Some people have gently or not-so-gently suggested I change the name of this blog. Afterall, am I not out of Cancerland? And isn’t it somehow morbid? The world of IV infusions, radiation beams, nausea, a life scheduled and shaped around treatment – isn’t that almost a year in the past now?
What they don’t understand is that Cancerland isn’t the 9th floor of Beth Israel Hospital. Cancerland isn’t populated with infusion nurses, oncologists, social workers, and support groups. Cancerland is populated by ghosts. Cancerland is an inner landscape. It’s windswept and cold. Its weather is unpredictable, like autumn weather in Alaska, one low pressure center of fear following another, with brief periods of calm between. Cancerland lies along the seismically active Pacific Rim of Fire, with sudden tremors and frequent eruptions of anger. It’s a place where, even if aberrant cells no longer proliferate, aberrant thoughts and emotions do. Cancerland feels sometimes like a Superfund site, contaminated, leaking barrels of toxins rusting on the tundra. And of course, I want out. I want a Caribbean island.
I’m a few days away from turning in the first draft of my book to my publisher. I got the contract to write the book while I was undergoing chemotherapy treatment, in the throes of the Red Devil.
For some crazy reason, I told my editor that I could finish the book in a year, even though several months of that year, I was still undergoing treatment. Part of it was the way a cancer diagnosis, regardless of prognosis, clarifies one’s priorities with the force of a huge wave of frigid North Pacific saltwater to the face. I knew this book was something that I had to finish. What does such conviction mean? It doesn't help that I'm superstitious. Cancerland is a highly superstitious place. Cancerland is this: a deep, crazy, irrational fear arising from underground, often at 3:30 am – unstated until now – that as soon as I send the manuscript off, my life’s purpose will be over, and cancer will return, and I'll die. That agreeing to one year as the rather unrealistic timeline for finishing a book about two decades of my life following orcas was because of some deep knowing. A fucking premonition. That kind of "thinking," right there, is Cancerland.
Cancerland is also adding my social worker’s daily blog called “Living with Breast Cancer” to my “Favorites” bar, when often, reading the entries taints my day. Not because it isn’t valuable stuff, compassionate, smart, up-to-date. The social worker is a breast cancer survivor – she had it twice – and she facilitates support groups and counsels people in and out of treatment, people surviving and dying and scared. She’s awesome, and beautiful, a force. She’s a pragmatist. She knows breast cancer isn’t pink in any way: not feminine, not gentle, not benign. Breast cancer doesn’t wear nipple-pink, baby-cheek pink, but black – black nail polish, black lipstick, black leather. Breast cancer has safety pins in its eyebrows and lips. Breast cancer is a sociopath. It has hollows under its eyes, and it listens to hard-core thrasher music and watches dark, violent movies. The social worker's posts are often sobering. No cure, no certainty, no pink fog to calm the nerves. If only I had a bar for ‘Least Favorites” on my browser screen. When I’d click on the button, I’d get an “access denied” message. Because the Least Favorite of all is the part of myself who daily checks to see what’s new in Cancerland. A cure? A vaccine? A new, preventative concoction, perhaps a flax seed-aspirin-coffee-red wine smoothie.
If Cancerland’s primary weather is fear, its geology is rage. That one’s life is now infected by morbid thoughts, and toxic language like "five year disease-free survival” and “risk of recurrence” and “osteoporosis” and “mastectomy,” and “arimidex” and “see you in six months.” You want to take a scalpel and extract that icky thread of language that’s insinuated itself into your inner landscape. It’s like someone else’s hair in your soup. You want it out, but even after you get it out, do you still want to eat that soup? Your favorite soup, which was your oblivious, pre-breast cancer life. Oh how good it looks, that island, as seen from afar, from the shore of this new one, CancerIsland. Welcome, indeed.
“Put it behind you,” is the message beneath people’s questioning of my blog post’s title. If only I could. I know the point is not to remain on any one island, Pre, Present or PostCancerIsland, but to clean and then weave that unasked-for, reviled thread into the mosaic of a whole, evolving life. On my better days, in the calms between storms, I live that process. It’s what most of my blog posts are about. But some days, like this one, with 17,000 words still to cut from my manuscript, and an Arimidex-induced ringing in my ears, and a fog of fear rolling in from the west, and flashes of foot-stomping anger, I want to put on some music that sounds like razor blades and broken glass. I want to put on my black books and leather. I want to dye my hair magenta, stick a safety pin through my earlobe, and become my own weather, with hurricane force winds. I want to meet that bitch, that cancer diva, and dance her off this planet, this island, this cloud.