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The Adventures of Cancer Bitch

S. L. Wisenberg

Publication Year: 2009

Wisenberg may have lost a breast, but she retained her humor, outrage, and skepticism toward common wisdom and most institutions. While following the prescribed protocols at the place she called Fancy Hospital, Wisenberg is unsparing in her descriptions of the fumblings of new doctors, her own awkward announcement to her students, and the mounds of unrecyclable plastic left at a survivors’ walk. Combining the personal with the political, she shares her research on the money spent on pink ribbons instead of preventing pollution, and the disparity in medical care between the insured and the uninsured. When chemotherapy made her bald, she decorated her head with henna swirls in front and an antiwar protest in back. During treatment, she also recorded the dailiness of life in Chicago as she rode the L, taught while one-breasted, and attended High Holiday services and a Passover seder.

Wisenberg’s writing has been compared to a mix of Leon Wieseltier and Fran Lebowitz, and in this book, she has Wieseltier’s erudition and Lebowitz’s self-deprecating cleverness: “If anybody ever offers you the choice between suffering and depression, take the suffering. And I don't mean physical suffering. I mean emotional suffering. I am hereby endorsing psychic suffering over depression.”

From The Adventures of Cancer Bitch:

I found that when you invite people to a pre-mastectomy party, they show up. Even those with small children. The kids were so young that they didn't notice that most of the food had nipples. . . . I talked to everyone—about what I'm not sure. Probably about my surgery. Everyone told me how well I looked. I felt giddy. I was going to go under, but not yet; I was going to be cut, but not yet; I was going to be bald, but not yet. As my friend who had bladder cancer says: The thing about cancer is you feel great until they start treating you for it.

Published by: University of Iowa Press

Title Page, Copyright

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ABOUT THE BITCH

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pp. 1-

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JANUARY 16. CELLS GONE WILD

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pp. 2-

It begins with a whiff of criminality: a suspicious place on a routine mammogram. Something fishy. On the film, a dark circle that doesn’t belong there. There being my body. The body that has, perhaps, gone wild. On the cellular level. Cancer is overproduction, the assembly belt gone haywire, the sorcerer’s broom wheeling out...

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MORE JANUARY 16. HEMATOLOGY

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pp. 2-3

The day I went for the follow-up mammogram I also had an appointment with a hematologist because I have a high platelet count — high enough to be monitored but not to require intervention. The official name is essential thrombocythemia. Before the doctor came in, a fourth-year medical student interviewed me to practice his skills. He was nervous...

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JANUARY 24. HOW NOT TO TELL YOUR CLASS ABOUT YOUR BREAST CANCER

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pp. 3-

1. Be grateful that during class you don’t think about your cancer, except during free-writing, when they’re making lists that begin with Because, using as a model a poem by Susan Donnelly called “Why I Can’t”. The title of your list is: Why I Don’t Trust Doctors Who Are Very Good Looking...

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JANUARY 25. SURGEON

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pp. 4-

The surgeon is warm but businesslike, a nice combination. She says the cancer is probably Stage 2, because the mass is probably more than 5 cm. But I thought it was 2 cm. She explains that now they’re thinking of the three places as one big place. Surgery would be in two to three weeks. Without reconstruction, the hospital stay would be one...

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JANUARY 27. TANK TOP

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pp. 4-5

Wendy has graciously offered to talk to me about the reconstruction she had after her mastectomy. She greets me at her suburban door in a red tank top with black bra straps showing. The top is tucked into white pants. In the midst of winter she’s dressing for summer. Indicating her clothes, she says, I’m not wearing this just for you. Her...

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JANUARY 27. I LOVE PINK M&M’S

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pp. 5-6

I love pink M&M’s. I eat them every day. That’s all I eat. If I eat enough of them my cancer will go away. Won’t it? Isn’t that what they promise? In the USA we like our news and our health and our donations sugar-coated. If I eat M&M’s and if I go on the Avon Walk (Do I get a free Avon makeover before setting out; all those cameras, you...

