The black and white circles and lines create a pattern in front of me, and I can actually hear the text. Meant to be funny, the impact overrides the intent and hits me with three times the weight of the individual sending the message from the depths of space behind it. My body begins an imaginary free fall, launching backward through time recalling every procedure, surgery, blood draw, scan, and infusion. I can feel the hands of doctors and medical students palpating tissue, carefully maneuvering over my body with their own cold fingers, plunging in to the depths of spaces to feel for the things the eye cannot see, my own taking in the faces for indication of the diagnoses not captured in their voices or on paper that I would read over and over again.
I re-read his words forever etched in my conscious, understanding he does not fully comprehend the assault under which my body has endured. I can only imagine that he has succumbed to carefully orchestrated pink ribbon marketing, believing that my diagnosis and subsequent treatment has resulted in a careful cleansing of the cancer resulting in a pristine body as it was before.
My original diagnosis is a story that I’ve heard over and over in the last four years among other women. No family history. No risk factors. I did not drink or smoke and was training for a marathon, five weeks out from race day on the date of my official diagnosis. The morning of the biopsy I logged 15 miles, running an average of 70 miles per week up until the marathon and even until my mastectomy. Two days after what felt like being sawed in half I was walking around the farm on which we lived, noting the simultaneous unauthorized miles and my inability to pull off the tops of Tupperware containers. I remember carefully collecting the drains snaking out from around my body to do basic chores around the house, gritting my teeth and refusing to ask for help.
I am sitting at my latest oncology appointment intended to address the long-term complications from chemotherapy and multiple surgeries, when the doctor asks about my support network, noting that from an outsider’s perspective I was a warrior and blazed through treatment. It feels like the only appropriate response is to utter some battle cry and raise my first. In my head, I can’t help but think this was what I was supposed to do. What everyone I had every known had done, which was to put our heads down and soldier on. Her counterpart thumps on my kidneys as I grind my teeth together and exhale against the pain, and she asks the question I’ve often wondered but never dared to speak aloud as they ask me to lie back and examine the eight inches of scars across my chest. Quiet hands note the raised scars on my abdomen and ask about the liposuction and reconstruction, asking the question aloud again, ‘how are you with the new normal?’
It is then that I sit up, or as straight as I can with the pain I don’t talk much about radiating from the top of my neck, webbing out through my kidneys, and down to my lower back. I explain that I don’t embrace that phrase. Nothing about this body is normal. As if on cue, the gown falls open and I want to laugh at the absurdity of the situation. The three doctors look at me and I stare back, almost in defiance. The quiet in the room is overwhelming and the words from the text days before re-appear in front of my eyes once more in that moment. I am sitting half naked in front of strangers, learning about all of the things that my body is no longer supposed to be able to do and being asked about embracing ‘the new normal’, thinking about a text from someone who does not know my body but was more than willing to give me advice. In that moment, all I can think is “fuck it.”
Pulling the gown around me a bit tighter, I decline further testing. I nod politely at the suggestion of yoga, knowing I am far too energetic for it. I am handed a list of “mindfulness” classes offered at the hospital, noting to them that it is a 75-minute drive which seems to contradict the idea that I should be finding more time for me. Like the well-meaning advice received from most people who do not live in a body that has been hacked to bits and put back together like Humpty Dumpty, turned into a walking Chernobyl, and spit back out into society and expected to function, I am tuning out the doctors who are offering additional suggestions of activities in which I will never engage. Because I don’t have to. My mind drifts to a race in June and I think about the path through the woods on this course and daydream about evergreen trees instead. I am roused from my introspection by the question of whether I should be running as much as I do according to the data in the chart. I ask if the numbers would look the way they do if I hadn’t been running. It is quiet again and my gown has once more fallen open.
Looking down, I see the scars. My port scar that other cancer patients have acknowledged in quiet solidarity. I see the scars across my breasts and the way in which this part of me will never look as it did before cancer, or as I would imagine someone else would expect it to look. They will never conform to what is “normal”. This body is not normal. But it never was. Because there is no such thing.
Without thinking, I look down to my left wrist and see the tiny evergreen tattoo etched just off to the side and smile as I see it move as if holding itself against the wind with each beat of my pulse. My heart opens up remembering walking in the snowstorm and gazing across the river to take in the simplicity of the moment just before entering the shop to sit for this piece, not bothering to explain to anyone the significance of the evergreen or its placement. I think about the importance of no longer caring what anyone would think or asking for permission when the consequences don’t affect others. It was a first step in truly accepting what has happened to my body. More importantly, it is a symbol for withstanding the onslaught of what felt like a thousand winters and remaining upright. Tattered in some places, it remains exquisite. Not everyone has to admire it, and I’m okay with that. It is mine, and I appreciate and love it for the things that it continues to do, far beyond the confines of society’s expectations.
It is for me and only for me. Like this body that has endured more than most and every day agrees to give more. There are no words that contain it, and there never will be.
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