I am a real person.
I am not your next statistic. I am not your next appointment,
something to be crossed off a list
once you’ve prescribed your meds and followed your protocol and
check check check
did everything you’re supposed to do when dealing with a breast cancer patient.
I feel different than the breast cancer patient who just left,
different than the one who will sit in this chair when my slot is up.
Follow your protocol
but don’t forget that you are treating people.
Real live human beings.
Were you taught that humans have two ears and two eyes and two legs, a nose, a heart? Have you noticed that that isn’t always the case? Have you noticed that even when check, check, check, we have two ears, eyes, legs, they look different?
And then: See me.
And then: Listen to me.
I am human,
and you, doctor, work for me.
Blogger Nancy Stordahl shared 15 Random Facts about herself on her breast cancer blog, and encouraged her readers to do the same. I love a good list—so satisfying to write one up, plus it’s been great to read what others have to share about themselves: the non-breast-cancer things that show that each of us is so much more than a breast cancer patient.
So here’s my list, 15 Random Facts About Me:
- I’m an only child and have always hated it, which is why I knew I’d have at least two kids when I grew up (with or without a partner because that’s how much I wanted kids, but I lucked out and got a great partner along with two great kids). Also, when each of my kids were born, I was so overjoyed that I forgot to check whether they were a boy or a girl. (I also lucked out there, since I wanted—and got—at least one of each.)
- I’m politically left of center. Way left. A socialist at heart who would give up my white middle class privilege if it would even the playing field. I come by it naturally: my parents gave me my middle name, Binh, after Madame Binh—a Vietcong leader in the war.
- When I was six, my mom gave me the closet in her office. I carried in pillows, a lamp, a small bookshelf, and I went there to write. I’ve been writing ever since, and I’m pretty certain writing is what saved me from my teens and twenties. In fact, I’m pretty sure writing is still saving me today.
- I’ve had dark circles under my eyes since I was a very little kid. As a teenager, I was somewhat convinced that if I could just get rid of those dark circles, I would be happier, more confident, more loved. Along with the dark circles, I’ve always thought I had fat knees and so (until very recently when a friend convinced me to embrace my legs, imperfections and all—thanks, Cory), I’ve avoided showing my legs. (Fat knees?! Ridiculous, I know, but there you have it.) As a mother, I am careful to never let my children (especially my daughter) hear such things come out of my mouth (except for the part about it being ridiculous that so many women decide we don’t like this or that about our physical appearances).
- I don’t wear earrings and a necklace at the same time; nor do I wear earrings or a necklace when I wear my glasses. Though it doesn’t bother me on other people, on me, it makes me feel like way too much is going on. (How’s that for a random fact?! I’m thinking it will make a great trait for one of the fictitious characters I hope to create someday in the young adult chapter book I hope to write someday.)
- When I was 19, I flew to Kenya for 3 months of solo travel in Africa and Europe. According to my mom, I said I had to go because I was afraid of being alone. I don’t remember this, but I like the way it sounds. I like thinking that at 19, I was that committed to taking on my fears. (Not surprisingly, my mom didn’t want me to go, tried to talk me out of going, and yet, didn’t stop me from going, even though she probably could have by refusing to help pay for the plane ticket—kuddos to you, mom. I hope I’ll be equally brave when Sophie wants to do something ridiculous like travel through Africa by herself at 19.)
- I hoard food in my freezer (often until it goes bad) and rarely leave home without a snack tucked into a pocket. Also, when I travel by car or plane, I bring enough food for a small army to subsist for days. One can never be too safe.
- I’ve always felt like an imposter. Straight A student, prestigious colleges, successful career, published author (though not the type of books I’d really love to write), and yet, I’ve spent my life anxiously waiting for people to realize my real strength is fooling the system.
- I love to read, but I’m not particularly well read (which adds to my feeling of being an imposter). Really, I love to read contemporary fiction. When it comes to the classics, pop culture, history, politics, I am more ignorant than I like to admit. (Okay, I have no problem admitting my ignorance about pop culture, but the rest is toward the top my list of shortcomings, way above the dark circles under my eyes and the “fat” knees.)
- I am totally overwhelmed by and somewhat terrified by social media. Overwhelmed by the endless rabbit holes of possibility; terrified about the whole Big Brother thing. (I mean, can you see me right now through the camera hole in my computer?? How about through the hole in my bedroom ceiling?) Plus, the bottom line is, I much prefer face-to-face contact or even a phone call in real time with a real voice and real person on the other end of the line. I wish I could be in the same room with the many awesome breast cancer bloggers I’ve stumbled across these past months, because I can’t seem to keep up on line but sure would love to sit around a room chatting with many of them.
- Despite my fear and overwhelm, I am starting a Twitter account! Today! Let’s see how I fare… Please be patient with me, since I have very little idea how it all works. (Will you follow me? And also share any tips you might have for managing this new, overwhelming, terrifying endeavor?) Maybe I’ll join Facebook next, but woa! One thing at a time here, people.
- I grew up in San Francisco in the Mission long before it was cool to live in the Mission; long before it became a hub for all those Google Silicon Valley folks who drove up the rents so that most people I grew up with can’t really afford to live in the Mission anymore.
- I spent my twenties in New York City (Manhattan then Brooklyn) where I partied hard and loved hard; where I worked as a cocktail waitress and a regular-ole food waitress before going back to school to study education and teach in public schools; where I met the love of my life and birthed my first child and carried my second until, at 7 months of pregnancy, I moved, joyfully, to my first small-town (with husband, son, in-utero baby, a truck load of stuff and big dreams for a calmer lifestyle in tow).