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JANUARY 31. PLASTIC SURGEON

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pp. 6-

I had an appointment with a plastic surgeon Wednesday afternoon at Fancy Hospital. He showed me before and after photos of patients. He said that reconstructed breasts are high and round and don’t look exactly like breasts. Once he said that, I thought, Hey, they do look like orange halves. He recommended saline implants for me, even...

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MORE JANUARY 31. FREE DINNERS

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pp. 7-

Linc has noticed that everyone wanted to give us free dinners. Our second one was with our neighbor Anand. He and his wife are what the French call les voisins de palier, meaning neighbors on the same floor. I suppose there were more apartment buildings earlier on in France than, say, England, and thus the phrase was invented. I don’t know if...

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FEBRUARY 3. WHODUNIT: TWO HOUSEHOLD MYSTERIES

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pp. 8-

1. The plumber came to figure out why water leaked downstairs when I took a long shower. After running the water and going downstairs and back, he couldn’t figure it out, because of course it didn’t leak when he was here. It could be that the water had splashed on the tile and there was a hole in the grout...

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MORE FEBRUARY 3. TEAPOT/SOCIÉTÉ ANONYME

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pp. 8-11

Our third free meal was with our good friends Posey and Marv. They have Italian ceramic dinnerware, as we do, but in a different pattern. They have mostly Raffaellesco, with a yellow dragon in the middle, and we have a mix of Veccio Deruta and Arabesco. Last year my friend Garnett gave me a Raffaellesco teapot. At dinner when Posey and Marv...

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FEBRUARY 4. JEWS, DEATH, AND TAXES

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pp. 11-13

For a couple weeks I’d been trying to reach an out-of-town friend who had a double mastectomy and reconstruction about five years ago. I’d sent her e-mails but hadn’t heard back. She called today, and said that her workplace is clamping down on spam so maybe the breast...

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FEBRUARY 6. AUSTRO-HUNGARIAN EMPIRE/BREAST GRID

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pp. 13-15

Linc and I left the house at about 6:40 a.m. for my MRI-biopsy appointment to check out the calcifications on my right breast. The left is the one that has to be removed. The sky was pink over the lake. I knew it was sunrise, and I knew I’d seen sunrises before, but I couldn’t remember the last time. I try not to get up during the...

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FEBRUARY 7. TELLING

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pp. 15-17

The good friend of a good friend you run into who asks how you are, and you say, OK, and then, Well, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. She says she’ll do whatever she can, but there’s really no reason for her to do anything because you haven’t been in touch and though she means well, she doesn’t drive. But you didn’t want to lie to...

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FEBRUARY 8. I AM MILKED

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pp. 17-

You can be, too. You can try it at home. Put cream on your nipple to soften it. Cover with a plastic see-through Band-Aid. Over that lay a warmed purple velvety bag filled with stale-bordering-on-rancid fl ax seeds. After 10 minutes have someone come in and wipe off the cream with a cloth, roughly but nicely. I’m clearing away dead skin, she’ll...

MORE FEBRUARY 8. BENIGN!

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pp. 17-

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FEBRUARY 9. DOING WELL

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pp. 18-22

People say I’m doing well. They say I sound good. I joke. I don’t think it’s denial. But do people in denial admit they’re in denial? On the phone a friend said something to the effect that everyone hates hospitals. But I don’t. You might find it all interesting, she said. I think that’s right. Which brings to mind the Chinese curse, of course...

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FEBRUARY 11. ACTIVISM

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pp. 22-23

Tonight our friend Bill came for dinner. He and his wife Dorreen and Linc and other friends were all college-educated socialists who worked in the steel mills in order to revolutionize the working class. (Once they succeeded in that, they went on to other jobs.) Bill works for the steelworkers union and is a Costumed Activist. My term. Like...

