Down the Rabbit Hole

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My back hurts.

It’s a pretty minor pain, to be honest. I’ve had issues with my back much of my adult life (another hereditary thing, I’m certain, since my mother and sister both suffered/suffer back issues), and I’ve had backaches much worse than this. Plus, I’m coming off several major surgeries to my torso, I’m on Tamoxifen, I’m going through menopause, and I lift a 30-pound toddler on a daily basis. Of course my back hurts.

But that rational explanation can’t quite quell my fear. Even the smallest twinge of pain conjures that insidious little voice in my head, whispering, “maybe it’s cancer.”

On a good day, I tell that little voice to fuck off, pop an ibuprofen and keep it moving.

But on bad days, I turn to the place I should probably avoid most–the internet.

It all starts with Dr. Google. After I’ve Googled symptoms, I’m usually still unsatisfied. That’s when I go to a place I definitely should avoid.

The community message boards on breastcancer.org are actually a really great resource. Women and men at all stages of the game can talk to each other, share stories, ask questions, offer support–it’s truly a fabulous space.

It’s also a dangerous place for a person like me. I usually start by scrolling through the topics, but when I can’t find threads addressing my particular issue, I do more targeted searches. These searches bring up threads that are years old, full of people experiencing symptoms and fear similar to my own.

As I scroll through these threads, I can’t help but notice something that makes my heart sink. Members of the message board all add a signature to their posts that lists their diagnosis(es), treatments, etc. Most of them started out with early-stage cancer. There are folks whose cancers are hormone-receptive (like me), folks with no lymph node involvement (same), folks who seemingly should’ve been done with this mess after the first go-round. Their stat lists also include things like “Stage IV,” “bone mets,” “lung mets,” “liver mets,” “brain mets.” (Mets is shorthand for metastasis.)

When you see words like that on a post that’s several years old, you can pretty much draw some solid conclusions as to what has happened to those people in the interim.

In Nina Riggs’ brilliant memoir The Bright Hour, she talks about this online medical obsessing in the essay perfectly titled: “www.heyninariggseverythingisgoingtobeok.com”:

A couple years back, when a therapist helped me realize through a series of exercises that the only thing that would satisfy me on the internet was a website that explicitly said: “Freddy and Benny are going to be just fine. So are you and John.” I laughed out loud at myself. But it didn’t really stop me from seeing disaster at every corner, or checking from time to time to make sure the magical website did not in fact exist.

Yep, that’s what I need. I’m looking for some validation that what I’m feeling is no big deal. A little reassurance that it’s nothing, and I should stop freaking out all the time. I know this is nuts. I know there is nothing on the internet (or anywhere else, for that matter), that is going to give me this reassurance. And even if it did, would I believe it?

The thing is, coping with all of this calls for a healthy dose of faith. I certainly have a strong faith, and while turning my fate over to God and my oncologists is freeing in a way, it’s also terrifying. Just like riding on a plane, I no longer have control, and I think that’s what scares me most.

 

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Winks from God

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The other day, my son and I stopped into Starbucks for a little treat. As we settled in at a table outside, a woman seated near us walked over and asked me how I was doing.

This might seem a bit odd since I didn’t know her, but I was just wearing a ball cap that day (as I do most weekends), so it was clear I’d lost my hair. I knew she could easily see that I’d been through chemo.

I told her how treatment was going, and she offered some words of encouragement. Then I asked her if she’d been through this, and she admitted that she was a breast cancer survivor, as well, and told me her story.

This isn’t the first time this has happened. Since I started treatment and lost my hair, I’ve had several complete strangers approach me in public with words of encouragement. And these strangers were all survivors themselves.

A few weeks ago a woman (also a survivor) came up to me in a restaurant and told me to keep up the fight. And on the day before my brain MRI, a woman (another survivor) in the drug store told me I was going to be OK–a message I desperately needed to hear that day.

As I thanked the lady at Starbucks for coming over to talk, I told her this keeps happening to me. She just smiled and said, “Yes, it happened to me, too. I call them winks from God.”

I love that. And I also love that there’s this inherent sisterhood among women who’ve faced this nasty disease. It’s as if we have a sixth sense about one another, and can spot a sister from a mile away. And what’s even cooler is we’re not afraid to reach out and offer love and support, even to someone we don’t know.

I’ve decided that once I get to the other side of this, I will do the same for other women I encounter. Being someone else’s wink from God is the least I can do.