I didn’t want to tell anyone I had cancer. It felt like a personal failing, and I didn’t want anyone to think that I was weak, vulnerable. I didn’t want the role of the “sick person,” or for people to treat me any differently than they had. But now that I was going to have to take months off of work and undergo major surgery, the time had come to fess up.For this I primarily relied on text messaging: “Bad news. Got a touch of the cancer. Double mastectomy in two weeks! Unbelievable.”
I was inundated with phone calls. My friends were furious, unbelieving, devastated. Instead of them comforting me, I had to comfort them , explaining over and over the details of the diagnosis and the reason for the aggressive treatment plan. Every single person considered a double mastectomy barbaric. In my doctor’s defense, I quoted statistics, and with each conversation my reality became more real, and I more at peace with it. By the time I went to my bartending shift, I was able to laugh cynically at my new joke: “Did you hear I’m getting a boob job? And a tattoo!”Anyone who knew me was shocked. I’d been a stripper for twelve years, but apart from a few hard-earned scars, my body had looked the same since puberty. I’d seen a lot of great boob jobs in my line of work, but I never, ever wanted one. Ditto tattoos. My shtick on the strip stage was all about sincerity, and to me that meant baring the all-nude real me. Not to mention I’d always been a tomboy and an athlete, and I liked my barely-there tits. I was the last person who’d replace her breast tissue with gelatinous pads of silicone.
“You?! Fake boobs? Why?”“Well, it’s free! My insurance is paying for it. Cuz … I have cancer!”
I thought my joke was really funny. Whatever patron I happened to be talking to would take a sip of whiskey and try to discern whether I was serious. And I’d blather on about my tattoo. Part of the reconstruction involved getting tattoos of nipples where my nipples had been. I thought that if insurance planned to pick up the tab for a tattoo, I might as well get something cool, like maybe the Ramones crest—the one with the eagle holding a baseball bat—or maybe the name of my other ex-boyfriend, Dickhead, in script over my heart.During my downtime at the bar, I took a mental survey of myself. People clearly expected me to be more upset. I wasn’t. It sucked to have cancer, to be sure, but I didn’t feel depressed or even sad or angry. In fact, I felt more grounded than I had in a while, probably because there was something to focus my angst on, and, for once, a clear plan for my immediate future. Although I’d just begun my interaction with it, cancer seemed much easier than heartbreak or depression. Even the idea of being invaded by something that wanted to kill me lent a fresh perspective on life, and considerable relief.
One night at East End, I took out a pen, drew a line graph, and labeled it “Continuum of Things That Suck.” Heartbreak fell at the far end of suckiness, as did the death of a pet. Cancer was certainly worse than flying, or middle school, perhaps even worse than a friend’s betrayal. But I really believed heartbreak sucked the most. Or … maybe war. No! Urban sprawl . Urban sprawl was without a doubt the most corrosive thing I could think of, a constant source of grief and hopelessness. Cancer wasn’t nearly that bad; in fact, it fell more toward Stuff That Doesn’t Suck Quite So Much.Three of my best girlfriends—the Stripper Mom, the Artist, and the Schoolteacher—interrupted my reverie. My diagnosis baffled them as much as it did me. They’d come to East End to get the details over a palliative cocktail.
“How will you nurse?! Do you know how important colostrum is for the baby? And the mother!” screeched the childless but well-meaning Schoolteacher. I wanted to punch her.“Oh, God. Nursing’s not that big a deal,” said the Stripper Mom. “But Viva, how are you going to survive? How long do you have to take off work? Do you have insurance? God … We need to marry rich! Now!”
Taking a drag off her cigarette, the Artist said, “Haven’t I always said you’d make an excellent trophy wife?”I felt like I was watching a Greek tragedy of my life, with my gal pals as chorus, voicing my three biggest fears: I wouldn’t be able to nurse my theoretical children.
Although I had insurance, I had no extra cash to sustain me for the three months I would have to miss work. And my stripping career was, in all likelihood, over.
I would make an excellent trophy wife. Or would have, until cancer butchered my chest and did God-knows-what to my insides. I figured I’d never date again.