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MORE FEBRUARY 11. PUBLIC AND PRIVATE

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pp. 23-25

In Bathsheba’s Breast I’m reading about William Halsted, the creator of the Halsted radical mastectomy at Johns Hopkins, and I suddenly remember that my great-grandmother’s sister had cancer (breast?) and was treated at Johns Hopkins: a strange excitement about the overlap of public and private. How to explain? That here’s an outside...

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FEBRUARY 12. CONFUSION SETS IN

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pp. 25-26

Today we went to Plain Hospital to see the Much-Recommended Surgeon there in his office with industrial carpeting and artificial plants. He said virtually the same thing that the Fancy surgeon had said: Need a mastectomy on the left, up to me what to do with the right. He would support me whether I wanted a prophylactic mastectomy or not. I want...

FEBRUARY 15. PREPARE

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pp. 26-

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MORE FEBRUARY 15. IN THE OFFICE OF THE PLASTIC SURGEON TO THE STARS/ FOLLOWING THE LUMP

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pp. 26-28

The office of the Plastic Surgeon to the Stars was near Fancy Hospital in an old building with seemingly endless arcades in the lobby. The office upstairs was deliberately decorated, pleasingly so. Some original art in bright colors, red and blue animal poster in the...

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FEBRUARY 19. A FILLING WITHOUT A SANDWICH

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pp. 28-30

I am a member of the Sandwich Generation — Baby Boomers (mostly women) who are caught between taking care of cranky teenagers and creaky parents. Except I have no children and my surviving parent walks the mall five days a week, lifts weights in her morning exercise class, goes to more movies and lectures than I do, and still sends me...

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FEBRUARY 20. HEADING FOR LOSS

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pp. 30-31

I had a friend, a jokester, who used to open his wallet and ask if you wanted to see his pride and joy. Then he’d pull out a card with a picture of Pride floor wax and Joy dishwashing liquid. For many years my pride and joy has been right there on my head. Friends would say they recognized me from afar by my very thick, wavy hair. In junior...

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FEBRUARY 22. A NERVOUS LAUGHER

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pp. 31-34

I have become a nervous laugher. I told someone I work with, at the place I will call Smart University, that she should meet with my student teaching intern by herself, that I would normally want a three-way meeting, but I didn’t think I could schedule it because — lower my voice, move in closer, laugh a little — I’m having a mastectomy...

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FEBRUARY 24. THE PARTY (IN RETROSPECT)

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pp. 34-

A few days before the Farewell to My Left Breast Party, I received a package from my friend Vera in Ann Arbor — a Hershey’s kiss larger than my head. The note with it: This is not a kiss. Oh, I figured, it’s a breast. Why hadn’t I ever noticed that breastal shape before? Vera took the train in for the party. Sharon came over early to help me...

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FEBRUARY 25. ABOUT A DAY IN WHICH I BUY A MASTECTOMY CAMISOLE AND FAIL TO SWAY AN ALDERMAN

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pp. 35-37

The nurse at Fancy Hospital had e-mailed me, asking if I wanted a mastectomy camisole. I looked it up online, and it seemed like a good thing. It’s supposed to be smooth against your incision, protecting it from the outside world, and it has a pouch where you can put the drain/s that are attached to your incision. I told the nurse I would...

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FEBRUARY 26. THE BAD GIRLS OF CANCER

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pp. 37-39

Tonight was my last yoga class with two real breasts. I thought about it as we lay face down on the floor to do our leg stretches. We did a lot of back arches, too, and I wondered when I would be able to do them again. I was excited that my Bad Girls of Breast Cancer T-shirt came in the mail today so I could wear it to yoga. The front has...

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FEBRUARY 28. STIFF UPPER LIP

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pp. 39-40

Is your stomach churning? a friend asked. She’d called yesterday to see how I was doing the day before getting my breast cut off due to a disease that could kill me. My stomach wasn’t churning. I wasn’t in turmoil. I wasn’t trembling. I was calm and fairly cheerful. I haven’t cried for a while. I’ve always been an easy crier, and I’ve never thought there was...

