Monday, April 11, 2011

Day 340: Katy Goes Granola

OK, I will never really be granola, but today I am suddenly inspired to write about the mind body connection. This connection is one of those concepts that they throw at you with a cancer diagnosis as a way to tell you that you can somehow use Jedi mind tricks on your tumors to save yourself. I think that aspect of focusing on the body is actually a mistake, because it masks what we should really focus on when it comes to our bodies. I am going to try to articulate what I mean in this meandering blog of mine.

I had an epiphany today. I decided that my body is amazing.

Don't get me wrong, I have many of the same hangups that all women have about their bodies. I ask Gabe if I look fat before we go out, and especially when he takes pictures for this blog, though I don't obsess about it very much. I wish some things looked different and I would love to be more flexible, have better balance, be stronger. Since basketball was my favorite sport as a kid, I wish I were taller.

But overall, my God, look at what this body has gone through and what it has done and is able to do. I don't just mean cancer, not by a long shot. I mean everything--the allergies, epilepsy, car accident, organ removal, cancer, menopause, chemo side effects. At some point in my life I have lost the ability to do all of the normal things that people take for granted: walk, talk, breathe, eat, have sex, sleep, see, sweat, cry. I have been close to death at least three times: once as a baby when I had a severe reaction to penicilin, once when I was hit by a car, once when cancer was ravaging my body. I've had a gun pointed at my head (I'm not being figuative--a real gun). I've escaped other assaults on my person, most notably when I was a teenager and I learned how to fight with my hands and stay alert to keep myself safe from boys much bigger than me on several occasions.

My body has come through these things. Until now, I have been very focused on what has been taken away, and what could be taken away in the future. I think it is absolutely valid to do that. Now, I know I might be tempting fate by writing about this new way of seeing things just a few weeks before my first follow-up mammogram. I might find out that my body never came back at all, and that cancer has grown and spread inside me. But even that knowledge is not at the top of my mind right now. I am thinking about the weeks I've had, the days, the minutes, when my body worked, when it overcame the things that were put before it. I realize that so many people never know what that feels like. So many people have severe brain damage from epilepsy, die from allergic reactions to medications, never walk again, never recover from chemo or cancer. So many people get shot, beaten, raped. It's unfair on both sides: terribly unfair when those things happen, almost as unfair when others walk away because it makes no sense. It's not something to take credit for, but something to appreciate all the same.

And even beyond those things it has overcome in whatever way, my body has always been marked, and now that is even more true. It is perhaps strange, though it doesn't seem that way to me, that I am not ashamed of that. I have scars, some in very conspicuous places. I have tattoos, and not the kind that you get on purpose. My hips give way sometimes when it's raining. My hair is uncooperative (it's decided to be wavy/curly again all of a sudden. This pixie cut might be hard for me to pull off, but I will try). While I have quick moments where I wonder if I should hide these things, those moments are obviously brief.

I have always figured, correctly I'm sure, that people aren't paying enough attention to me for it to matter if I'm in a wheelchair, if I'm bald, if I look lopsided. Recently I've been realizing that I must have put a lot of people in uncomfortable situations by being bald in public. It honestly didn't occur to me most of the time, however. I just figured no one cared, because there are too many people, too many imperfections, for mine to be that serious. Also, people don't usually notice things in other people that they would obsess over in themselves.

In the past, I don't think any man ever asked me why I have three scars on my belly (gallbladder surgery) or a big scar on the inside of my inner thigh (a wire sticking up in a friend's car when I was a kid) or what the triangle-shaped scar was on the inside of my forearm (a bad burn from an iron when I was 19). Women should really believe what they read in women's magazines. If a man is seeing you naked, that's enough, and he doesn't care about the imperfections, so you shouldn't either. Now the only people who see my cancer scars are readers of this blog, Gabe, other cancer survivors who ask about it, or the other women in the gym, who always look away. I don't feel that I have any explaining to do, but I also don't feel that it's something to flaunt. That's why when people told me I should turn my tattoos into body art, that I should henna my head, I knew I would never do that. I wasn't proud of those things, and I didn't feel the need to draw attention to them. I accepted them, however. The scars, tattoos, baldness, just became a part of my body, a sign of how things weren't working correctly for a while.

It's hard for me to articulate what I am trying to say. Perhaps I should give an example. I have continued to row on the erg once a week, and it is still fairly frustrating and counter-intuitive to me. It is also hard for me to get to practice and to make the time for it. I will stick with it until we go on the water, and then we'll see how long I can keep it up. Today I needed to come home after work so I missed rowing. After dinner I went to a spin class instead. I have been spinning a total of four times in my life now, all in the last few weeks. Those of you who know me know that I don't even know how to ride a bike (don't ask why, but that's on my list of things to do this summer to make up for the lost summer we had last year). After the first spin class, I was so bruised and my crotch and butt hurt like hell from the ridiculously uncomfotable seat. I told myself I would only go back because I've learned that you need to work through those initial pains a few times even if you are going to quit a new workout routine, or you would regret it. And then I learned something.

I absolutely love spinning.

