excerpt from Cancer Is a Bitch (Or, I’d Rather Be having a Midlife Crisis) by Deb Gail

My tenure as a deb is running out… I’m the last one out of gate and have the great privilege of sharing a few weeks with the new class. And what a class it is!! Welcome ladies…

So while you get to know them, I’m planning to tease you with some excerpts (in their original form before final editing!) from my memoir…

CANCER IS A BITCH (Or, I’d Rather Be Having a Midlife Crisis)

Chapter One
More Important Things To Do

I’m picturing Carrie on Sex and the City cross-legged on her bed in sexy boy cut undies and a cleavage revealing push-up bra, her hair professionally disheveled, seductively sucking on a melting Popsicle. She made writing look like a must-have accessory, the quirky detail that set her apart from the other women. All the years I watched that show, I thought, I could do that, I should have done that. I lived in New York City. I had sex. I had girlfriends who called me frantic in the middle of the night complaining about their Mr. Bigs not being so big. I could write witty sentences verging on the annoying, I could work a Popsicle with the best of them. But as much as I see Carrie out of the corner of my eye as I type, I’m not Carrie. Not by a long shot. I’m married. I’m the mother of three. I live in Wisconsin. I don’t own boy cut undies and instead of baring my relationship with men and shoes, I’m baring my relationship with breast cancer.

I’ll start in the middle: Winter 2006:

I’m sitting topless in the oncologist’s office on Valentine’s Day. Cancer is a bitch. It doesn’t give a shit about holidays. Doesn’t give a shit when the oncologist gently presses his thick hairy fingers near the wound above my nipple, tears burn the raw edges of my puffy eyes, dribble down my cheeks and roll past blood-caked stitches, landing in a puddle in the space between the oncologist’s cold wedding band and my warm flesh. “Still swollen,” he says and I hate him. Hate that I’m swollen, hate that I’m here on Valentine’s Day instead of at Victoria’s Secret buying the cleavage enhancing Miracle Bra that Redbook recommended for guaranteed flawless shape. I’ve never followed that or any magazine’s insipid “Sizzle for your Sweetie,” advice, but now I think, if I had, I would be slipping into a red dress, on my way to a romantic dinner, wouldn’t be hearing the oncologist saying, “even though the surgeon got clean margins, your risk of invasive cancer is four to five times greater than the average woman.” Wouldn’t be afraid to look at my flawed breast under the harsh fluorescent light.

It all began the morning of my annual mammogram a few weeks earlier. Over breakfast my nine-year-old son, Alex and I discussed the puppy he’d been begging for, ever since the death of our dog that past Thanksgiving. Now that I’d finished my novel (about a woman who finds a lump in her breast and wonders if she’s lived a meaningful life), I was ready to consider a new pet at the close of what had been a stressful, busy year–the dog dying, my husband Mike’s slow healing knee surgery, and our oldest daughter Anna’s college application process. A nearly straight A student with SAT scores comparable to my Ivy League radiologist husband’s, a singer and a dancer and a cross country runner, and she’d been rejected early decision by Dartmouth, his alma matter. Dartmouth had been a source of tension for us all the way back to when Mike brought me home to his mother who was disappointed that I wasn’t the blond-bobbed, Episcopalian Dartmouth grad she’d sent him to college to meet. Instead, I was a wavy-haired, curvy, Jewish, wanna-be poet who lived in the East Village and had gone to an “experimental” college (even I wondered what she could possibly make of me). So when Anna said she didn’t want to apply to Dartmouth, I said if she didn’t want to, she shouldn’t and Mike said I was undermining him, turning her against his school, and that I obviously didn’t understand the whole “Ivy League thing.” And our middle daughter, Maddy–also in high school and panicked by her sister’s panic–signed up for more clubs, SAT prep, and dance team, and Alex was playing indoor soccer and basketball, both at the opposite end of town. And if that wasn’t enough, all year I’d felt pressure from my agent to send her my second novel since the first hadn’t sold yet.

But that morning, I dropped Alex off at school, brought the newspaper with me to my mammogram, and as I waited in the cubicle for the technician to tell me to get dressed and go home, I circled “healthy, lovable, mixed breed pups free to good home,” and thought about how much more time I would have now that the other college applications were in the mail and the novel was complete. I’d start back at yoga and cook more elaborate dinners and do something about the war in Iraq and global warming and match all the unmatched socks instead of stuffing them into that old bureau at the top of the stairs… when the technician peeked in and said, “We need to get a few more films.”

“Not to worry,” she said, as she whisked me down the hall smiling, continuing the story about her grandson or granddaughter or grandsomething doing something grand… “Doctors’ wives make everybody nervous,” she said and rolled her eyes and gestured for me to slip my arm out of my gown.

After seven films and more cubicle waiting, I folded up the want ads, picked up a magazine featuring a young woman with inoperable lung cancer, put down the magazine, stood and counted to a hundred forwards and backwards. I’d had a couple of breast scares before, a core biopsy and a wide excision, both indicating cellular changes but ultimately benign. I worried about my breasts, but still, I felt impatient with all this wasted time when I had more important things to do.

“Dr. Evans wants to talk to you,” the technician said. No small talk, no smile as she lead me into the viewing room.