MORE FEBRUARY 28. THE KNIFE

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pp. 40-

MORE FEBRUARY 28. MORE KNIFE

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pp. 40-

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MARCH 1. I HAVE RETURNED

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pp. 40-

I am home, we had a good dinner (a million times more nutritious than anything the hospital served), I’m not in much pain, I feel a little weak but OK, the lymph node was negative (preliminarily), of course the hospital staff woke me up every two hours, I’m wrapped in an Ace...

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MARCH 2. DRAIN BULBS

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pp. 40-42

At the hospital, I thought it would be impossible to learn to strip the drains and empty the bulbs. This is what the contraptions are, as far as I can tell: Two thin plastic tubes are stuck inside the incisions and at the outside end of each is a soft round plastic container that reminds...

MORE MARCH 2. LOOKING AT IT

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pp. 42-

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MARCH 3. THE ANGEL

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pp. 43-44

I just read Cancer Vixen, the graphic memoir, and it is in color and hardbound, and the author is alive, and it’s very odd that her mother goes to chemo with her and never her husband, and she tells the oncologist she needs light chemo because she can’t lose her hair because...

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MORE MARCH 3. THE BAD DAUGHTER

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pp. 44-45

Today I stood up my mother — my loyal, loving, 78-year-old mother who’d said she wished it was herself and not me who had the cancer. I was so frustrated with her for not answering her cell phone. She was awol, not answering at her hotel either. And then she called me...

MARCH 5. TELLING II

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pp. 45-46

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MARCH 6. THE MYSTERIES

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pp. 46-

The pathology report is full of mysteries, and in the exam room the surgeon says, Do you have any questions? I imagine that she’s secretly hoping I don’t, that’s why she’s standing up and not caring what my mother’s name is, and not sitting down. (Our friend Bill the Costumed Activist has a sister who’s a doctor...

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MARCH 7. ONCOLOGY (IN RETROSPECT)

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pp. 47-

I didn’t write about the meeting with the oncologist and his smart and attentive third-year Fellow. I took notes, but I didn’t remember anything that I wrote down and for months afterward I would wonder about something out loud, and Linc would say: Don’t you remember, the oncologist said . . . ? And I didn’t remember. What...

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MARCH 8. WHAT IS A MELTDOWN?

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pp. 47-48

It might be when you’re feeling very very shatterable and don’t want to answer “fine” when people ask you how you are and you’re feeling shaky and so instead of going to your mother’s hotel to meet her and your husband for an early dinner at 5:30, you go at 5 and lie down in her second bed and start crying and...

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MARCH 12. THE CANCER CARD

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pp. 48-

This afternoon I was walking from the subway to Fancy Hospital to get my heart scanned to see if it could withstand chemo. On Michigan Avenue a young woman approached me. She had on a cross, so I immediately assumed she was an evangelist. But her first question was, Do you live here? Usually I pass...

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MARCH 13. HAPPY

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pp. 49-51

I was standing in line at the Bourgeois Pig Café. It’s one of my favorite coffee houses, a place with wood everywhere and antiques for sale, and I was thinking, I want a blueberry scone. I asked myself: Would that make you happy? (The answer was supposed to be No, I don’t need all that butter.) And I thought, I am...

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MORE MARCH 13. HAIR

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pp. 51-52

I went to the Cancer Floor at Fancy Hospital, where blood was taken for some reason related to the upcoming chemo. I met Lora, the chemo nurse, and asked her if I would lose my hair, even though it’s so thick. She said yes. I said, Is there no way it would still be there? and she said no. She told me that it...

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MARCH 15. HEART

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pp. 52-53

Today Linc and I were waiting at Fancy Hospital (this time, for his doctor), and I was looking at our palms, wondering what our life lines showed. I should get my palm read and see if the fortune teller can see the breast cancer first, to test her, I said. He said, She can just look at...

