breast-monastery

Christ in the Desert Monastery

Motorcycles, Monks, and Money

That was supposed to be the end of the story. My mastectomy was supposed to have “cured” me. And I was planning, after a couple of months, to never think about breast cancer again. Unfortunately, things didn’t quite work out that way.

The dissection of my breast tissue uncovered a tiny tumor that was highly aggressive—and that raised the possibility of lymphovascular invasion. In lay terms: although my lymph nodes were clean, cancer cells may have escaped the breast ducts into the bloodstream, where they could travel anywhere in my body, most ominously to my bones, lungs, or liver.

The words “may have” caused me considerable consternation. For the first time, I was assigned an oncologist, and then a second, and then a third. The statistics were in my favor: it was 80 to 90 percent likely that the surgery had “cured” me, but if the cancer was on the loose and invaded my bones, lungs, or liver, it almost assuredly would be fatal. Although chemotherapy reduced my already slim odds of recurrence by only 30 percent, two of three oncologists recommended it, as did every naturopath, acupuncturist, and friend.

Once again I was faced with an agonizing decision—whether putting my body through chemo was worth such a slight reduction in risk. And again, the irony of my situation bemused me. I was lucky: I had options. By the time many women discover their cancer, their decisions are made. I could choose whether or not to have chemo. Still, for me, the decisions were the hardest part; decisions didn’t feel like much of a luxury.

After four weeks of considering various treatments and assembling professional opinions, I was a wreck. If I hadn’t felt like fighting for my life before, now I felt less like it. Usually when I’m that low, climbing on the back of a motorcycle is the only remedy. Although the plastic surgeon forbade such activity for two months post-surgery, I felt the benefits outweighed the risks. One glorious fall day I cruised around the West Hills on an old Honda, holding tight with my good arm to a Tennessee stud. For a couple of precious hours I felt like myself again, and the positive effects lingered a full two days.

Protocol required that I begin a course of treatment within three months of surgery. As time ticked away, I came more undone. I cried without provocation, my mind close to meltdown. The money thing became far more distressing as my illness threatened to command more of my future. I didn’t know when I’d go back to work and had no idea how I would pay my bills. Without my friends, I would have been lost. They fed me, entertained me, and every time I got down to my last six bucks, some hero swooped in with a tank of gas, a bag of groceries, a free massage, a stack of hundreds.

Finally, perhaps hearing the distress in my voice, my biggest hero of all set his own rescue plan in motion. For years, my dad, a Lutheran minister, had been prodding me to visit a monastery, promising that the silence and prayer would center and ground me. Convinced I needed sun with my silence, Dad insisted I take a trip south and booked me for a stay at the Monastery of Christ in the Desert in the Chama Canyon, just north of the tiny town of Abiquiú, New Mexico.

Which is how I found myself breaking bread with twenty Benedictine monks for a full week last November. I prayed and meditated and chanted and hiked in the desert. Slowly, I came back to myself. The tears dried up after the first few days, and I felt my soul start to return to its center. By the end of my stay, my smirk was back in place. During a silent lunch, I laughed out loud in spite of myself when the thought crossed my mind that I’d been in a similar situation countless times: a woman alone in a room full of men—but in the past I was almost always naked.

I came home from New Mexico happy and calm, and I met my oncologist, Dr. Bruce Dana, with a clear head and an open heart. I realized that, contrary to my alleged lack of fight, I had been fighting since Day One of my diagnosis. I was fighting loss, fighting change, fighting reality. And though I finally admitted life was worth fighting for, perhaps fighting wasn’t actually the best way to handle things. Once I relaxed, the decision came: I would do chemo.

Sex, Drugs, and Rock 'n' Roll

breast-killer-band

Coco Cobra and The Killers

Healing is a process, both mental and physical. My body and my mind have had to stretch and grow in ways I wouldn’t have thought possible pre-cancer. We’ve got a long way to go, but I’m confident that by summer I’ll be rockin’ a lovely new rack. And I’m looking forward to the punk possibilities of post-chemo hairstyles. Hopefully my mind will rebound in like fashion (if not, there are always those monks in New Mexico).

Already my left breast has stretched to accommodate two giant injections of saline. To me it looks huge, especially next to my A-cup right breast, but that didn’t stop me from flaunting them both in a fishnet shirt at the Coco Cobra and the Killers show on Halloween. After chemo, both breasts will undergo another surgery: the expander pouch in the left breast will be swapped for a silicone implant, and my right breast will be augmented to match. Although it’s nothing I ever aspired to, for the first time in my life I’ll have a proper pinup body.

I’ll be seriously into pharmaceuticals for quite a while. After chemo, I’ll start a five-year course of tamoxifen and a year of weekly injections of Herceptin, a designer drug that, at $8,000 to $10,000 a shot, will make me the Gal with the Golden Arm. I’d much rather be planning a sabbatical in New York City or a pregnancy, but for now, those things have been shelved. I’ll be in Portland for the foreseeable future, basking in the love of my friends, playing music, and promoting my book while comforting gals newly diagnosed with breast cancer and letting them feel me up in dark corners of hipster bars.

And maybe, just maybe, I’ll do a few cameo appearances on the stages of the downtown strip joints I have loved so well, slinking around in the buff to the Rolling Stones, preaching that all bodies, no matter what strange adventures they’ve been on, are beautiful.