My body has just adapted to it, worked well with it, and it feels intuitive to me. I feel successful with it, rather than frustrated or inadequate. My quads are buff after just these few classes. I sweat buckets in the class, so I just wear bike shorts and a tank top, and when I see myself in the mirror, I see this strangely strong looking person. The instructor today was a woman I have never met. She was ridiculously in-shape, with a six pack, buff arms, a perfectly toned butt. I thought, oh please, this is going to be one of those uber-competitive classes with her yelling at us like a drill sargeant about how pathetic we all are. Instead, she kept telling us to focus on how amazing our bodies are, on all the things our legs and arms can do for us, on how strong and powerful we are. Look in the mirror and believe it, you are doing great, you can go faster, push yourself more, your body can carry you.

I normally hate that kind of shit. But all of a sudden there I was, welling up in the damn spin class, almost shedding a tear of happiness. I thought to myself, it's true. My body has carried me, at least this far, and it's possible that it will carry me even farther. Besides the basics, like walking and talking, I have been able to deliver two babies and sustain them on milk from my breasts for months. Once in high school, when I weighed about 95 pounds, a few of my girlfriends and I lifed a car with our hands, because there was a flat and we didn't have a jack, and it didn't occur to us that we couldn't do it. That story is true. My body has done things that it might not have had any right to be able to do.

And why am I focusing on this now? Lately I've been thinking a lot about my career, about what I do every day. It might be ironic for someone whose brain misfired a hundred times a day to make a career doing research and intense thinking work, but that is the work I have always done. Sometimes I think that when I am deciding what to do--which job to take, what project to focus on, that I have missed the mark entirely. I am a relatively smart person, sure. But the defining thing about me in my life has been this body, this physical self, from the long red hair to everything else that has happened to my body to make me who I am today. Sometimes I think I should just spend my days doing something meaningful with my body, testing out things I might have missed, rather than sit at a desk, but it is hard to retrain yourself in a fundamental way like that.

I say that while I write this blog on a computer on the breakfast bar in my kitchen.

No matter, it's just something that has been building in me so I needed to say it. When I was visiting the oncologist's office last week, everyone was so pleased that I recovered so quickly from chemo. The oncologist himself actually smiled--amazingly--and said, I hear you are doing well. I told him my cycles were back, my menopause was gone, my mastitis had subsided. He felt my breast and said, that's scar tissue. Everything is behind you now. You can enjoy the spring and summer. I said, well, I have that mammogram coming up in a few weeks and that is very nerve-wracking. It's all behind you now, he repeated.

He might be full of it, he could be completely wrong. The P.A. said similar things, and was very happy for me when I told her my libido was back, my insomnia had disappeared. I paid a visit to my chemo nurse, who barely recognized me with hair. When I told her I couldn't believe how fast my body came back, she said, you just didn't have the confidence to believe it.

Now, that has nothing to do with anything. Many confident women who are assured of their own ability to fight cancer and fend off chemo's ravages die, or have debilitating and permanent side effects. The point is, I haven't, and I didn't. My body did come back to me. I wanted to tell all the women in the waiting room, all of them with scarves on their heads, the woman my age with her head on her husband's shoulder while she waited for the surgeon to call her name, the women in wheelchairs, the women who looked sick and exhausted and those who just looked bored or resigned to fate, that you don't know what will happen, don't let anyone tell you what to expect. But if something miraculous does occur and when all of this is over you get a little bit of time to feel your body working, forget all that other stuff and be proud. Some people have health and fitness and attractiveness bequeathed to them at birth. Other people get put through the ringer, disfigured, atrophied, and come out on the other side, at least for a while. Other people don't make it. You can't control which group you're in, but if you're like me and you're in the second category, you get a pass on the sudden sentimentality at the gym, and you get to pass off those tears as sweat.

And I can't imagine that anyone else cares, but I wanted to say this on the record. For thirty five years it's been tested and brought to the precipice, but this body has carried me. It has, I can see that now. All the focus on how you look in your shorts, what hair products to use, how you compare to other people, what a waste of time and energy. I just keep thinking, I do look great don't I? Not for any other reason than this--I'm still here. I'm still here!


  1. Your amazingness just never skips a beat, does it? You KNOW I was intrigued by the title, Katy goes granola, because as you say immediately, THAT will never happen. :) Your actions show that you've known this inside all along, even when your mind wouldn't let you believe it. By exercising, showing the bald, including lots of photos in your blog--even your moments of sheer desparation have been active ones, not debilitatingly depressed ones. Seriously, this blog just totally made my day. You deserve every iota of happiness. A lesser mind would draw a connection between your suffering and your happy epiphany. But no, you're right, I think it was totally a spinning epiphany. Bring back recess!!! Ha ha...

  2. "I wanted to tell all the women in the waiting room, all of them with scarves on their heads, the woman my age with her head on her husband's shoulder while she waited for the surgeon to call her name, the women in wheelchairs, the women who looked sick and exhausted and those who just looked bored or resigned to fate, that you don't know what will happen, don't let anyone tell you what to expect. But if something miraculous does occur and when all of this is over you get a little bit of time to feel your body working, forget all that other stuff and be proud."

    Times have been so crappy lately that I don't quite know how to cheer for you with all the enthusiasm that I feel. Cheer with you would be closer. Everything you said about the focus on our intellect (we're all brilliant women, we know that) overshadowing the lack of appreciation for our bodies, not just how they look, but how they move and birth and lactate and heal and sustain, is spot on. And I'm floored by the idea of you on a bike (stationary or not) having this epiphany. I love it, and I say YAAAY!!!!