Living With It

“God didn’t promise day without pain, laughter without sorrow, sun without rain. But God did promise strength for the day, comfort for tears and light for the way.” — Annie J. Flint

The first time I felt the lump in my breast, I convinced myself it was nothing. I told myself it was, if anything at all, a fibroid. I told myself cancer was not even a remote possibility for me.  God knew I had things to do.  My daughter needed me, as did the children in our children’s’ ministry.  There was the degree I was pursuing in order to become ordained.  There was the church to pastor    Besides, hadn’t I sold my home, left familiar surroundings, and uprooted my family, all in obedience to my call to ministry?   I couldn’t live with the thought of cancer.

As the tumor grew and grew and grew, I said nothing to anyone.  I had no insurance.  What could anyone do for me, except pray and worry? I was doing enough of that on my own.  I told myself the girls and women in my family couldn’t bear to lose someone else to breast cancer. I told myself I was not my Mother.  And even as the tumor began to change the shape of my breast, I told myself I would not have breast cancer, and I certainly would not die from it.  I couldn’t envision a universe in which I would live with cancer.

By the time I got to a doctor, my breast was hot to the touch and inflamed.  I was still convinced it couldn’t be cancer.  My research had not uncovered these symptoms.  I didn’t know this was no garden-variety (if that term even applies) breast cancer.  I remember the deep sigh of the nurse practitioner when she saw my breast.  I remember the look on her face.  I could feel her concern. She scheduled the biopsy for the very next day.  The imaging center could not see me that same day.  I appreciated the urgency with which they were moving, but there was no room in my life for cancer.  I was not anxious anymore.  I just knew God would understand how impossible it was for the tumor to be malignant.  I was not worried.  God knew, as well as I did, I couldn’t live with it.

By now, my family and those closest to me knew.  We hunkered down to wait the 3-5 days for the results of the biopsy. On the fifth day, I went back to the doctor, but the biopsy results weren’t in.  Dr. Caroline Woodland got on the phone herself, called the lab, and got the results.  As she told me the biopsy was positive, she cried.  She sat with me while the nurse set up appointments with the surgeon and the oncologist.  I had cancer, and I had to live with it.  No options.  No place to return this cancer I did not ask for and certainly did not want.  I wanted to give the cancer back; send it back wherever it came from, but who was big enough to receive it?  No one but God. 

My friend Katie urged me to visualize the chemo IV as “healing streams,” I could never divorce my mind from the thought that it was poisonous streams, instead.  After all, the combination of cytoxan, taxol and adriamycin had to be strong to arrest the growth of a tumor that had grown from 3.5 cm to 10+cm in less than a month.  When I read about the side effects, I prayed that God would spare me.  God did not spare me.  The nails on my fingers and toes turned black, as did the palms of my hands and the soles of my feet.  Every bone in my body ached for weeks at a time.  Morphine drips and oxycodone didn’t lay a glove on that pain.  I had mouth sores, fever and the shakes.  I was hospitalized.  I was nauseated. Sometimes I wanted to die, but I had to live with it.

Fast-forward through 16 weeks of chemotherapy, a modified radical double mastectomy, and 5 weeks of radiation.  In less than one year, I was cancer-free and training as a chaplain.  I was diagnosed August 27, 2012 and went to work June 28, 2013.  I am grateful.  God is good.  But one day last week, I realized I could not read street signs, or the signs on buildings.  In the daytime.  And there is the nagging problem of my memory.  I work at two hospitals.  At the very small hospital, I keep forgetting how to get to the cafeteria.  At the very large hospital, I still get lost with regularity after almost four months.  I began to have headaches. When I went to The Center for Cancer and Blood Disorders for a checkup, I mentioned the cluster of symptoms to the doctor.  She ordered an MRI of my brain. The thick silence in that room, the look on her face; the seriousness of it struck me like a slap in the face.  Until that moment, the cancer metastasizing to my brain had not occurred to me.  I checked out with the receptionist and walked out of the building to my car.  I opened the car door, poured my body into the front seat, and sat there.  I can’t tell you how long. In my mind, I’m still sitting there, in suspended animation.   

