Wednesday, November 14, 2012

An alien in between

Before I came in to hospital I unsubscribed from the breast cancer forum, somewhat disappointed. Very disappointed. Perhaps I should have realised that cancer doesn't change who people are, and so it would be pretty much the same as any other 'women-only' conclave- infected with subtle politics and unwritten rules, unforgiving and a touch caustic if you unwittingly stepped on toes.

Not a place where I would ever fit in with my peers. I am, simply, too frank for most women. Mostly, women like to maintain a patina of delicacy- whether or not it's functional.

And so my forthright way of dealing with my disease isn't right for everyone. I see that. Lots of people cope with their terror by skimming round the edges of things, trying not to look into the abyss. 

But me? I have to stand on the brink and assess the rocks below. It's who I am.

What got me in trouble over there was referring too bluntly to the trajectory of my treatment options. 'Chopped up, poisoned and burned alive' was a little too accurate for some female sensibilities, but a moment of wobbly-kneed weakness and my need to look directly at what I feared brought me to share the most gut-level description of what was about to happen to me.

Hell, surely nobody with the least bit of imagination can look at pictures of mastectomy scars or read lists of chemo side effects and accounts of blistered nipples without realising that the immediate future of the cancer sufferer is going to be bloody confronting. If I hadn't looked hard at all of that before I got on the treatment conveyor belt, I really don't know how I would have coped with the view in the mirror yesterday, when I finally made it as far as the bathroom.


From the neck up, you see, I still look like me. Hey, if anything, I look better than usual; being waited on hand and foot agrees with me. 

From the waist down, well, meh- but it's all pretty familiar too.  

In between, the aliens have landed.

All the proportions have changed on one side of my body. What used to be the widest portion of my anatomy is suddenly the narrowest, giving me a peculiarly pot-bellied, little-old-man shape. The left side of my chest isn't just flat- it looks concave, a crinkled pink moon crater between my jaunty chin and my broad ribs. Suddenly, I'm triangular; my chest seems to shrink into my shoulders.

ET, phone home.

Lifting my arm, I see an emaciated Biafran armpit. There's no flesh in there, nothing at all to spare. It seems bottomless. 

Who is that person in the glass?

Unwelcome words drift through my head. Ugly is the least of them. Deformed is rejected by my kind heart as too cruel to use on the stranger in the mirror, too crude to associate with my beloved Dr G's handiwork.  He is a master of his craft.

This, I know, is the very best anyone could do for that poor creature over there. 


Over the course of the day I look at it again and again. The dressing comes off, and I notice some subtleties that seem comforting. My skin isn't stretched drum-like across the bones beneath. There is some room for salvation. 

Perhaps, if the radiotherapy is not too savage- perhaps there's a chance to build a new curve there, to stretch that little pocket of healthy skin into something softer, something rounder. I don't ask for confirmation of this. I need the belief, for now.

In the meantime, I acknowledge the stranger again and again. Somehow, I have to learn to accept this alien in between. I need to see it as part of me, not as some cruel distortion in the hall of mirrors.

My shirt hangs strangely. I look like my grandmother at 80, wizened and sunken.


For all the strangeness before me, I feel no real distress. I have dealt with being chopped up. I looked it in the eye, well before it jumped out of the mirror to hurt me. I took its power away.

And so I am detached from the strangely mangled creature in the mirror. Looking down at the damage as I lie in bed, I acknowledge that part of me is no longer beautiful- but it doesn't matter. Ten more cancerous nodes were found amongst the 22 taken from my armpit. This is what had to happen. It was never, really, a choice. 

I will find ways to hide my strangeness. I will pull your eye away from it. You won't even see it, I promise you, unless you're looking for it- unless you're strong enough to face the truth of it. I will look forward to the challenge of conquering it; when the time comes, I'll trust in Dr Goodguy's brilliance. He'll find a way to make me feel less strange. 

But for now, I won't pretend it's not ugly, and I won't pretend nothing's changed. And neither, my friends, will you. Promise me that.


  1. At first reading this candy i was beginging to well with tears, but then something in your words (and beautiful writing at that) made me think. Narh...Fuck that!. Im not wasting my tears on that freeloading son of a bitch.As a freind i would never dare to pretend that everythigns ok. Cos your right, this is shit, beyond shit, its something that literally has taken a piece of you, and the only thing that matters is that it never took the part of you that would ever begin to define you. You still have your integrity, your courage, your wise words, and the power and voice of the woman you are and always will be.
    lisa xxxxx

    1. Give that lady a banana. Correct response again! ;)

  2. I feel exactly the same as you regarding the BC Forum. First I cringed then I was angered when I read one in particular, insulting, judgemental, self righteous post followed by several congratulatory sheep spruiking mush. I thought your posts were refreshingly honest, forthright and a breath of fresh air as I identified with the way you felt and verballed. Bugger this stupid pussy footing around with soothing language crap (after all we are adults, not children) when your life is threatened by an invasive monster you know nothing about or where the hell it came from. This for me is no time for delicacy and sympathy, it is time for action, ideas and aggressive learning. I am a couple of months ahead of you with what appears to be very close to your diagnosis. It suits me to, to confront this “thing” head on with all the vigour, energy and positiveness I can muster, and I am reading you are doing the same. Congratulations on your excellent writing and perceptiveness. You are indeed a woman of substance.

    1. Thank you, Ann. Must admit I didn't read on after getting the general gist of the comments over there- I have no room for that sort of nastiness in my life. I should have known, really, that a cancer forum that didn't even let me say 'fuck' when my pathology came back as a disaster wasn't going to be right for me. ;D

      AND the very best to you in your fight too. Get that bloody Freeloader on the canvas, woman!