Finding the Light in the Dark
by Jan Brown
Me disappeared the moment the consultant gently proffered his diagnosis, mapping the year ahead. It wasn’t cowardice but sheer pragmatism: I needed qualities I didn’t possess to get through painful practicalities and imagined horrors, overwhelming discomforts and fears. This instinctive reaction made life bearable: cancer wasn’t happening to Me; it was happening to a woman I barely recognised, who’s preserved my sanity and my dignity.
I found myself using the full version of the name my parents bestowed on me, one I never liked and abandoned for a diminutive long ago. Precious possessions were laid aside so, in my cancer-free future, I could revert to things just as they’d been, untainted by clinics and cannulae and consultants. Off came my engagement ring, the gold chain my parents gave me, my favourite perfume. They await that moment when I regain my former life.
The new me was barely recognisable. An inveterate Googler, she opted for as few questions and as little knowledge as possible and respected the judgment of the specialists. She refused to search the internet, knowing that would only fuel disabling fear and doubts. Of what use is amateur knowledge when you’ve put yourself in the hands of experts? Trust never came naturally to Me. Now I trust implicitly.
The new me is angry, not at the disease, the faulty gene or the hormones, but at a world that encourages us to equate cancer with death. I didn’t consider death but I became a-woman-with-cancer, her every mood and every behaviour observed, analysed and advised on by well-intentioned friends more fearful than I. I determined to change this attitude. The little indignities no one warns you about became a source of entertainment and enlightenment. Message: it’s OK to laugh.
No one can prepare you for the phantom nipple sensation following mastectomy. The chemo trout pout is a sight to behold – free of charge and reversible. The torturous cold cap only protect your head from chemo-induced hair loss and wigs itch and slip so I’m content with my almost-transparent buzz-cut. Yet I’m devastated by the loss of my eye-lashes – and who’d have thought nasal hair was essential? I’ve joined the ranks of sniffing, snotty toddlers with no mum to tut and wipe my nose to make me respectable.
There’s no logic. Despised leg hair holds fast. Why? I’m bald as a coot above, alopecia front to back, pre-pubescent. The gravity that started wreaking havoc years ago is apparently ubiquitous: I see things I never expected to see again with one glance down. Women’s plumbing isn’t the best design but body hair has a role. Now, rivulets of pee choose random circuitous routes across my buttocks, free of control.
Radiotherapy looms. I’m cancer-free, chock-a-block full of poisons and immensely proud of myself. But I’m yearning to reclaim my body. I need my world to make sense again. Me will slip back, I hope to co-exist with the stand-in I don’t want to lose – because she turned this wimp into a warrior.
Jan Brown is rarely lost for words. She’s excited to get back to writing flash fiction now chemo-brain is loosening its hold.
Our Reader said:
An insight into breast cancer, which highlighted all the unexpected results of the treatment in a frank way.