Looking At Yourself Differently After Cancer

Moment by moment, we move toward life. We feel what needs to be felt. We can even feel through the numb parts—the broken pieces. Instead of looking somewhere else, we look straight on— at ourselves and others. We see what’s really there. Who is there for us? Who is not? We choose to be with those we love, and those who love us back—like the person in the mirror, the new friend.

In a post-cancer “I’m over it, Baby” mood, I was one self-assured survivor. Breast cancer was in my rearview mirror. I had answers. I had all the answers. I could tell anyone facing the cancer bump in the road what to do, how to strap in and how to go for the cancer ride. I taught others how to maneuver around the side effects. I knew workarounds for safeguarding the brain from chemo and ways to preserve balance. I had the confidence to say, “I do not have cancer until someone tells me I have cancer.” This is all fine and good, until someone says, “You do.” Then someone told me I did.

I had answers. I had all the answers.

But on this fifth day of September—my lucky number five—I was entering my fifth cancerversary.I had given little thought to my yearly mammogram scheduled for later thatafternoon. Before that appointment on this celebratory occasion, a special treat was on my calendar; my friend offered to be my chauffeur for a mini-spa day, where I was going to get my eyebrows plucked.

As we passed the outskirts of town, I glanced over my friend’s shoulder and viewed a ribbon of ocean rimming the sand’s edge. To no one, I said for the millionth time “I love where I live.” To me, this destination travel spot is home. A drive out of town brought with it the certainty that I would be returned to my sweet, craftsman cottage where my two cats and I live.

I looked out the window. Edging the landscaped highway, were newly created COVID tent cities sheltering the homeless. I turned my head, sipped a little hot coffee from the to-go cup and chose to look somewhere else—anywhere but there.

We got to my plucker ahead of schedule. Her warm, soothing voice invited me to lie down. Her leather chaise felt soft against my skin. I slipped my hands over the fabric and drank in an overdue dose of TLC for myself. As a first step, my plucker dyed my gray eyebrows and returned them to their former, youthful brown. Then I was plucked and shaped and, when I looked in the mirror, she handed me, I was at my beauty best.

My plucker and I made plans to come back more regularly. In post cancer treatment “I’m over it, Baby,” mood I was making all kinds of long-range plans. In hindsight, and during those planning-ahead moments, I heard the echo of inaudible laughter from above.

On our way out of town, we missed the freeway on-ramp. So, after disregarding a GPS suggestion to turn right at the next intersection, I mislead us through the surface streets of Oakland.

“We need gas anyway,” my friend said.

Several miles and turnarounds later, we found the cheapest gas. When my chauffeur went in to pay, I saw a young man with scruffy hair and a mustache, squatting on the sidewalk by the store front. He had a metal can in front of him, asking for change. Even though I didn’t want them to, our eyes locked. I still remember the sadness in his eyes; the I-don’t-know-why-I’m-here-but-I-am look. I didn’t leave him any money.

We got our gas and headed out in search of the freeway home.

I hate getting lost. I need to know where I’m going. If I don’t know my way, I feel I’m spinning around, not knowing which way is up, down, or sideways, like in the Hitchcock movie Vertigo. Anxious, not in control, like an unexpected cancer diagnosis: what to do; where to go; whom to trust? Five years ago, when I first got cancer, I made a plan. Fast. I quickly assembled my team and put my plan in place. Step One: Chemo. Step Two: Lumpectomy. Step Three: Radiation. Step 4? Hit the gas and go. “I’m over it, Baby”.

But being lost brought back that anxious, not-in-control feeling. In my head, I sounded harsher than the words that came out: “Get us out of here.”

My friend nodded in unspoken understanding. How odd, I thought, that we willingly turn our destinies over to technology—to emotionless voices you need to hear and follow, to be here, or here, or here, or you won’t get there—while I want to do everything on my own. I want to be my own compass. I don’t want to be told what to do. I want to decide for myself what to do, where to go, and how and when I’ll get there instead of on this damned cancer journey where you are not in control and even when following the best practitioners citing this treatment direction, or that treatment direction, you ultimately discover there is no there, there.

But in that car, the emotionless voice did lead us back to the freeway.

Moment by moment, we move toward life. We feel what needs to be felt. We can even feel through the numb parts—the broken pieces. Instead of looking somewhere else, we look straight on— at ourselves and others. We see what’s really there. Who is there? Who is there for us? Who is not? We choose to be with those we love, and those who love us back—like the person in the mirror, the new friend.

I no longer have any answers, only harder questions. And I still want – don’t want – to hear the answer; but I listen anyway. And then I go home—to myself.