On a chilly day with clear blue skies and the kind of fresh crisp air I expect from autumn in my city, I drove into town with my hungry kiddies in the back seat. We went to get petrol after the fuel tank kept singing to me to fill it.
“Mum what’s for lunch? I’m starving!” says Mr 5 year old. I get out of the car and proceed to fill the tank. The smell of fuel fumes fills the air and I am reminded why I hate this job. Maybe fuel fumes cause breast cancer?
A Holden Commodore pulls into the fuel bay opposite me. A tall brunette in her mid forties dressed in business attire gets out of the car and selects her fuel. Both of our bowsers are pumping away. Two cars park behind us as drivers get out and proceed to fill their cars. The brisk air is saturated with the fuel fumes. The lady at the bowser opposite funnily has the same haircut to my Shittytittiebangbang Chemo Cut three. I am amused.
My focus shifts to the conversation inside my car between my two and five year old that goes something like this…
The five year old says… “I am so hungry, I could eat a house. What could you eat?” To which the two year old replies… “A house… Yay!”
The lady at the pump opposite us interrupts my humoured disposition at my children and yells out something out about a look. I didn’t quite hear. I thought she was talking about my kids making me smile with their antics so I just politely smiled and nodded. She then yells out really loudly “So what kind of cancer do you have?” I’m a little shocked at the direct nature of the question. So she walks across the fuel concourse towards me and yells out again “What kind of cancer do you have?” Pow, crash, boom!
I managed to clear my throat and mouthed the word “breast”. I thought I spoke but not much sound came out.
She nodded and said “Oh I thought so.”
I wondered how? Did I give off some kind of potent breast cancer pheromones that overpowered the fuel fumes? Surely the purple hat that my awesome girlfriend just sent me that I’m wearing for warmth is not that revealing? Obviously it was. Maybe my new cancer-y look is more pronounced by the fact my face is brown and my bald head is pearly white. The hairline separating the two is very prominent. I’m like a choc chip muffin with white icing most days.
She then says … “I had breast cancer ten years ago.” I said “Sorry to hear you went through that.” She then yelled back to me as she went off to pay “Finding work since has been very hard!”
This drives home just how life changing this experience is and how different everyone’s experience of it is. I thought about what it would mean to me in future. Why would this experience impact on my ability to work? After the diagnosis I’ve had, the lumpectomy, the mastectomy and reconstruction, and chemo, and the treatment plan that is layed out ahead, am I so naive as to what could lay ahead? After all, I’m feeling pretty good through all this.
My fuel tank was really empty because I was still pumping when she had paid and walked back to her car. This time she asked “Where are you in your treatment?”
I was still grappling to understand how this conversation in the petrol station had spontaneously started so I stuttered “I just started chemo and I have a busy year of treatment ahead.” She reassured me… “You will get through it as I have. It’s hard but you’ll get through it. But I don’t know how you do it with children!”
She got into her car and was gone before I hung up the bowser.
To be honest I don’t know how I’d do it without children.
Why is it that having a cancer-y looking head gives permission for complete strangers to yell out private questions about chronic diseases in public places?
I thought of many a conversation that could happen but doesn’t in supermarkets, between the bookshelves at libraries, between pumps at service stations. Hey! How’s your heart going? Hey, have you had your prostrate checked? How’s the herpes going? Got a bad case of alopecia have we? Conversations that don’t happen ever. Especially between two strangers standing 8 metres apart pumping petrol.
Then there is the flood of knowing (sometimes haunting) looks from older women standing behind me in in grocery lines. The look of sadness from people waiting in the passenger terminal at the airport. Cancer elicits some interesting responses from people.
I’m not ashamed of cancer. I don’t mind talking about it. But when I am taken by surprise it is very unsettling.
I’ve gained membership to a club I never filled out a membership form for. And in all this rapid change to my life I haven’t yet found my place in it. Am I being presently cured of cancer, am I living with cancer or am I surviving cancer? I have no idea what I am at the moment. Can I say when someone asks if I have cancer… “I don’t have cancer anymore” as the tumour and offending breast is gone? I’m not sure if I’ll ever be able to say that when I think of invasive cancer on a molecular level. The fear of recurrence will be with me always.
This is confronting to me as most days I forget about cancer. But now everywhere I go there are reminders of who I currently am… at the checkout, at the petrol station, in the park. And I am bumping into breast cancer survivors like we are all holding a huge sign that says “my breast had cancer and this experience has changed my life!”.
I am reminded of the night my whippet jumped the fence the week before chemo started. I had gastro and had had the mastectomy and reconstruction and 21 lymph nodes sliced from my armpit 6 weeks prior. I was drain free and weeks earlier the same neurotic dog had caused me to rip out a drain when another storm came through and he shivered and shook all night next to me with fear. On this recent night, at 3am a huge thunderstorm started. Minutes later, our neurotic whippet had broken out of the shed leaving the warmth of his sister, futon bed and doona behind in favour of the dark, wet and stormy night and jumped our 6 foot fence into the gully behind our house. After staggering around weak from gastro in the dark and rain calling for him for an hour I barely had enough energy to walk back up the slope to our house. Mr Cool got up and drove the streets searching for him and at 7am I received the call. He was in a yard of a house on the other side of the creek no more than 100 metres from our yard. When I went to pick him up I explained he normally sleeps inside on stormy nights but I was still recovering from surgery and unwell so he was locked in his shed and broke the roller door to get out. Turns out he chose the house of a woman who had breast cancer back in 2007.
So I am starting to think I might just bump into every woman in my city who has survived breast cancer by the end of this year and there are many of us. It’s like my future self is telling me that I will get through all of this as all of these women have done. But the hardest thing is meeting a survivor who knows. Knows how hard the journey is and seeing this ‘knowing’ in their faces. As I stood on the porch of a house across the creek the lady who had my dog also had this knowing look. Like the wrinkles on her face were a little deeper from the experience.
There appears to be two groups of survivors emerging and of course this is a oversimplification. But there is the group that have reevaluated their lives and healed themselves. And the group that is broken by the ordeal and will never be the same. Both live in fear of the cancer returning but one group uses it to fuel an existence of not wasting time in life but living every day fully and with gratitude. At the moment I identify with this group. The second group is caught between the why me? Why did this happen? My life will never be the same! There is a lot of bitterness for what has been lost. About the change to where they thought their life was headed.
I am yet to know which team I’ll stand on. I’d like to think the first team. There is a lot I have control over but there is so much I don’t. Such as how I will respond to the second drug regime in chemotherapy, or what the side effects of radiotherapy will be. Will my implant survive radio? How my body will respond to tamoxifen? Will this disease come back?
So far I am coping remarkably well. But if I am here in 5 years or 10 years or 20 and call myself a survivor of cancer, I want to be able to say to young breast cancer women that it is your journey and your experience. Make of it what you will. Don’t play the part of breast cancer patient. Play the part of you.
But after a spontaneous conversation with a lady in the servo and being stopped by airport security because of my threatening cancer-y head covering scarf today, I think it might be time to visit my psychologist to have a chat about these different teams that are emerging. It’s not a matter of which team I’ll join. But perhaps it’s about making my own third team and of letting go of how things used to be and embracing this change in a more positive light. We can also discuss this other phenomenon which I’m going to call ‘stranger danger’. These are the pow, crash, boom moments, where cancer is smacked in your face like a huge wet fish by total strangers. It’s amazing where the unsettling comes from. Places where you least expect it.