I thought I understood what it means to live with cancer.  Foolish, foolish me.  Living with it means cancer will be my companion for the duration of my life. There will be times I believe I will see Allye graduate college and get married; that I will live to meet a grandchild or maybe two. That I will meet a man to love, who will love me back.  On the other hand, there will not be a day cancer is not visible in my rear view mirror.  I’ve got to live with that.   I will undoubtedly give it back to God over and over again.  Only God is big enough to receive it.  And only hope in God will see me through.

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Me. Unequivocally and Unapoligetically

“the Negro must boldly throw off the manacles of self-abnegation and say to himself and the world: ‘I am somebody. I am a person. I am a man with dignity and honor. I have a rich and noble history, however painful and exploited that history has been. I am black and comely.”
Martin Luther King, Jr. writing in Where Do We Go from Here (43-44 )

When they told me I would lose my hair, I decided to cut it off myself. It was my way of taking control in a universe where I had lost all control. I was cool about it. After all, I’ve dealt with the hair issue all my life, right? I’ve done weave, perms, afros, hot combs, locks, texturizers . . . the whole gamut. Truth be told, my hair journey isn’t much different from most of my sisters’. I researched baldness, shaving, even depilatories (a definite don’t) and in the end, I took the scissors and did it myself. I rocked the baldness with pride. Everywhere I went, people told me how lovely I was; how brave. I wore my bald head like a badge of courage. It was not until my hair began to grow back that I was challenged. It was gray! I couldn’t color it! It was too soon after the chemo, and neither could I perm it. Sometimes I wore a wig, and sometimes I went natural, and I thought that settled my internal debate. Foolish, foolish me. All it took was a move to a new city to prove it wasn’t over.

It should be completely expected that a people described as ugly, beastly and anything but comely would internalize that description.  Black women hated their noses, their posteriors, the nappiness of their hair and the dark hue of their skin because white beauty was celebrated while black beauty could not be contemplated as anything but an oxymoron.  Some would argue, “that happened so long ago, why dwell on it,” but it wasn’t that long ago.  And when a load that heavy is shouldered by our grandmothers and our mothers, some (or all) of that weight is transferred to us.  So some of us lighten our skin, torture our hair, and hate what we see in the mirror.  I thought I worked all that out a long time ago.  Now I know that while I processed it philosophically, cancer forced me to look again, in minute detail.

One day shortly after the move, I had a medical appointment at Baylor Hospital.  I sat in the car, afraid to get out.  I felt ugly and feared the reaction of people I didn’t even know.  I looked like a flat-chested, plucked chicken.   I weighed reversing the car and going home, but then I asked myself, “What would be different the next time?”  I forced myself out of the car and walked in.  Yes, people looked at me, but they didn’t point and stare.  I was just one of the walking wounded.  I was the only one, it seemed, concerned about my appearance. When the nurse complemented me on how great I looked, I discounted it as kindness, and I had an epiphany.  Why did I give the ugliness more weight than the beauty?  Could it be that all the self-talk about being and feeling beautiful was just that:  talk.  I needed to take control, as I once did by picking up the scissors, to pick up my life.   I would love to say that was the end of it, but my internal self-abnegation is something I wrestle with.  Even supermodels admit they have body parts they wish were “better.  ”The burgeoning bariatric and plastic surgery industries testify to the troubled relationship women (and a growing number of men) have with their bodies.

My taking control meant I went to be fitted for prosthetics and a bra.  My insurance didn’t cover it, but the Joan Katz Breast Center came through for me with donated funds.  Immediately after the fitting, I walked outside Baylor Hospital and a brother turned and looked at me with appreciation in his eyes.  His comment, “Baby, you sure look good to me.”  I marveled at the power of  breasts, and realized I was standing up straighter.  Prior to the fitting, I fretted about walking bent-over.  That’s the only way I can describe it.  I guess it was difficult for my body to adjust to being breast-less.  Maybe it’s shallow, but I felt good.  Will I suffer through reconstructive surgery?  I don’t know.  But with the Affordable Care Act, at least I have options.

As for the hair, I’m wigging it up for now, and I love it.  I realized I don’t have to wait to feel beautiful. Some women can feel beautiful no matter what.  I’m not one of them.  I don’t apologize for that.  I’ve stopped apologizing for being me.  If it takes fake breasts and a wig through this transition, so be it.  Among all the things cancer gave me, the blessing of being Valda Jean Combs. Me. unequivocally and unapologetically, is the greatest.  I am comely and black. Amen.