Giving Cancer the Bird
by Cheryl Murfin, 2008
Nearly 20 years ago, my Grandmother sat across from me in a tiny Japanese restaurant in Seattle and mentioned, in passing, that she’d just had a mastectomy. A double. It all went well, she assured me, almost in passing.
“Don’t worry myself about it,” she added, as if she had not just dropped a bomb on my sushi.
Bordering on hysteria, I pummeled her with questions.
She’d gone to the hospital alone with my grandfather and my aunt. They kept it to themselves. Didn’t feel the need to ask for help. The chemotherapy, she told me, wasn’t that bad. She never felt sick. When I asked her why she hadn’t called before the surgery, her response was typical of this side of my family:
“No need to worry anyone. I’m fine.”
Can I just say, that at the time, nothing could have been more stunning, tossed out, unexpectedly, over a glass of sake? When I started to cry, she assured me the doctors had gotten it all. My big, busty, solid grandmother. She had the cancer and yet there she was reassuring me.
And they had gotten it all. The surgeons removed her entire breast and a large portion of the lymph nodes under arms.
The next weekend I was at my grandparent’s home and walked in on her changing the dressing. The scar snaked along her aging flesh in a long wide S. At each end was a drainage tube. I helped her drain the puss and water, rewrap the wound, pull on her bra and fasten the straps because she couldn’t use her one arm. We inserted a false breast pad.
“It’s not so bad,” she said. “I’m still kick’n!”
And with that, my grandmother’s cancer was never mentioned again. It never returned in my grandmother.
But it never went away, either.
From that day on, every time I went to my doctor for my annual visit, whenever the question arose “Has anyone in your immediate family under age 70 had cancer?” the answer was now yes.
A few years later when my sister had a hysterectomy, another box had to be checked: Yes. Yes. And when my grandfather died of leukemia in 2002 and my aunt had a lump removed. Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes.
And yet, when felt my first lump in 2005, I did make a beeline to the doctor.
“If a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it….”
I decided instead to flip off cancer. For three months I thrust my hand in the air at the possibility of cancer. I gave it the bird.
And every night, my fingers sought out the lump, like a reassurance. It was small and angular like a tiny walkway pebble. It moved around within a small area. I could grab it between my fingers and pull it up. It was tiny. I held on to that.
We became covert lovers, my lump and I, holding each other through the night before returning to the routine of nothing out of the ordinary in the morning.
What does cancer feel like?
I still don’t know, physiologically speaking. Otherwise, it feels like everything you fear. Three months after first noticing my lump it had grown to the size of a hazelnut. Lying on my back, my breast flattened, I could see it’s slight rise under my skin if I cocked my head just right.
The lump was a reflection of my life at the time. Secretive. Impossible. Deserved.
Eventually I made an appointment with my doctor. And I sighed almost thankfully when the she called me back to her office after my mammogram – the first I’d ever had.
“I’d like to do an ultrasound,” she said. “Your tissue has a lot of mass in it and sometimes mammograms can’t detect through that.”
And so I moved from her office into to the refrigerator of the ultrasound exam room. The technician waiting for me was from India, Bangalore, where I once lived. His had the voice a soothing singsong I still missed.
He moved the jelled wand in a circle around my hazelnut for a minute. Five minutes. Six.
“Let me get the doctor,” he said.
The doctors brought a sizable needle and inserted it into my breast for a biopsy. I watched on the ultrasound machine, fascinated.
“Looks like a cyst,” the doctor assured me. “If it is you’ll see it pop like a fluid ball.”
We waited for the pop. We all stared at the screen. We all watched as the needle lacerated the lump one, two, three times. I noticed that my Indian technician had stopped humming.
“We’ll know more in a few days,” the doctor told me as I buttoned my shirt.
But I already knew.
I drove home hitting the steering wheel.
“Fuck. FUCK, FUCK, FUCK!”
The night, for the first time in months, I stopped thinking about myself, about my choices, about my guilt, about how I deserved cancer for being a bad wife and a bad mother. For the first night in months I didn’t reach for the pebble in my breast. Instead, I wrapped my arms around my children and melted into them on my bed, willing myself into their veins. Willing them to remember me when I was gone.
