My favorite painting by the Mexican artist, Frida Kahlo (for whom I almost named my only child), is titled El Sueno (Le Cama), or The Dream (The Bed). Frida lies in her canopied bed, asleep. Vines crawl over her blanket and cover her body. A skeleton wired with explosives sleeps above her and the bed floats in clouds.
I stared at that painting a lot this past year. Frida has been an inspiration to me during my breast cancer treatment, which began in April 2014. My disease is locally advanced to the extent that I required an intensive six months of neoadjuvant chemotherapy; followed by a double mastectomy, lymph node removal and reconstruction; removal of a parathyroid tumor; then 6 weeks of daily radiation to my chest and arm. And now, I receive targeted therapies, Tamoxifen and Herceptin, to block estrogen, progesterone, and HER2 protein receptors in my body, which fuel my disease. My cancer is Stage 3 and will require ongoing care. (I’ve learned to speak in medical jargon, and my apologies to the lay people who endured that sentence.)
Frida was a young woman who lived with a random illness, an activist, a lover, a fighter. She painted in her bed. I am a young woman with a life-threatening illness, and I have an somewhat notorious reputation as an activist, a lover, a fighter, and an occasional writer. During chemo, I absorbed Frida’s life story. I was keen during the first half of my treatment, writing in my bed, on my laptop, as she painted on her small easel.
The other night, I watched a film about her with my family. My daughter, who is 11, responded, “She’s gross She’s ill.”
She’s tired of sickness too.
After the daily radiation, which structured my entire life and felt reassuring – (Something is being done every day to treat the cancer!) – I became very depressed. My body was experiencing more and more side effects from treatment – chronic cough, kidney infection, dehydration, heart problems, memory loss from chemo, anxiety, fatigue, swollen arm, premature menopause, etc. I’ve been in and out of ER numerous times, nuked with radioactive heart tests, and needled with IVs to the point that I stopped recognizing myself.
Mostly, I’ve been staring at a wild rose bush outside my bedroom window, unable to think in the chemo fog, let alone write about my experiences. It’s been 5 months since my last CounterPunch piece, and I’ve missed it.
I’ve been too ashamed of being really sick, and furiously wanting my old, carefree, pre-cancer life back to write about what might help others who are struggling with a possible death sentence.
I’m not alone. It’s a well-known fact that cancer patients slip into depression and, often, experience episodes of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder as treatment wanes, anniversaries come and go, friends die, and side effects debilitate. The oncologists and surgeons treat the tumors, but they don’t speak at all about the emotional toll of becoming a veteran of a very private, invisible, inner war. And rarely is their strong support at clinics for the patient’s mental health.
Cancer is a private disease, but I made mine public, and the pressure to “beat” the disease is intense. I don’t want to let down my family, friends and CounterPunch readers. I want to move on as much as others want to stop hearing about it.
At 41, my friends are experiencing a very different reality: marriages, new babies, affairs, job promotions, mid-life crises of various stripes. And I’m envious. There is the urgency to live life fully and create my legacy. There is the very real possibility that I won’t see my daughter grow up and go to college. Many nights, I fled to the beach fronts of Vancouver to sit and stare at the water and scheme. Maybe build a cabin off the grid, for one, or get a van, and just leave the stress of the medical world, the guilt of being sick, and the anxious memories behind.
But I’m realistic and I’m working on coming back. Gratitude, compassion, breathing, and mindfulness help, but a will to create, to help others through writing, is more energizing and powerful for my spirit.
Every time I visit the chemo ward, I meet another person who inspires me. Last week, it was a young woman, 19 years old, fighting lymphoma, and her mother, who survived colon cancer. She was frail and sweet and witty. Her mother was feisty. I always ask, wryly, “So what are you in for?”
When I mention to other patients that I try to write about the experience of cancer, they always enthusiastically say, “Yes! And tell the real story of what it’s like – not the pink-ribbon version.”
I’ve seen that in the work of Frida Kahlo, who once said, “I don’t paint dreams or nightmares, I paint my own reality.”
She also said, “I was born a painter. I was born a bitch.”
I’ve been in flight, but I am better at fighting. My oncologist wrote in her notes last month there is a 97% 5-year survival rate for women who have responded to treatment as I have. That was a good day.
Published in CounterPunch magazine.