Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Other stories, other lives

When I first received my cancer diagnosis, I began to think about other women I knew who had breast cancer. Two women I knew of in my faculty; a historian in another state I admire hugely; Kylie Minogue; and then Belinda Emmett, a starlet who died in a Sydney hospital the night Kylie made her first triumphant return, around the time I was having my surgery. And pretty chilling that was for me, too. Sheryl Crow. Linda McCartney. Anastasia. Susan Sontag. Jane McGrath. A second cousin, much younger than I, who's had a complete mastectomy. Fanny Burney, who famously described her mastectomy in 1811, without anaesthesia, feeling the knife scrape down to the bone, but going on to live another seventeen years.

Once I started reading around, I read dozens of other women's stories, in the support literature, and online. And since writing the blog, I've learned of many more: Meredith at Marrickvillia for example, whom I knew years ago at Melbourne. She doesn't write much about her experience with breast cancer last year, but has recently posted a retrospective as she heads off on holiday. Many friends have emailed to tell me their own stories, or those of friends and relations. I'm glad to be part of this company, though I haven't yet considered joining any kind of support group.

What is it possible to learn from these others, and these stories? That sometimes women die of breast cancer if it spreads to other parts of the body and can't be controlled; but sometimes they die much later, quietly in their beds like other people, or in war, or of other diseases, or of stupid traffic accidents. That some women are terrified and shocked when they first hear the news; that many have a much harder time of it than I have had, especially those who undergo chemotherapy and endure complications from side-effects and fertility issues; and that for most it produces some change in the way they live, or in who they are.

Amongst the medievalists, my friends have reminded me of Kellie Robertson, at Pittsburgh, who was diagnosed and treated about seven years ago. I've not exchanged more than a word or two, if that, with Kellie, but I've seen her presenting at conferences, and she is something else. She gives a great talk, and I find her energy and engagement inspiring. I also have her book, The Laborer's Two Bodies, on my desk, as I slowly think about the nature of the acts of writing, as work, and as pleasure, in Piers Plowman.

On the web, I came across Kellie's account of her year with breast cancer here. Her diagnosis, type of tumour, and treatment are all different to mine, and as a much younger woman, cancer raised different issues for her, too. But it was great for me to read her account (partly because it's so bracing and compelling; and partly because we inhabit such similar intellectual and collegial spaces) and also to see from my correspondence with her this week that she has become something of an activist. I've put up a link to the Breast Cancer Action site she directed me to, and I was intrigued to follow its critique of the pink consumerism that surrounds breast cancer in October. Just how much of your donation goes to breast cancer research? and of what kind? to support a drug company? or support networks? or just "awareness"? Do the pink ribbon cosmetic or food or water companies you support use chemicals or packaging that might actually be endangering our health and our environment? This is a big theme on this site: I don't know enough to say more about these concerns, but I think they are good questions to ask.

I've now finished the 25 standard radiation treatments, and started the 8 "booster" shots, just along the scar area. It's a different machine, one that comes much closer as I lie on my side. I saw Michael for my weekly check-up on Monday and he said I had tanned up nicely; and it's true. The area under the breast is no longer pink and burned but is a deep dark tan: I could have been in an ad for Reef Oil as a teenager, and gone very, very brown if I had ever had the patience to lie long enough in the sun. The skin along the scar is still tender and feels burned, though, and the skin on the nipple has started to peel. Ouch. And the other breast seems startlingly smooth and white in comparison. But it's not a medical breast, so I can't write about it here. I'm still doing ok. I now know what radiotherapy fatigue is like, though. Not just sleepiness, but also a feeling that my limbs and my eyelids weigh at least twice as much as they did last week. I'm also growing some rather dark shadows under my eyes. Small prices to pay, I say.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Hi Stephanie,

It's Eleanor, your former tenant, lurking here on your most excellent blog.

I'm really sorry to hear of all that's happened to you. A friend about the age of Kylie has just gone through a complete masectomy and is now on very regular chemo. which seems like a horrifying thig to me.

In Sydney at Xmas, there was a giant poster of an angelic Kylie dressed in breast cancer society pink in Grace Bros, positioned so that she could beam down on all those in the escalator well for several floors. I wasn't quite sure what to make of it. (Selling some product, obv, but I've forgotten entirely what it was.)

There's a great essay by Barbara Ehrenreich on the experience of having breast cancer treatment -- all the chatrooms and little groups and so forth. I'd highly recommend it, if you haven't come across it. I think it was published in a Harper's Monthly collection.

Stephanie Trigg said...

Hi Eleanor, good to hear from you. Yes, from all accounts, chemotherapy is pretty tough. Effective, but devastating, as it's directed at all fast-growing cells (e.g. cancers, hair, nails, etc.). I hope your friend is soon out of those dark woods. It's hard to know what comfort a pink Kylie would be under those circumstances, isn't it?

Kellie sent me a link to the Ehrenreich essay; it's quite amazing, and I think I might say something about it in a day or two... It's here.