know I killed everything. I would not be able to sleep at night if I kept my hair. I would always question whether I did enough. This is the one time, I hope, that I will ever do chemo. I wanted to go all out.”
I could tell by the look on the woman’s face that she didn’t quite get my point. And I didn’t feel like explaining it further, so I was grateful to hear my name called.
As I was heading back to see my doctor, another patient, a black woman, looked at me and exclaimed, “You look good!” (To be told by a black woman that I look good bald is the compliment of all compliments.)
The woman I had just been speaking to, the one questioning why I hadn’t preserved my hair, chimed in, saying, “Doesn’t she?”
“Thank you!” I said, proudly.
The moment I sat down, I told my doctor about the compliment I’d just received and how good it made me feel. I was particularly proud because the compliment affirmed the whole reason I do not wear a hat at the hospital.
And then I started in on something else related to being bald. (Being bald is something I talk about ad nauseam. My doctor probably thinks to herself, “Christ, here we go again,” and then pretends to listen to me while actually making lists in her head of all the other things she wishes she were doing or what she needs to purchase at the market on her way home.)
“I was thinking about how next Wednesday is my final chemo session. I have a lot of feelings about this. And then I started thinking about how I have less than a week before that session and then about four weeks after that session my hair will begin to grow back. So I only have about five weeks left to be bald. And this makes me really sad,” I said, starting to cry.
“Why does it make you sad?” she asked.
“Because I like being bald,” I said. “I mean I don’t. But I do. I don’t know. I am used to it. I will never in my life be bald again, I hope. I think it’s important for me to be bald and for people to see me bald. I want other women with cancer to not feel alone. I want to put this all out there, like, ‘Yeah, this is happening.’ I want to be like, ‘Fuck you, people, you’re not invincible.’ I don’t know. I can’t really explain it…”
While my friend was shopping for homeopathic hair growth accelerators, I was yearning to remain bald. Yet just a few weeks ago, when Kyle and I were at a concert and he stepped away to get a beer, leaving me alone, I’d had extreme anxiety because I felt like everyone was staring at me.
I’d stood there wishing I wasn’t bald and so obviously going through chemo. I was so overcome with angst I completely forgot I had a beanie in my purse and a hood on my jacket, both of which could cover my head. In my upset, I picked off all of my remaining pink polish from the manicure I’d gotten prior to my very first chemo session — the manicure that needed to last me three months. When Kyle finally returned, I was sitting there, crying.
A week ago, when I noticed my eyebrows and eyelashes thinning and little hairs that could only be from my eyebrows and eyelashes were stuck to my cheek and then stuck to Penelope’s clothes, I had a meltdown, thinking to myself, “I thought losing my hair was rock bottom, but losing my eyebrows and eyelashes will be rock bottom.” (Oddly, my eyebrows and eyelashes have only thinned. They have not completely disappeared, yet.)
Losing my hair was one of the most traumatic experiences in my life, but now I am stressed about my hair growing back. It makes zero sense to me.
I sat there and continued to try to puzzle through my emotions.
“I am vain. I take pride in my appearance. I liked being attractive and my hair was part of that. But when I was young my dad told me, ‘You are a beautiful girl, but that’s not the most important thing,’ and the memory of him saying that to me is so vivid. Like, there are all these other things he said to me over the years that I don’t remember, but that made an indelible impression upon me. And so even though I obsess about my weight and staying fit and having straight white teeth and clear skin and being really put together, I also work to cultivate other things. I am intelligent. I am kind. I am funny. I am a good mother to my baby. I try to be a good wife and a good friend. Because those are the things that actually matter. When I lost my hair, I didn’t feel beautiful anymore. But in the last couple days, all of these people are finding me attractive even though I don’t have my hair. I think it’s my spirit that is attractive. It’s shining through, you know? Like, I am happy in a way I have never felt before. Which is so weird because I had fucking cancer and I am going through chemo right now, but despite this I am happy.”
“Your baldness is a symbol of your resilience,” my doctor commented. I nodded.
She was totally right. “You were resilient before cancer, but you are more resilient now. You were resilient through surgery and chemotherapy. You will still be resilient when your hair grows back. You will take this experience with you into your next phase of life.”
I’ve reflected frequently upon my resilience. It is a characteristic I am particularly proud of. I think about everything I’ve been through in the past few months, or even the past year, or in my life, and then I think, “I am resilient” and I give myself a mental pat on the back.
There is nothing easy about this shit but I am doing it.
Neither cancer nor chemo has broken me; I am happy.
But it never occurred to me that my choice to be bald and my ownership of my baldness is a symbol of my resiliency and that perhaps that’s why I am so reluctant to part with it.
As I walked out of therapy I ran into another doctor, walking purposefully in her green scrubs, through the hospital. From ten feet away I saw her and I was so excited, I called out, “Hey!” It took her a moment to register it was me because she hasn’t seen me bald. Smiling, she approached.
“Let me see you,” she said, taking me in. “You look beautiful!” she exclaimed, her hands on my cheeks. “How are you doing?” she asked with so much compassion and love, which is one of the many reasons I adore her and want nothing more than to basque in her aura.
“I’m OK,” I said.
“You’re almost done, right? Where are you with treatment?”
“Wednesday is my last chemo,” I answered, tearing up.
“I don’t want to be done,” I said.
“What? Why? Yes you do.”
“I don’t want to leave,” I whispered, tears streaming down my cheeks.
“You need to leave. You need to go back to your wonderful life,” she said. “We will still be here. You can come back and visit, you can join the advisory board, you can still be involved. But you have to move on from this and keep living your life.”
The thing is, I feel like it took having cancer for me to truly live my life. And now I do not want to go back to my “other life.”
“You were thrown into cancer and now you are being pushed out,” my massage therapist summarized, aptly describing what I couldn’t quite put into words as I lay crying on her table, again, yesterday. She hit the nail on the head. She is not only highly skilled at rubbing my boobs, but also excellent at deciphering my many, many feelings.
I was hurled, kicking and screaming, into this crazy world of cancer. And I was fucking pissed. But I got used to it. And then embraced it. And then found joy in it. After next Wednesday, round 4 of chemo, I will be done. My life will not entirely revolve around cancer and its treatment. I will be forced to return to “normalcy” and slowly picking up the pieces.
I am sad and I am scared and I am nervous.
But there’s another aspect to this as well.
“You have a way of immersing yourself in people and creating families,” my friend said tonight. “You did it at one hospital. Now you’ve done it at another, assembling this team of amazing doctors. This new family you’ve created has been incredibly loving and supportive during a very difficult time in your life. And now it’s coming to an end. Endings are hard.”
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All photos courtesy of Jessica Sliwerski