Bird with a wire – Lumpectomy and a stage IV breast cancer patient

Poetry Foundation

I grow old … I grow old …
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.

Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?

T.S. Eliot  The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock

Where there’s a will there’s a way to get a tumor removed. After hearing one too many times,  “we don’t operate on metastatic cancer patients,” I got my way. At 9:15 a.m. on a frantic and rainy Monday after the thanksgiving holiday weekend, BMWs and a Mercedes spin like empty plates on 85, the 280, the 101. Crashes and minor accidents light up like Rudolph’s nose on GPS screens all over the Bay Area. Still not too late to change my mind. I had an appointment with a knife.

That day I felt triumphantly happy to wait in a room of nervous caregivers and their cared for loved ones with cancer. Wait to get a lumpectomy, which was  more like a mini mastectomy. Goodbye honey, I love you – see you after recovery.

We thought my surgery would take less time and tissue, however my former tumors left corrupted and genetically damaged breast lobes. So, even with clean margins for the the 4mm tumor the surgeon took away for biopsy, still more must be removed. I imagined a pit inside a peach and the radio oncologist agreed with the spirit of my metaphor.  Except the peach grew in my dark breast, rather than on a tree. Only money grows on trees when you are diagnosed with cancer.

My surgeon used a beacon of sorts for navigation, in the form of a very thin wire inserted into my breast using radio mammography and a good amount of numbing agent. The onco radiologist had inserted the wire while I underwent what should prove to be my last mammogram. I don’t recall the numbing cream or the strength she used, but no matter. Now a wire extended from my right breast like a bombs fuse waiting to be lit. I waited for about another hour after the wire insertion for my surgeon, Dr. Tran.

He’s an affable person and confident doctor, who instilled in me feelings of relief rather than  feelings of fear. (The first surgeon with whom I met months prior to D-day, actually had the audacity to ask why I was there in his office since, “we don’t operate on stage IV cancer patients.” He never made the team. He’s cut immediately in the first round as the odds against the procedure becane tougher to beat.

Patient. Or a person who waits.
A woman without patience makes an awfully poor patient. However, this impatient patient won the battle against the oncological team who abided by the predetermined treatment bible locked in some oncology sacred text library like the one at Aalexandria to guide medical practitioners on what can and cannot be done with all metastatic patients. “Biblical” may seem somewhat overstated, yet I assure you, somewhere in a dark room under a thick museum grade glass cover, sits a jewel encrusted tome with instructions for medical personnel only. We all might consider choosing those willing to simply listen to our strategies and our desired potential outcomes. These brave souls who I recruit for my battalion must fight along side me in battles I can win. But they as I know, these are battles as parts of a losing war. A disI can never truly conquer. They are special ops forces. Doctors who missed that part of the oncological specialty curriculum. Doctors willing to listen to patients as human beings with real blood and real pain. You know, like individuals.

When I  entered metastatic pergatory, I found that treatments come and go in the cancer high fashion set. Metastatic cancer patients become the happy bad voluntary lab rats for the next new wonder drug and various adjuvant  treatments.

I really love your peaches.
As my anesthetic wears off and I drowsily come into consciousness,I laid in recovery, my mouth dry and sticky like my brain. For some unknown reason, I began cracking bad jokes with the nurses. Nurse Sandy gets a no arms no legs at the beach joke and doesn’t find it in any way at all funny, yet the others snickered and let me in on her emotionally serious nature. Feeling like I just kicked the Easter bunny into the next state over, I attempted to balance the scale  and even the score with a self deprecating joke on myself. I quipped, “what do you call a girl with one boob? Ilene.” A pun. Not a great pun, but still.

Funny day. On the way home in the car, the Steve Miller Band song, The Joker, came on the radio. If you’re not familiar there’s a great line followed by a guitar wolf whistle that goes, “I really love your peaches wanna shake your tree.”

Well, for that day anyway,  maybe one peach would be enough to soothe my appetite for a cure.


Want vs. Need – to be human is to need

My hope: someone else reads this and realizes others besides themselves feel the heaviness of the life they’ve led and the weight of what the future holds and finds they’re not alone… Reads this with the comfort that if there is just one person who feels this way means others, too, share their pain. After reading this they go on through the day knowing other people who “get it.” Or perhaps the fact deepens the wellspring of hope out of your physical reach. But it’s okay for the “strong.” The ones who people depend on not those who depend on others, our shoulders broaden with time like the trunk of a tree. Ah, it’s all that, and not simple.