I stood next to Henry, one of Mike’s partners (a friend of ours for years, I knew his wife, I knew his children, we’d shared numerous occasionsweddings, graduations, anniversaries, funerals), as he pointed to an illuminated x-ray of my breast, all swirly white clouds and dissipating smoke plumes, a thin red arrow marking a teeny tiny cluster of white specks. “See, that’s what I’m concerned about,” he said. “Those calcifications are new and just to be safe I think we should biopsy…”

He choked and winced, looking so pained to have to tell me this news that I said, “This must be awkward for you.”

He nodded and said, “Okay?”

And I wondered, was he asking me my opinion? Was there a choice? Was this a trick question? Was there an answer that would make this go away?

He swallowed so loudly, I felt it in my throat.

“Okay,” I said, wanting to make him feel better.

Murmuring, okay okay okay okay, all the way down the hall, in the elevator, into the parking lot, where I stood, lost, unable to find my car, the ink from the crumpled newspaper bleeding into my hand.

I’m sprawled on the floor trying not to weep into my tangled hair. No Popsicle, no fancy shoes, no Mr. Big. Just me and my breast and my biopsy.

Deb Gail

31 Replies to “excerpt from Cancer Is a Bitch (Or, I’d Rather Be having a Midlife Crisis) by Deb Gail”

  1. Gail, wow…and thanks for being so candid about your experience. I talk about mine whenever prompted, but I don’t know if I could write about it yet. Your candidness will benefit so many other women! I hope CANCER IS A BITCH (oh, man, is it!) rocks all the best-sellers lists. You go, girl!

  2. Amy… thanks for saying that! Weirdly, every time I read it I tear up. I’m worried I’m going to be such a mess at my readings….

    Susan, thanks for commenting. I appreciate you saying that especially since you’re been there! Perhaps we’ll meet touring and we can talk more about our experiences…

  3. Wow, Gail! First I want to say I CANNOT WAIT TO READ YOUR BOOK! You grabbed me at Hello … or whatever – you get the metaphor. I love your candor, your humor in the face of something so unfunny and your writing. And I like YOU! This book is going to rock.

    Second I hope you are healthy and remain so through many more books.

    Deb Eve

  4. Eve!! I am healthy. Going on 3 years in January. And I was very lucky it was non-invasive caught VERY early didn’t even have a lump so I’m a walking poster child for mammograms. I actually feel healthier than ever. Since my diagnosis I’ve lost about 8 lbs, run two half marathons and gone to yoga bootcamp (I know that sound like a contradiction but it was f-ing HARD!).

    Judy… I hear what you’re saying. I lived my own worst terror but aside from it really sucking it gave me a lot of clarity and inspired me to live my life with more purpose and determination and less clutter and hesitation and I hope reading the book will inspire other women to do the same. Without having to live through the terror. Thanks for you comment!

  5. Thanks Tiffany!! And while it’s true that I do talk about the hardd stuff straight on… the book is actually quite funny and life-affirming. So please don’t be afraid of it!

  6. God. Gail – I right away know two people I have to get this book for. Seems funny to say “two” as if that is a small number, but, when you think of the percentages of people I am close enough to say “here is a book for you to read” two is a big fat too many percentage. I’d say one is too much. Zero would be better.

  7. Hey Kat! Welcome! Yes, zero would be better! Sorry to hear about your friends but hope the book will make feel less alone and maybe even find the humor in what they’re going through.

  8. Gail, you know how fortunate you are and telling this candid tale will hopefully encourage others to be proactive with regular check-ups. However even a mammogram isn’t foolproof and women need to be aware.

  9. you’re absolutely right, Larramie. I get MRI’s which are more accurate but still not foolproof. I think the best thing is to stay tuned in to your own body. Thank you for pointing that out.

  10. Oh, Gail! Your writing is so honest and funny in such a trying situation. I love how we already know so much about you, your family, and your lifestyle. So many women will relate to your story. Here we are, casually going about our lives, taking care of our loved ones, thinking of getting a dog, and BOOM! For those of us who have had our lives rudely interrupted by a scary diagnosis, this book will bring camaraderie and comfort. And for those who will (hopefully) never have to deal with such a scare, they will come to value themselves and their lives in a deeper way by reading about your experience. I can’t wait to sit down and devour the whole thing cover to cover. Congratulations, Diva Deb!

  11. Thanks Jenny!!! You’re so kind to say that!

    And Sandra!! Thank you for articulating that so beautifully and welcome to the debutante ball!! I met Sandra in person at the Backspace Conference in August and she totally rocks!! And she has a terrific story of her own journey that she’s working on. Right Sandra?

  12. Gail, you’re the sweetest. Yes, I have a story I SHOULD be working on, but it’s oh so much more fun to surf around and read other people’s stories! You’ve inspired me to get busy today. Here I go opening Word…send energy. xoxo.

  13. Dear Gail, All I’ve known about you until now is the superficial stuff that can be gleaned from being a fellow Backspacer and a Facebook friend. But I guessed that you were a strong, brave, funny woman and that has been confirmed by this riveting insight into what it’s like to get the news every woman dreads. I’m proud to know you, both as a person and a writer.

  14. Sharon, What a kind a generous thing for you to say! I feel blessed to know you!

    Danielle!! Thank you so much for saying that! I’ve been wondering what you think… can’t wait to hear more!

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