Confronting The Killer

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Suzanne Jacobson

Pink breast cancer balloons flew merrily overhead the supermarket checkout line where I wearily stood.

Pink and white ribbons hung between registers, almost offensive in cheer.

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and celebratory merchandisers attempt to convince the public they can cure cancer by buying stuff. Even tennis rackets these days have a breast cancer version — life and death has turned into a marketing ploy.

I drove home and made a veggie burger for lunch. Sighing onto the couch, my roommate and the Little Sister she volunteers with walked in. The 10-year-old looked at my bald head strangely, scared but curious.

The two were going to finish a quilt. My wig was on the table. I walked over, embarrassed, and grabbed the hat next to it.

“I have cancer,” I told the little girl. “That’s why I’m bald.” She looked appeased.

I have a strange relationship with my bald head. Some women walk around with it shining, accentuating their femininity with large hoop earrings. I put on my wig and feel like a fraud. Everyone else can pretend that nothing is wrong with me, but like everything else with cancer, the battle is internal.

The aches, the pains, the fatigue, and the fear. Some days it’s OK, and others it’s not.

I saw two women jogging down the street as I pulled into work today. I ogled their vitality and swinging ponytails. My once limber and strong body is now stiff and sometimes it hurts to walk.

I began sobbing in my car, managed to stop before getting out, but then saw one of our advertising representatives outside the building and began sobbing again. It doesn’t take much these days.

Some days, I am grateful for the struggle. I prize spiritual strength and tenacity and nothing delivers like cancer.

Other days, I watch fake blondes on reality TV and admire their perfect bodies, become absorbed in their talk of boyfriends I don’t even know and think how nice it would be to be that shallow. Shallowness is a luxury more priceless than a Prada dress. At least I will soon have better fake boobs than they.

I found the lump in the shower after returning from a cruise in early May. I always thought I would get cancer because my father successfully fought two before dying of esophageal in 1996. He was 48.

At 46, he had a mastectomy after discovering breast cancer. Males account for less than 1 percent of all breast cancer cases, and most of those don’t occur until a man is in his 70s or later.

And although one in eight women grow malignant breast tumors during their lifetime, my type of cancer, caused by a gene mutation prevalent in Ashkenazi Jews, accounts for 5 to 10 percent of all cases. Most of those cases also occur later in life.

Breast cancer at 27 was an unimaginable fate.

It’s shocking how many people around Payson are fighting cancer or know someone who is. Cancer’s commonality is frightening, and not all of it is due to poor eating habits or inactivity. Personally, I think much of it has to do with stress, which depresses the immune system and creates a hospitable environment for cancerous cells.

The beautiful thing about tragedy is the bond it creates. People have shared stories and thoughts with me that ordinarily would stay locked behind the constraint of social roles. Once revealing my struggle, I become a person and not a wary-eyed reporter. Similarly, once another person reciprocates and tells of her battle, or of someone close to her, that person becomes more alive to me, more real.

Some choose to keep their battles secret, but I think shared struggle turns sweet.

Around the office, the frequent meaning of life discussions between my office mate and I have found new vigor. I’ve joined the old man club, and can talk about cancer for hours with the other survivors around here. Cancer gives gravitas.

People can rail against tragedy, denounce their luck as evil, and whine about why this particular event has chosen them, but life is suffering. Struggle reduces us to people, strips away our worldly illusions of what we have constructed. Illness isn’t a setback. It’s life.

Yes, joy compensates for the struggle. The danger of strife is that it can overcome us and make us more miserable people, not happier.

Cancer has so far made me a more positive person, and it has renewed my sense of purpose. I’m happy for the personality changes this disease has brought, although I could do without the physical alterations.

The generosity of those around me has been astounding, and here’s a public thank you to everyone at the Roundup for being the most kind, compassionate co-workers and bosses anyone could ask for.

I only wish I didn’t have to get sick to fully appreciate life.

After returning to Payson from my first chemotherapy session, I drove to the supermarket for food. Exhausted and emotional, I entered the parking lot contemplating my ill lot in life and thinking how no one could possibly know what I was feeling.

Then, in the produce aisle I spied a woman with a cap that covered her bald head. I looked over a few times, just to be sure. I didn’t want to approach this woman and ask her if she was undergoing chemotherapy if she wasn’t.

I decided to gamble. “Excuse me,” I started, “but do you have cancer?”

She looked at me for a minute before answering that she did, and I nearly began bawling in the supermarket, so relieved to have found a comrade.

I told her I just had my first treatment three days before.

“You’re driving?” she exclaimed, shocked. Her empathy helped normalize this strange physical experience. It helped me realize that it was OK to not be Superwoman, the woman people always talk about whose treatment barely dents life’s pace. I couldn’t even wash dishes without leaning an elbow on the countertop.

The woman told me about the local breast cancer support group and promised to call. And in that moment, I realized that the Universe had not abandoned me. It still gave me exactly what I needed.

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