The day I had surgery, my daughter came with me. She was 9.
Hers was the face I saw as I fell asleep and, like an angel appearing out of the fog, the one I saw when I woke up. I knew then I would not die. Instead I vomited into a basin, a bad reaction to anesthesia, and I held her tight on the right, healthy side.
Back home that night I had a dream and in it I was falling, from where I don’t know, to where, I don’t know. But falling and as I fell wings painfully, bloodily erupted out of my back and began to flap and lift me out of my free fall. Eventually, I was flying, flying away from the falling space into an endless, brilliant orange sky. When I woke up I could I feel the achy place where the wings had burst through by skin.
Recovery runs in the family.
The surgeon got my cancer, just like another surgeon got my grandmother’s.
“Clean margins,” she reported.
No need, statistically, to worry about a recurrence. My doctor weighed it all out for me. I could do radiation, or chemo or a combination of both, or do nothing. “Nowadays we don’t automatically recommend it at this early stage but you have young kids. It’s a precaution we might take.
“What would you like to do?” she asked.
What would I like to do?
Several things ran through my mind. A movie sounded good. A spa vacation. Not having cancer in the first place.
Instead I replied: “I’d like to keep the rest of my breasts.”
She had taken a sizable chunk of my left breast to get her margin. At first, she told me, there would be a noticeable difference. I wouldn’t want to look. But eventually, the space would scar and the remaining tissue would grow in making it hard to tell I had had surgery at all.
I took it all in stride until the painkiller wore off. Then I asked for more. They gave me an anti-anxiety medication instead.
All I could see was the gaping hole. I felt ugly. I felt opened. Looking back I see the emotional dysmorphia – the cancer and the scar represented so much more than tissue gone bad. They became a place to park years of untreated trauma and self-loathing and guilt.
I can’t remember if my husband ever actually saw the scar. The surgery was the beginning of the end of a marriage that had long been over.
I decided on a year of medication to stave off a recurrence.
For months I felt tired and nauseous. I pretended I did not feel these things in front of my kids. I walked swiftly from work meetings to puke and then put on a strong face. I forced myself to show up to my dojo.
Ego. All ego.
My hair got a little thinner. I got thinner. What did it matter, I thought? In the grand scheme of things, I was fine. I was lucky.
And then it was over.
I slept on the couch waiting for my marriage to end, dead like the cells in my body. I had more ultrasounds, a few more lumps, all benign. I thought a lot about dying, even though I wasn’t dying.
I refused to look at my breasts in the mirror, even as they did eventually even out and the scar all but disappeared on the outside. On the inside, the scar, like the cancer, remained large and overwhelming to me. They represented all the ugly, unhealed things in my life.
Although I was physically healthy, my first cancer (I was diagnosed with a second in 2016) didn’t go fully and finally away until several years after surgery -- long after the medication and the marriage ended.
It disappeared one night in a small apartment, with a red neon sign flashing in the window and pale blue shadows making picture frames on the walls.
The possibility of new love had found me in spite of myself and my choices and my cancer. On that night, I laid on a bed beside a man I knew I should trust; a man who I realized would forgive me all the sickness of my life. We were making love for the first time and I was scared. I told him about my scar. I blurted it out.
In the glow of the night, he listened. He looked into my eyes and asked me so gently to take off my bra, which I had been too afraid to remove.
“Please, take it off.”
I did so slowly. No one had seen me, truly seen me, in five years. No one had touched this breast but a surgeon.
He sat up and looked at me.
“You are so beautiful,” he said.
I realized then that there was a tear in his eyes. This was the truth. This was the truth of what I deserved. I looked down and saw what he saw. A tiny, almost imperceptible scar. And then he took off his own shirt.
An enormous scar snaked around his torso from the surgery that removed one of his kidneys.
That night my cancer took flight. It pulled its wings from my soul, and flew away from me. That night, I knew, with all certainty, there was something out there higher than my own will.
Because this is how a real God would work. One day you’d find a man with a scar ten times bigger than your own. And your first thought would be: How beautiful.
How fucking beautiful.