Sometimes fear rules over love. Living in fear brings a darkness. The kind of dark without any light at all. The darkness of the universe. Living with love in your soul brings light, and the light brings peace to your soul.

Light and love bring peace and knowledge. Knowledge of many kinds – of the self, of others, and a broader wisdom beyond temporal time – yesterday, the here and now, tomorrow. Light illuminates Spiritual knowledge. As overwhelming as it may seem, actually it’s quite peaceful. It’s knowledge of the fleeting nature of suffering. Knowledge of our short, blink of an eye length of time here we only experience a few moments to deeply interact with other human consciousnesses, with their own crosses to bear, their own fears, and shadows cast by their souls between light and darkness.  It’s therefore incumbent upon those who found peace in the light to bear a torch or at least light a candle for those who cannot find the way due to unwillingness or in this case death. Whether temporarily or because it’s been so long that they can remember what happiness is like, bringing them strength to pull themselves into the light so they can find love, is necessarily our task.

As an aside, last Friday night at sundown on the Jewish sabbath, I lit six candles – one for each of the good souls responsible for my existence and passing on the responsibility of bringing love into this world. The six candles were for my parents, both of whom I lost very recently, and my four grandparents. Leah Kaminsky nee Fox, my paternal grandmother, died in 1969 of metastatic breast cancer. She died before any of my miraculous and poisonous treatments became available for her. Who knows what my life would have been with her in this world. But one cannot speculate. The universe works always as it should.

I realized after lighting those six yertzheit candles at sundown last Friday, how my Jewish heritage celebrated life, not with food of which so many of us joke, but with light. (They fought us, we won, let’s eat.)

I learnt recently that the Jews view the flame of candles to represent the human body, mind, and spirit. Those are the three colors around the wick of a candle: the blue light closest to the wick that burns the hottest, represents the physical body that requires energy (or food – candles were made from bees wax in long past days); the white light next, representing the mind that’s fueled by the body; and the outer red flame represents the soul’s connection to the body and mind and also the light that creates brightness and connects to everything we know and the unknowable universe.

Remembering that life brings love and fear shrouds us in darkness, I looked through tears at my husband who suffers from depression. He refuses treatment. In my tears I tell him that my struggle with cancer becomes much more difficult when he cannot be with me if he refuses help. He believes it’s not authentic if he gets outside help, yet it’s now been two full years. By doing so I feel like he denies me the joy that would help to keep me alive in good health longer. It’s no secret that stress and unhealthy relationship cause illness.  By withholding treatment he’s withholding love from himself, and from me. I believe in some ways perhaps I am selfish, and that I should depend on myself for joy.

But as human beings we need others. He remarked, “I want you,” – that’s a perception of me as object. We want a car, we want a computer. We need other humans – and that is the definition of love to me. Giving of yourself of love – not only the romantic kind of love, but the love we give of ourselves even when things seem the darkest. I told him I need you – in response.

Another aside (please excuse my ADHD). About six years ago, I had $10 in my pocket, and was living through a very ugly chapter in my life that effected me to the degree of experiencing PSTD. My stepson, then nine years old, tagged along as he always did when he stayed the weekends. There sat a man outside of Whole Foods. He was suffering from bone cancer and could not afford his treatments. He wasn’t lying. You could see his eyes and his body and his shame for needing help from strangers. I gave him the last of the money I had to my name that day. My stepson asked why I gave him that money, and my answer was simply, there is always someone who has life way worse than me.

There but for the grace of god go I.

Live in love and light although today may seem so full of pain. Live knowing that you can be the light for another today when things seem so dark and hopeless to them right now. And know you’re not alone, you are amongst a world of people who will bring light today along with you. My birthday is June 21st – the longest day of the year. Was the universe giving me a big responsibility that day? I must assume if I believe in the human spirit that indeed my task is such. But it’s heavy, my shoulders hurt, and my knees are swollen from the weight. But here I stand, while others cannot even get out of bed today.

No chance at all I’d leave my love in his time of darkness. I’ll help light the hidden path until he takes it.

Fuck cancer. I’m stronger than anything that can be handed this physical self. My tenacity and my humor carry me from test to test. Some I pass, others I fail; yet my life’s biggest test is as long as I can stand here and reach out to others and say, “I need you.”