It’s breast cancer month, and as a survivor, I get special attention this time of year. I got a free chair massage at the Young Survivors support group meeting last Tuesday (just about the only place I still get called ‘young.’) I get offered a glass of pink wine (which I take, of course) that raises money for research. I’m asked if I would like to stand on the high school football field at halftime next to a pink tractor to be honored for surviving. Thankfully, I had another obligation, because aside from the fact that l get weirdly anxious at big school events of any kind (I do not remember names and it’s appalling), there’s another reason: I do not feel like I deserve to be feted for surviving. I lived. That’s the gift, that’s the bennie. I am touched by the pinkness of the world this month. And I love the picture I got of my friends and their high school children standing there under the football lights – they are kick ass women. But it was enough to feel indebted to everyone for bringing me all those meals during my treatment. I don’t want to be the center of the party because I lived. I just want to go home and put on my yoga pants and take out my prosthetic breast and watch some Jimmy Fallon with my husband and our girls.
I’ve been cancer free for 3 years. Not that long. I need to get to the magic 5 year mark before things look a lot better for me. I feel good, though. I’m used to the hot flashes, which turn me an embarrassing shade of burgundy about twice an hour. There are other complications that are only interesting to other survivors, and I’ll spare you that. Recently I had one such issue, and frankly it annoyed me. Having to make time to see the surgeon, an appointment to see the physical therapist, who in turn recommended a chiropractor. I work full time, and I don’t need this part-time health gig on the side. But I was spooked. I thought something was wrong and from there it’s an easy slide into “what if it comes back what if it comes back what if it comes back.” My oldest daughter Bee was having a hard day, too. We were at the beach, trying to play fetch with our rescue labrador, but he wasn’t getting it. He kept losing the balls in the surf. It was becoming very evident that he was not a smart dog at all.
“Forget it. I’m done with this dog.” I tossed the plastic Chuck-It we used for throwing tennis balls onto our blanket and sat down next to Bee. “I’m sorry you had a hard day, honey. I had one, too.”
“I heard you talking to dad. Are you worried you’re going to get sick again?”
“Sometimes. But then it goes away. I’m cool.”
“Mom, I hope this doesn’t seem weird, but I never worry about you getting sick again. I just don’t think you’d ever let that happen.”
For Bee to think I was that strong, that fierce that I could not allow my cancer to come back – it took my breath away. I didn’t deserve that kind of confidence. I had been weak. Everyone tells you how strong you are when you’re in it. I did physically handle it better than many people. Sure, I drank green smoothies and listened to my guided meditation before the chemo drips. I exercised on treatment days and ran a (slow!) half marathon the weekend before my mastectomy. I also got really, really drunk two or three times in the last month of my treatments. I’d lost a dear friend to brain cancer. I was bald with a bulging port below my left collar bone. I had to wear a compression sleeve on my arm to control swelling. My face was puffy. I was unable to concentrate, and though I tried to make things fun for my girls – let’s have cupcakes when mom shaves her hair! – it was so not fun. So, with friends coming to stay and take care of me, I would let my guard down, we’d have a few drinks, crank up the Outkast and rock it in the kitchen. And more than once, there were tequila shots.**
**not in the middle of the day, mind you. I’m not a complete tankard. These were late nights, which makes it better, right? And even though we were loud enough to wake up the kids, they had a great time dancing with us. Just ask them.
I’m sure you’re not supposed to get hammered when your body is that weak. Just like I know I’m not supposed to like or drink Diet Coke. I wanted to just be normal for a night, to lose myself in what my body could still do, and I wanted to numb the fear that I wouldn’t beat it. I lost two friends during my cancer treatment. Why was I going to be any different?
But I was different and I’m still alive. In part because of an aggressive and uncommon strategy proposed by my team at UCSF, in part because of all that money that has been raised via pink-ness, in part because my girls needed me. Every day that I’m with them is my pink ribbon day. To be able to sit next to VeeVee at a Train concert and watch her sing along to a Led Zeppelin cover. To watch Bee wait on customers in my store, “this brittle is amazing – you have no idea,” her hair piled in a curly mass on top of her head. To stand between the two of them at a Zumba class while we shake our ample booties. This is the good stuff.
I am grateful almost all the time, even when I’m pissed off about lymphedema or how my fake breast is never quite level with my real breast. I try to deserve the gift I’ve been given. I just don’t want to feel like I have to be stellar and deserving and pink-worthy. I’m kind of a mess sometimes. I have a little PTSD. I see a therapist and take anti-depressants and sometimes I cry because I’m so happy to be alive. I’m just as awesome and messed up as anyone else. Please don’t make me the center of the pink ribbon cake. It’s too bright and kind of lonely. Let’s grab the kids and that dumb dog and hit the beach. There just might be some beer in the cooler. Just saying.
Joeli Yaguda is a shopkeeper, mama and cancer survivor. She opened her shop, General Store Paso Robles, a year and a half ago with two of her best friends. Prior to that she made olive oil and ran a tasting room in wine country. She’s currently working on a memoir.