A Wait Off My Chest

Hi. Welcome to my blog! Kick your shoes off. Sit a spell. Inside the black salt circle probably is best, yeah.

So. How’s the pandemic treating you? That good? Yeah, weird how normal it is, death hovering so near to us at all times, but at least we can get toilet paper now. No ER beds, but hey, I’m an optimist in spite of myself.

Now, I don’t want you to think that this blog is about anything other than chomping at culture with wax vampire teeth, but before I get started on my Octoberween Spooky Szn Binge 2021, I do want to talk about something else first. It’s something that comes up about this time every year whether I want it to or not, and it’s not the Simpsons Halloween Special. [boom tish]

It comes up for two reasons. Well, three, if you count the mysteries of alternate alleles.

  1. October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, the pinkest of holidays.
  2. I was actually diagnosed with Stage III invasive ductal carcinoma in my right breast October 2007.

I haven’t ever written about this, and it’s weird that I haven’t, because I’ve written about a lot of things! I have written about Peter Mark Richman’s character work, gobs upon gobs of horror movies (gobs!), and I’m usually good for a nice long tweetstorm, too. You’d think the cancer would be of pressing relevance. Perhaps I have avoided it? As a very dear friend said to me one October, “Are you aware of your breast cancer?” Fo sho.

Me to my general chestal region

It’s also weird that I haven’t written about it because…while I have indeed seen some shit–hurricane evacuations, battling agoraphobia, hatching a kid–not dying from a stage III cancer is one of my greatest hits so far, although I can’t even really claim it. People who went to school for a long time and obsess on how to keep patients like me from dying, that is to say experts and doctors, the true heroes of our age, saved me, and they did it by throwing every possible treatment at me–radical mastectomy, two rounds of chemo, radiation, even thinking positively. Myself, I’ve always believed that the fact that I started dating my eventual husband pretty much as soon as I got diagnosed had something to do with living through it, too. He made me so happy, sometimes I even forgot about the the 8cm tumor’s palpable spikes under my skin.

Me in 2008, rocking my Ilya look

Anyway. It was a while ago, 14 years now. And that is the real point of this weird, late post about this fundamentally life-shattering, life-affirming experience to start off this blog that is ultimately about how life-affirming and constructive the horror genre can be and is because that, cats and kittens, that is my story, that is my song.

14 years ago, I was walking around with a live grenade in my chest. It was scooped out, but maybe, one day, a fragment of it will finally go off, like one of those mines that get forgotten deep in war zones. Recurrence is most likely within the first five years, but also, the older I get, the more the likelihood of breast cancer. So…I reckon we’ll see.

You know, breast implants generally have a shelf life of about ten years, and I’m going to have to get a new one soon–as soon as the plague abates enough for nonessential surgeries to be scheduled. I was and am terrified of surgery–I mean, who doesn’t love the idea of being intubated, amirite?–but also, at the time of my mastectomy and reconstruction, I had no real expectation I would live long enough to have to worry about it. I just wanted to have a body I felt like was normal, for me, for as long as I had left. I didn’t assume that would be long at all. After all, the cancer spread to my lymph nodes. “Sometimes it comes back along the chest wall,” my surgeon said. Can’t really chop off a chest wall. After I graduated from active treatment into wait-and-see mode and my hair started sprouting again, I was even hesitant to buy expensive hair products, after watching all my Catwalk stuff waste on a bathroom shelf for months, months when the various expenses of treatment meant sometimes going hungry. It was such an act of will when I went for my first actual salon hair appointment. It felt like walking under a ladder.

When I was sick, I remember vividly reading posts from people in a similar situation to the one I was facing, lo, in the days of Livejournal and Myspace. I remember what it meant to read them, how it fed my heart in those long nights and thin grey days. I never received discernible benefit from organizations purportedly formed for patients’ support and defense, but I got a lot of succor from strangers on the internet. And in waiting rooms, I remember encountering older women–women closer to my current age–who were on their second or third bout of fighting their own mutations, but could smile about it and encourage me. That meant a lot, certainly more than any pink ribbon. And that’s the reason I’m honestly ashamed it’s taken me this long to write this.

