Typing in the Dark
The girls have just gone to sleep and I crash down on my bed. Lying on a heating pad in the dark, I hold up my phone and begin to type in the search field:
“S y m p t o m s o f”
Don’t do it Adina. Stop typing now.
“m e t a s t a t i c”
Adina, if you go down this road, you will be up all night worrying.
“b r e a s t c a n c e r”
You can still stop now. It’s not too late.
“i n t h e s p i n e”
You will be up all night. You will feel every symptom you read about. You will not know whether you should worry or not.
“Symptoms of metastatic breast cancer in the spine.”
- trouble urinating
Oh no. Tossing and turning for most of the night, my mind spirals into the worst-case scenario.
Cancer survivors lead two parallel lives: the brave face we present to everyone on the outside, and the inner spin we experience under the surface, in the quiet of night, alone with our thoughts, paralyzed by a sense of our own mortality. We have our hair and eyebrows back, but we are learning how to move on, to be ourselves, to appear normal even though we cope with intractable fear. As I approach my first cancerversary, one year since diagnosis, I try to find my footing in my life as a survivor. In my best moments I’m living freely, in the present, patiently appreciating Yael’s ten-minute pajama process. In my worst moments, I put my children in front of the TV so I can research what it feels like to have metastatic breast cancer in the spine.
For two months I have experienced lower back pain that seemed to start from wearing a pair of heeled boots, exacerbated by a cross-country move and from picking up increasingly heavy children throughout the day. Pain, which used to be something I tolerated well, something I would brush off as nothing for 35 years, now signals a potential warning. After consulting my new East Coast oncologist, equally as cautious as my West Coast one, but with a more conventional wardrobe (read: no fishnet stockings), she says: “I think this is an injury, but I want to do some imaging to make sure.”
The morning of the MRI I get the girls ready for their day, struggling to focus on the parenting tasks at hand.
Outside: To any passer-by I am just a young mother with a cute pixie hair cut driving my toddler to pre-school. I stop at the red light, feeling the weight of already being up for four hours with young children.
Inside: I feel the weight of fear. Fear that the next time it won’t be the boots that cause the pain, but metastatic breast cancer. I imagine reading the MRI technician’s facial expression while she looks at my MRI. Haunting memories of my biopsy come flashing back. The technician foretold the story when she said: “I will be thinking of you.”
After I get home, I send off a work email.
Outside: I just had lunch and now am typing up “next steps from our meeting.”
Inside: I just lay my head down in the cave of an MRI. The idea of cancer in my spine is mind-numbingly terrifying. I fell asleep from sleep deprivation amidst the battle clatter of a massive, godlike machine that seems to dictate my fate.
After getting the “clear of cancer-no mets” verbal from a very well-connected doctor friend one hour post-MRI, my father and I celebrate in a french café on the upper east side. I remember when I called my dad a year ago to tell him I had cancer. Before getting off the phone he said: “I’ll be with you every step of the way.” How I wish this could be our last step.
How can I even be the same person now that I was two hours ago? Two hours ago I was planning my death. Now I am back to planning my 35th birthday.
The next day I go to a yoga class. My back pain is completely gone, which makes me realize how the psychological turmoil affects my mind and body alike. After each clear scan I mark the time by renewing my health and trying to find my balance again.
Outside: I raise my arms for the first salutation, in step with all the other women in the room.
Inside: I am vulnerable, worrying about revealing the scar under my right arm.
The image of me scrolling through the symptoms list comes to mind. Deep breath in.
I’m so terrified of what I cannot control. Deep breath out.
What if I cannot hold it together? Deep breath in.
How do people live in peace alongside life and death? Deep breath out.
I swan dive down and let my head hang low, the gravity, the weight of the world pulling me toward the earth. I let all fall to the floor, down my legs and toward feet that now, after bouts of neuropathy, have sensation.
And then I look up at the woman in the mirror to greet her.
Every moment is the chance to start again, to let go of fear, and to live.