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MARCH 16. THE NEIGHBOR BOY

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pp. 53-55

The Neighbor Boy came by the other day. This is accurate but also misleading. He did not amble by, tapping on the kitchen window next to pies cooling on the sill, and say, Howdy, Missus Cancer Bitch, I’m home for spring break and thought I’d give you a look-see...

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MARCH 17. FIRST HAIRCUT OF THE YEAR

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pp. 55-56

Cancer Bitch went for her $60 haircut Friday with trepidations and a ruler so that she could send 10 inches of hair to Locks of Love, though it’s a controversial outfit. (In 2002, it supposedly gave out fewer than 200 wigs and collected hundreds of thousands of dollars.) She came...

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MARCH 19. COVERING

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pp. 56-

Yesterday and today I spent too much time on the web looking at chemo-head headgear. I don’t like most turbans and scarves out there and I would want to try them on anyway before buying them. I did send off for temporary tattoos for the scalp from an outfit I found...

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MARCH 20. GENDER: HIDING THE EVIDENCE

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pp. 56-58

When I went for the scan to see if my heart was up to snuff for chemo, I wore the mastectomy camisole under a red flannel button-down shirt of Linc’s. I didn’t wear earrings because I thought I’d have to take them off in the scanner. I looked in the mirror and thought I...

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MARCH 25. WHY I HATE ELIZABETH EDWARDS

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pp. 58-60

I hate Elizabeth Edwards because her husband is not quitting to take care of her, she doesn’t want him to quit, she is in the race for him, for both of them. The campaign is a mom-and-pop affair, according to her. She is not working as a lawyer. She wants to work to...

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MARCH 26. CHEMO BEGINS . . .

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pp. 61-62

. . . with the installation of a port attached to a tube inserted in the jugular vein. That way, the nurses will go straight to the port, instead of hunting for a vein each time I get a chemo infusion or blood draw. I hope it’s the right choice. Linc has a friend at work who had trouble with...

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MARCH 29. THE STORES

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pp. 62-

I’ve been wandering around the neighborhood, scouting out stores that look like they might sell hats or wigs. Last night I went to Hollywood Mirror on Belmont, which had manikins in the display window wearing red, black, and white scarves. Like they were just waiting for...

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MARCH 31. LISTENING

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pp. 62-63

I haven’t had any nausea, but now I have this headache. It’s like a sinus tension headache and nothing helps it except, if I’m trying to sleep, Ambien. I’m afraid I’ll become addicted to Ambien. I’ve taken it about five nights straight. I didn’t know this morning if I should...

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APRIL 1. TWO MILES

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pp. 63-64

I walked two miles to the Bourgeois Pig Café. I didn’t feel better or worse when I got there. I got a small decaf latte and read a reprint of A Contract with God, an early graphic novel, which my student Tim had sent me, along with the sappiest card he could find bearing the...

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MORE APRIL 1. EL REPLIEGUE

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pp. 64-66

Today I felt better as soon as I woke up, though I’d only slept about nine hours, and the night before I must have slept 13. And I can’t define or delineate what is better. I still had and have the jittery, rundown- feeling headache. But it didn’t bother me as much. How difficult it would...

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APRIL 2. THE FIFTH QUESTION

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pp. 66-67

The fifth question is how and why we celebrate the holiday if we do not believe in the historicity of it, that we were slaves in Egypt, and if we do not believe in a deity; if we do not put any credence in the central covenant we read about on Passover, the covenant with...

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APRIL 3. PASSOVER — FIRST DAY

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pp. 67-

Part of the reason we celebrate/observe (Lenny Bruce said Jews observe; goyim celebrate) Passover or any other holiday, aside from nostalgia, is the longing for the belief of our ancestors. They were sitting around a seder table, just like we are, and they actually...