If you’re reading this and you’re in a similar place, you can survive, too. You will. People do get better from stage III cancers. Another young cancer patient told me that then, and you know, we’re both still alive and cancer-free today. I had all the advantages of living in a rich western country, but also none of them because–and this may be a shock–our healthcare system isn’t very good if you’re not rich. It was a hard, hard time, and I struggled to eat and pay bills, to stay independent, to stay myself. Plus I stopped writing anything at a time when one might think writing would become more important, essential even. Which is also another post.

Take care of yourself. You will get through it. I haven’t told you this for 14 years, but maybe it’s worth waiting this long just so I can finally say it from this particular vantage point. Look at me. Behold not only the mantle of survival on my shoulders, but how careless I am with it. The luxury of forgetting I’m mortal is with me again, though I know I have no right to it. I had estrogen positive cancer in my 20s, and I not only lived, but I had a kid. All that estrogen flowing through my bloated mama body yelling “sooey” to the bad cells that thrived in me once upon a time. The cancer didn’t come back. It might still, but it didn’t. And if/when it does, the medicines and therapies are even better now. 

Me last week, still not dead.

I no longer hesitate to buy expensive shampoo. I didn’t make sure our house (oh, yeah, I got married and bought a house! And then we sold it and I bought another one!) was close to a hospital, the way I was paranoid that our apartments should be nearby, in case I had to go through radiation or chemo again. I do get a mammogram every year and I try to eat well. I really should exercise more. I will. (I can hear my oncologist chanting in my head about the importance of exercise, “Study after study…”) For a long time, probably the first 5 years after treatment, I felt like every four-to-six months might be my last four-to-six months. And yet, for a really long time now, while I respect that cancer could visit again at any time, I no longer expect it. I outlived the cancer and, to some extent, I’ve outlived the dread of it, too.

The best advice I ever got from anyone during that time came from my plastic surgeon. I’m not sure why he brought it up; maybe I looked gloomy, or maybe it was just his convivial nature. He was a very Richard Dawson-y doctor, I have to say, with all of the kissing banditry that implies. His office was very, very high up in one of the towers in downtown Dallas, and as I sat on the examination table, contemplating whether I wanted him to try to repurpose belly fat for my breast reconstruction, he seemingly changed the subject. “You think you’re bulletproof when you’re young,” he said. He told me that if I looked out onto the street, I would see all these people walking around, and that some of those people were walking around with cancers and other things wrong with them, never knowing. He told me that just because I had this diagnosis, I was no more mortal than any of them. And you know, I wasn’t. And I’m not. And neither is anyone reading this.

(Of course, if you don’t have cancer, I hate to tell you, it also means you are every bit as mortal as a stage III cancer patient, but maybe this year, of all years, you’re hip to that as well.)

That doctor, by the way, died of lymphoma himself several years ago. He is missed. He saved my life, too, and more than that, that little moment saved my living when I needed it most.

Anyway, I just wanted to finally get that off my chest. Boom tish.

As we inaugurate a new spooky season, truly a momentous one as we all live and work through an actual plague, a plague that has taken so many of my friends before their time and probably yours, too, we should acknowledge that the veil between the living and the dead is always gossamer. We are mortal every morning and every night, and the miracle and the madness and the necessity is that we must forget it. What is special about this time of year is that this is the time we purposefully lift our heads, haul up the plastic demon clowns from Spirit, and look through that veil, celebrate that veil, dance through it like it’s a beaded curtain. In years like this, that may seem like inviting the wrath of the unseen, but you know, the unseen surely gets where we’re coming from. This is all so necessary, too.

There are lots of gory details about my own treatment I could document and share, and maybe one day I will, but what I want to offer as comfort now is how much I have forgotten. How much I have been permitted to forget. People do get better from Stage III cancers. People get better from lots of things.

You’re going to be okay.

I leave you with my anthem and the song I want played at my funeral, OMD’s “The History of Modern: Part I,” not a Halloween tune, but a cheery song about the ultimate evanescence of human existence. Back tomorrow with ALL THE HORROR MOVIES AND STUFF AIYAAA SPOOOOOOOOOOKY SZN IS ON