- I love to dance and am proud that I am often among the last ones standing come 3 a.m. (Dance party or not.) I actually was a dancer until I was 18, but now any opportunity to shake it on the dance floor, preferably to hip hop, gets me going. (And no, I don’t usually wear a wonder woman costume, but this was the only picture I could find of me on a dance floor. It must be 3 a.m. since I seem to be one of the only ones around.)
- Nothing brings me more joy than connecting (for real connecting) with another human being. That, and having a great time with my kids. And, top-of-the-joy-list #3, which really is also about connecting: knowing that something I’ve written has made a difference in someone’s day, life, head, heart. (Thank you, Sophie—my 7 year old love bug—for the attached artwork that, in my mind, pretty much sums up the most important stuff in my book.)
In this moment, I am thinking about:
- And other things we tend to associate with—even expect of—women: red, high-heeled shoes. Eye shadow. Low cut shirts. Flirty laughter.
- I am thinking about what brings me joy (writing; sleeping in; a good craft project in front of bad TV) and what does not bring me joy (email; a growing pile of unread newspapers; too much of the consulting I do).
I am thinking about:
- Hot flashes.
- Summer, and what I’ll wear on my head so I don’t get sunburned.
- Which makes me think about hat shopping with Jenae and the fun we’ll have (because we always have fun); and about how safe I feel in her company.
- Thinking about “safe” makes me think about Maggie and Josh and even Sophie and Harrison who make me feel safe in a different kind of way because of the place they give me in the world. Because they bring me home.
- I am thinking about my home, and my bedroom, and my bed, and how even when I wake up not wanting to wake up, like I often do these mornings (not wanting to face the day, my life, me) how even then, I love being in my home and my bedroom and my bed. How safe I feel there.
- I am thinking about breasts again.
- I cannot think of how I want to end this list. Already I am thinking about a new list. Which makes me think about how hard it is for me to stay in the moment. How hard it is for me to quiet my mind. How hard it is for me to just be. I am thinking about how, when I was in the depths of chemo, I often thought, “I have never been so still. I have never been so still.” I am thinking about how much I would love to learn to be still.
What makes me feel old:
- Real live (young) adults who were born in the 90s.
- My son (how do I have a nine year old?) and daughter (when did she get so tall?)
- Gray hair and belly skin that sags when I bend over.
- Aching joints—and conversations with friends about aching joints.
- My (almost) 20th college reunion.
- Men (boys?) who were born in the 90s and don’t notice me.
What makes me feel young:
- Getting breast cancer at 39.
Every doctor visit, every chemo infusion, every piece of paper with my birth date and “breast cancer” written on it, reminds me of just how young I am.
I’m feeling so introverted—unsocial in a way that makes me wonder whether I will ever be able to relate to people in the same way. I feel separate, like there’s a film between me and everyone else (except for my family and the two friends with whom I’ve been in such constant closeness these last weeks).
Happy birthday to my love, Josh. We went out last night to celebrate, and this morning I woke up with the realization that it was likely my last night out on the town with my hair and my breasts intact. I felt pretty last night, I flirted, I felt confident. And now I think about how the next time I see many of those people, I’ll be in treatment, I’ll be bald, I’ll be who knows how sick. I’ll be the one in the room that people are pitying or feeling uncomfortable around or thinking, “She used to be so….”
Today our family of four spent the day together to celebrate Josh. I wish I could write that it was wonderful. I (all of us) really could have used that, but it was full of bumps. My stomach has been in knots, my mood on the edge the last several days, and I wonder whether I would feel this way regardless—it’s all very familiar, after all: the free-floating anxiety, the impatience, the edginess. But it’s hard not to wonder with every turbulence whether things would feel different had I not been diagnosed with breast cancer fewer than 3 weeks ago.
It breaks my heart to be edgy and impatient with the kids right now. Breaks my heart that today, our first family day with just the four of us in literally weeks—and probably one of our last for a good while (so many cancer-supporters cycling through our home these days)—was not blissful. I feel like I should be savoring life more than ever, not getting caught up in the pettiness. And yet… life and being human does go on, breast cancer or no breast cancer.
Last Sunday night, the night before my triple biopsy, I had a dream that seemed meaningful at the time and perhaps even more so now that I’ve been diagnosed with cancer. I don’t remember the details; I remember the heart of the matter. Which is that I had my period (to which I didn’t give any thought at first), and I was also quite pregnant—6 to 8 months so.
I was looking at myself in the mirror, noticeably pregnant, with a definite belly. But as I looked at myself, I thought about how my belly was smaller than I would expect on someone as pregnant as I was. I think I felt good about this at first—good that I wasn’t gaining tons of weight.
But then I registered the fact that I had my period and the mood shifted. I realized that I shouldn’t have my period if I were pregnant, what a bad sign that was! And the fear flooded in. Something was wrong. I don’t remember what happened next except that I knew then that I was having a miscarriage, that Josh and I would not be having another baby, and I was terribly, terribly sad. Graspingly sad. Wanting things to be different, desperately wanting to have this baby that I was losing.
(It feels important to share that Josh and I decided a couple of years ago that we do not want to have more children. So the suffering I felt in my dream is not about losing the chance of a child. I assume it instead has everything to do with a cancer diagnosis.)