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APRIL 4. THE FORGETTING OF ELVIN HAYES

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pp. 67-69

Our family has never had seders like that. They aren’t big singers. My youngest aunt was a good singer but she died. My other aunt’s second husband was a good singer but when my aunt died he went elsewhere for seder. My father was an off-key but enthusiastic...

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MORE APRIL 4. AN ASIDE: EDUCATION IN NICARAGUA, 1989

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pp. 70-71

Inflation made the value of the currency change at least every week. Every week a bus token cost more. I still have one piece of Nicaraguan paper money with three zeroes added on, printed officially by the national bank. The electric grid was unstable. It wasn’t unusual for the lights to go out in the middle of...

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APRIL 5. THE NEIGHBORHOOD ACUPUNCTURIST

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pp. 71-72

In March I went to an acupuncturist affiliated with Fancy Hospital, and she seemed inattentive. Yesterday I tried out a new acupuncturist, recommended by a friend (who had prostate cancer) who sees this acupuncturist’s mother in Chinatown...

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APRIL 9. THE GOVERNMENT KNOWS MUCH

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pp. 72-73

Last month I received a fat business-sized envelope from the state of Illinois. For a second I thought that it was from the Illinois Arts Council, containing a complaint about my writing the year I had an arts council fellowship...

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APRIL 10. HAIR IS A WOMAN’S CROWNING GLORY

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pp. 73-

Is it tingling? Is it? I’m apprehensive about losing my hair, afraid I’ll look terrible but still so curious. Excited, even. Amazed that this thing could happen that has never happened to me before. (I suppose you could say the same thing about death. I don’t think...

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APRIL 11. I LEFT MY HAIR AT SECOND CITY

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pp. 73-74

I went to Second City tonight with a friend from L.A. and her beau. Throughout the performance I was combing my hair with my fingers and coming out with strands. I formed them into a ball about the size of a jacks ball. We were sitting on the last rows so I don’t think I was...

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APRIL 12. WHEN IT FALLS, IT FALLS

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pp. 74-

My hair kept on falling out and falling out. You could see the part widen in the middle so that my scalp was visible. It is a nice scalp, pink and not scabrous, I’m happy to report. I’m sure I left a puddle of hair at my table at Emerald City Coffee. So tonight it seemed like it was...

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APRIL 17. MEN WITH GUNS

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pp. 75-76

Monday on the subway going to meet Linc at chemo, I was rereading Peter Gay’s memoir, My German Question: Growing Up in Nazi Berlin, in preparation for hearing his lecture Tuesday at Smart U. A more accurate subtitle: Growing Up Jewish but Not Really Jewish in Berlin, and It Not Really Mattering until the...

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APRIL 19. HEAD COVERING

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pp. 76-

I became un-Mohawked last night. I’d suspected that the Mohawk was staying put mostly because of hair gel. I combed it, and the Mohawk came out in hunks, leaving a very thin veil of hair behind. When Linc came home from basketball, I made him trim and electric-shave the middle of my head. There were...

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APRIL 20. CANCER IS BORING

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pp. 77-

It is life-threatening but boring. And mysterious but boring. Mysterious because I don’t even know if I still have it. Was it all cut out? Is this long, hair-losing journey into Chemolandia unnecessary? No one will ever know. For a mystery to be pungent we have to have a certain level of...

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APRIL 23. NOTES ON THE VISIBLE/INVISIBLE

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pp. 78-79

The continuum from voluntary to involuntary hairlessness. Look for “chemo caps” or “chemo hats” on Google and you find rosters of turbans and cloches and caps and sun hats and scarves and wigs. Soon you will find the Yiddish word tichel, for handkerchief. The Orthodox Jews and the residents...

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APRIL 24. FREEDOM AND DEVELOPMENT

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pp. 79-80

We went out to dinner Saturday (it seems we are always going to dinner; we are; we’re yuppies, I’ve said to Linc; no, he said, we’re not Y; oh, then I said, we’re nyuppies — NOT-young urban professionals) with Jack and Val, old friends of his from their organize-theworking- class years in the steel mills, and...

