Susan Mitchell, writing in Salon on the oft-smirked-at phenomenon of ‘chemo-brain’, describes it nicely. Memory holes, addled wits, the “quite frequent inability to name common objects […] : ‘Book.’ ‘Envelope.’ ‘Cup.'”
And when I say she describes it nicely, I mean she is nice about it. She betrays little sense of outrage or crapulence when she admits that her oncologist “has difficulty getting too worked up about my forgetfulness.” She is even nice when running down the checklist of all the other conditions wrought by chemo et al: neuropathy, stubborn weight gain, hot flashes, excruciating joint pain, the fact that her ‘reconstructed’ globular unit is no substitute for an actual boob.
In fact, she says a couple of times how grateful she is. She says it’s “hard to complain” because after all, she notes, she’s not dead. She was “lucky” to have had the “great surgeon” who stitched together — probably using fat from a foot-long incision in her abdomen — the macabre lump of feminine acquiescence on her chest. It is only after explaining how lucky and grateful and understanding she is of her oncologist’s insouciance that she gets a little cranky. She says she wishes for her old self back.
The point of her piece, of course, is not to cut loose about her bloody fucking awful post-chemo condition. She means to suggest the need for a new field of medicine that would treat the symptoms of the treatment.*
The point of my piece, however, is to complain. Complaining is not virtuous, I realize. In fact, thanks to the corporate breast cancer mascot — the plucky, pinkified Breast Cancer Survivor (TM) who’s popularized the insane idea that women embrace the disease as an opportunity for personal growth — there is nothing in this world so unpleasant as a breast cancer sufferer who
— isn’t grateful
— doesn’t feel lucky
— won’t suffer nobly in silence
— thinks all those pious pink volunterrorists are deluded
— believes that the pseudo-concerned Racers-for-the-Cure luxuriate at her expense in a false sense of meaningless “philanthropy”
— is hopping mad over the expectation that she pretend she still has tits
— is even hopping-madder over the expectation that she shut the fuck up
I’m even hopping madder that I find myself capitulating. “So how’re you doing?” people ask me, and I almost always answer that I’m doing “great.” Because it would seem so ungracious to answer any other way. I mean, since after all I’m not dead and wouldn’t it be greedy and ungrateful of me to expect more than that?
Well, I’m puttin’ the kibosh on that bogus shit right now.
This is what it’s like to “survive” breast cancer treatment: you feel, every goddam day, like something that oozed from a rotting log after an acid rain. I mean, every goddam day you experience everything on this list:
— markedly decreased mental acuity that your friends laugh off because they don’t understand it’s not just garden-variety where-did-I-put-my-keys, but is in fact a substantial and debilitating hit in the old IQ (in fact, it’s really dementia, but you can’t bring yourself to call it that because a) you’re only 48, and b) you can’t remember the goddam word anyway)
— crippling joint pain
— either diarrhea or constipation but never neither and you never know which
— episodic weeping
— hourly hot flashes
— the ‘aura’ of utter despair that precedes, and is substantially more discomfiting than, the hourly hot flashes
— a sense of general debility
— extreme fatigue
— pain and peeling skin on the radiation site
— a flappy, post-hysterectomy bladder
— anxiety that the next scan will reveal a recurrence
— numbness and pain from the center of your chest to your elbow
— the constant sensation, from your dual 7″ scars, that you’re wearing a bra two sizes too small
— a crushing sense of futility
— fear of imminent death
Nothing’s gonna fix all that shit. And let’s face it; socially, it’s just a big pile of stay-away-you-repulse-me. Even I find it repulsive. If I were you, I wouldn’t be touching this blog post with a ten-foot pole.
I suspect that’s why Susan Mitchell feels obliged to so agreeably acknowledge her indebtedness to the wonders of medical science. It’s impolite to have cancer. It’s even more impoliter, when, a year or so after your last treatment and you’re still not dead, someone asks you “so how are you feeling“, and you go, “Well, Chet, my post-cancer-treatment life is actually a waking nightmare.”
A waking nightmare may be somewhat preferable to death, but only just. It’s definitely not a fucking cure, and I’m done pretending to be grateful for it.
UPDATE: Here’s a list of 10 remarks that are guaranteed to insult the cancer patient. [Thanks, Carol.]
* I sympathize with Mitchell’s call for a branch of medicine focused on fixing the diseases they give you when they’re curing you, but after 2 years enmeshed in the medicorporatocracy, I’m pretty sure that any “therapy” they could come up with to treat FLS (Feels Like Shit) would probably turn you into a bald zombie with hemorrhaging eyeballs.