She’s Feeling Fine, Thanks
Los Angeles Times, Monday, April 13, 1998
By: MARY HERCZOG
SPECIAL TO THE TIMES
Since the more or less halfway point has been reached, it seems a good time to answer the $65,000 question: “How are you doing?” Or, as one teenage friend asked me, “Are you better?”
Well, yes. And no.
As mentioned in an earlier article, prior to all this, I felt great. Couldn’t have been better. That was part of the problem. When I had to tell people initially, particularly people I work for, that I had breast cancer, I felt like a big fraud. I don’t have cancer. People who have cancer are “riddled” with cancer. They have serious health problems, and they feel like hell. I just have a couple of lumps. Everyone knows doctors cut out lumps, announce they “got it all” and the patients go happily on their way.
But not me. Since the cancer had already broken free of my breast and was making its merry way through the rest of my body, I had to have eight rounds of chemotherapy, plus six weeks of radiation, plus a lumpectomy. (As I write this, two rounds of chemo and the radiation remain.) By the time they get through with all this, I’m not going to be feeling quite as great. I might, indeed, be feeling like hell. I just wouldn’t have cancer. Ideally.
While I have not suffered nearly as much from chemo as many people do–a fact I attribute to acupuncture, herbs and really good fortune, for which I am daily grateful–it does do quite a number on your body. I’m not even talking about the hair loss–but there is that, and more on that in a moment–but how I get exhausted performing simple, previously normal errands, or how I try to lift something or trot half a block and end up fiendishly winded.
Chemo has also made all kinds of disgusting things happen to my body. Right after, I constantly smell weird, unpleasant odors, and there is a fair amount of inner discomfort–as though I’ve acquired an internal bowling alley. My veins have all but disappeared, making needle time–and when you have cancer, it’s always needle time, and I’m mighty tired of that–even trickier. I also had to stop wearing an earring in a hole at the top of my ear, as it seemed to cause constant swelling and pain.
The hair loss, actually, has not been that traumatic. I wasn’t happy about it, but once my hair started to fall out in earnest, I just decided to shave it off and be done with it. Then it was me in control; the loss was not some side effect. Afterward, I popped a cap on my head and immediately went out hat shopping and to the movies. So much for hiding in the house, as I initially thought I might do for a few weeks.
As far as hats go, I found an excellent source, the Philadelphia-based Just in Time, created by Verley Platt, who once had breast cancer and couldn’t find any good hats to wear. Most hats reveal just enough of your scalp so that it’s obvious you are trying to hide baldness, which sort of defeats the purpose. With her work, I look like I have hair; it’s just all tucked under the hat. I’ve since bought a couple of wigs, but the only one I’ve worn is the silvery sky blue one. I fully intend to go out bald (perhaps with some glitter on my scalp, or maybe one of those mehndi henna tattoos), but the cool weather hasn’t been conducive just yet. That is a big problem. We all know heat escapes through the head, but you have no idea how much body heat even a short haircut retains until you have no hair at all.
Somewhat more distressing is the loss of eyelashes and eyebrows. I used to have very long, thick eyelashes. This experience has been nothing if not a good lesson in vanity. (Extremely so: I also always felt I had nice breasts–“boobs of a teenager,” confirms my sister the ob-gyn nurse practitioner–and my left one particularly so. Guess which one had the surgery and is now smaller and sporting a large scar?)
Fortunately, Brent, a Bobbi Brown makeup artist, called me after my first story and offered free products plus advice in applying them. While I’ve not used this much makeup in years, made up eyes do help return some semblance of normalcy to my face.
OK, you are thinking, that’s how you are doing, but how are you doing? Well, fine. Really.
People have wondered whether I asked, “Why me?” The answer is no. Instead, all along I’ve said, “Why not me?” Women do get breast cancer, after all–118,000 a year in the United States. Though I do sometimes muse, why not me and, say, Courtney Love? Or those girls on “Friends,” with their perfect hair. Actually, haven’t you noticed how infrequently this seems to happen to the shiny happy people?
Statistics are, however, something I avoid, because they are never good when talking about women under 40 who have invasive breast cancer–which would be, of course, me. My serenity in the face of all this is helped tremendously by ignorance of numbers.
Something that has helped immeasurably has been the support I’ve gotten. For example, I throw an annual party to watch the Oscars. This year, people were flying in from around the country to come–and I know it wasn’t because it’s that fine a fete. When people will pay money, or give up frequent flier miles, just to come look at you (even if they use a party as an excuse), how can you help but feel better?
One thing that does get me uncomfortable, however, is when people say they are praying for me. It’s not that I don’t want them to and don’t love them for it. It’s that I fret about those who are sick who don’t have someone praying for them. Should they not get better just because they lack that kind of support?
To employ a graceless, but serviceable analogy, consider life as a sort of card game. Everyone is dealt hands, some good, some bad. We all know people who have been dealt very bad hands, indeed, and in some cases have played them brilliantly. We also know those who have been given great hands only to squander them. The trick is to play your cards as well as you can, bluffing if you must. Just don’t fold.
So I never did freak out or even cry more than a few minutes at the doctor’s office. In part, the doctors helped by barely giving time for the news to sink in before moving on to what was going to be done about it. My husband and I were on the roller coaster before we even knew we were standing in line. If they, the doctors, could be matter of fact and businesslike about this, it seemed there was less to be scared about.
Some people may say that our attitude–this is bad, but it’s not that bad, and it will be better, and it will be–is denial. But I read somewhere recently that what we now call denial is what we used to call hope. Or faith.
Actually, I just realized something. I’ve grieved more for Princess Diana than I have for me. Draw what conclusions you like.
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