The phrase I heard most often when undergoing the legion of diagnostic tests to determine if the lump I had found in my right breast was cancerous or not was “don’t worry — it’s probably nothing.”
At the time, it was received in the same spirit in which it was offered; a bit of over-confident reassurance when no other words can express how we truly feel—which is scared to death.
But because it was offered by nurses who clearly saw rather a lot of women for whom the “nothing” turned out to be “something,” and because I was pretty sure I was one of those women, I never took it at face value.
Once it turned out that I was right, and my “nothing” turned into “cancer” all of a sudden, it occurred to me that my life — for the foreseeable future, which statistics seemed to suggest was a paltry five years — would become one endless euphemism after another.
I had entered the realm of the “C-word,” where people find it easier to stop speaking to you altogether rather than struggle to find something — anything — to say.
The smallest pleasantries of conversation — How’s it going? — became minefields no one wanted to tread on. If I told them how I really was (awful, thanks!), it’d be a giant downer, and if I lied (I’m doing great!), no one in their right mind would believe me.
This is the dilemma every cancer patient comes across. You don’t just suffer the loss of your breasts (in my case), but a loss of words, too.
So when it came time, after the surgery and the chemo, to build myself back to health, I decided to find those words.
I’m not talking about words in general; I’m a writer, and wrote prodigiously during my treatment, thinking I had little time left in which to do so. I’m talking about the words needed to talk about what I went through — words that had been missing from my cancer experience: from those in books, from doctors, from friends, and from my own vocabulary.
There’s no shortage of writing out there on cancer. In fact, the amount of information, clinical descriptions and advice can be overwhelming. When I was being diagnosed and making treatment decisions, I couldn’t find anything that would answer the questions I still had — questions that someone might find silly, trivial, or inappropriate.
Cancer is, after all, a very serious subject. But I wanted to know if breasts made of silicone wobbled when you had sex. I wanted to know if reconstructed nipples chafed. I wanted to know if I’d be able to wear a string bikini, or if the scars would show. I wanted to know if I’d ever feel (or look) like a woman again.
What I wanted was a woman who’d been there, done that to tell me it was going to be alright. What I really wanted was hope.
Whenever I had a moment, I wrote short, witty, anecdotal poems about every part of the breast cancer journey I’d been on and was going through. I didn’t write them with an audience in mind; I didn’t want to censor the language that came to me most immediately. I didn’t want to be hampered by politeness or convention or expectation. I wanted to tell it like it is.
Once these poems started coming thick and fast, I understood that I was filling in the vast blank left by the phrase “it’s probably nothing…” with those ponderous ellipses left hanging in the air like doom.
Poems seemed the perfect medium in which to say a thing concisely, leaving as little room as possible for sentimentality or self-pity, yet allowing for maximum emotional punch. You can be funny in a poem in a way you have too much time to be in prose.
The book that grew as I recovered became an occasion to reclaim more than just the words we use when talking about cancer. I divided it up into four stages, to mimic cancer’s four “stages” or levels of severity — except mine were diagnosis, surgery, chemotherapy, and finally recovery. In my book, the dreaded “Stage IV” has been rescued from dread and made positive; instead of a death there is a re-birth.
The “c-word” doesn’t refer to “cancer,” but to “cured.”
The message is that for any woman (or anyone at all), what she’s going through is never “probably nothing.” It’s absolutely everything.
And that’s OK to say.