Notice how cold your hand is. Under the armpit it goes. Enjoy the warmth. Sigh. Shift to the left against the arm of the chair. Your living room is quiet and you gaze into your book. Those plants in the big bay window are leaning toward the sun. Feel startled when your finger presses a hard lump, the size and consistency of a frozen pea. Start to worry when the lump won’t move as you push it with your finger. Try again. Fail again. Let anything but thoughts whiz through your head. Instead, freely allow shock, panic, disbelief, and denial to assume tornado proportions. You can’t possibly have cancer since you just had a mammogram and the doctor said you had nothing to worry about. Every shrink you’ve ever seen warned you not to get anxious, never to panic. Advise yourself to forget all about the lump. Forget your advice. Do you even have enough time to call the doctor? Isn’t her office closed? Focus on the ballet class you’re taking tomorrow morning. Remind yourself that if you call the doctor now, she’ll tell you to come in first thing, and you’ll miss ballet. Put your finger on the lump again. Find yourself unable to read.
The funny version is the part where I tell my husband, whom I trust to stay calm when I can’t, about the lump and he shrugs: “Probably just some fatty tissue.” Like that cyst he had. Do I remember that cyst he had? My heart lightens, because I think he’s right. This gets us to the short version of this story, namely, “He’s wrong.” The vague version comes from the radiologist, who, when I ask whether he’s seeing cancer on that multi-colored three-dimensional ultrasound, wags his head and says, “60%, 40%.” His face seems to say I am rude to ask, although later I think his face really says he doesn’t want me to get mad if he’s not sure and inadvertently he gives me the wrong answer.
Before I came down with cancer, I thought people like me who had breastfed three babies, always eaten steamed vegetables and salads, loved sex, gotten lots of exercise, been honest with themselves and enjoyed their lives, never got that disease. I imagined that overly worried or depressed people, people who pretended to love their husbands or mothers when really, they couldn’t stand them, people who suppressed their true desires: those people got cancer, and I even halfway thought they deserved it. After I got cancer, I decided that a bad divorce couldn’t, after all, have been the source of the cancer that infected, but never conquered, my good friend, who got the disease before me. I imagined she just had a gene that “flipped” as my surgeon said. Before cancer, I loved red wine and coffee. After cancer, I worried about the things I loved. I imagined pomegranate, ginger, garlic, blueberries, and avocado, along with my daily miracle aging pill, Letrozol, would all keep cancer at bay forever. I imagine that still.
After cancer, I felt I’d won, since I got to keep my nipple. After treatment ended, I still had my entire breast, though there were eleven lymph nodes missing. A thin scar decorates the outer rim of the breast, extending into my armpit, but a bikini covers all. On the other side, a thicker scar shows where the metal port used to protrude, like a bolt from Frankenstein’s skull, from beneath my skin. I imagine that might show, slightly, if you were looking for it, under a bikini strap.
You’d never know. The skin near the incision is still numb, and if I press on the area it hurts, but I can raise my hand high, and even extend my arm behind me; months went by before I could do that. Months will go by before the energy I mustered for the treatment returns; after cancer, you cry for no reason; before, you never did.
Melissa Knox’s book, Divorcing Mom: A Memoir of Psychoanalysis, is forthcoming from Cynren Press (Winter, 2019). Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in The Clarion Project, The Offbeat, The Other Journal, Concho River Review, The Wax Paper, The Mom Egg Review, and elsewhere. Find her blog here: http://www.thecriticalmom.blogspot.com