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APRIL 24. HENNA, HEAD, AND ANKLE (IN RETROSPECT)

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pp. 80-81

How long does it take to henna a head? It depends on whether you read the directions first. I didn’t. I went to Sharon’s Sunday evening, and we figured out how to use the stencil from ChemoChicks.com. The process is too tedious to describe, but involved eucalyptus oil and cutting and taping paper with...

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APRIL 25. A CANCER BITCH BEHAVING BADLY

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pp. 81-82

Yesterday I went out lightly dressed and didn’t mean to be gone all day, but I was. And it got colder and colder (52 degrees). Around 8 p.m. or so I walked the half mile from Letizia’s Natural Bakery on Division near Damen, where I had a latte and a chocolate chip...

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APRIL 27. CANCER BITCH BEHAVING BADLY AGAIN

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pp. 82-

I went to Caribou Coffee. There were bags of coffee for sale with pink ribbons on them. Part of the price goes to Susan G. Komen for the Cure, which goes for — what? More pink ribbons? I think Komen should sign on with Christo to wrap every woman with pink ribbons. Then it won’t matter if they have...

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MAY 3. THE HOLTER (NOT HALTER)

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pp. 83-

We are falling apart. And Linc’s employer is paying for it. Linc is taking a Holter monitor test. Not wearing a halter, as I had thought. Holter is the guy who invented the monitor, attached to Linc’s belt during the day and put in a shirt pocket at night, to record everything...

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MAY 14. PRAYER

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pp. 83-84

Saturday Val and Jack dropped by. Jack works against pollution on an international scale and had just returned from Dakar, Senegal, with a scarf for me. It is large, and red and black, anarchist colors, he pointed out, and he was apologetic that it was too large for my head. But I had taken informal...

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MAY 16. CLOAK OF INVISIBILITY

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pp. 84-85

I know that certain people don’t and won’t recognize me. I don’t blame them. My hair was my outstanding feature. Without it, I’m a stranger, invisible. That is the fantasy — that we could disguise ourselves and see what people say about us, or pretend to kill ourselves off and witness the funeral. When...

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MAY 19. FREE DINNERS AND FREE DINNERS

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pp. 85-86

I had a lovely free dinner last night with professors, all writers. The menu was prix fixe so you felt the obligation to order dessert. I did. We all did. I could have ordered more lightly, but there was much butter butter everywhere. My appetizer was two crab cakes with avocado chunks and skinny potato...

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MAY 21. THE EROTIC LIFE OF PROPERTY

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pp. 86-87

I went to a funeral today, my third in the past year. In Jewish law, one of the best things you can do for someone is help with the burial, because that person can never repay you. I knew that that’s why the assembled people lined up to put earth on the grave, for that very reason. I didn’t know that you were...

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MAY 23. THE BLESSING

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pp. 87-89

My accountant asked if cancer changed me. I suppose, slightly. I know more about cancer. I feel more comfortable with people who have it or have had it. I take cabs more often. I don’t feel deeper or more grateful or spiritual. She asked if I believed in God more. She was...

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MAY 27. POST-FUNERAL

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pp. 89-

Friday I stopped by the home of a colleague of Linc’s. Her mother had died; the service was private, but her home was open for what we call shiva but others might call an open house. I have a memorial service to go to on Tuesday, for the parent of another colleague of...

MAY 30. HUNTING AND GATHERING

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pp. 90-

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JUNE 2. LOUTS

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pp. 90-

I got off the L yesterday afternoon after the Cubs game let out and the neighborhood was littered, as usual, with drunken and drunken-seeming louts. I was walking behind some on the sidewalk and then in front of them. I could hear them talking about the message on my...

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JUNE 7. MARKS

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pp. 90-91

Monday night I talked on the phone to Jodi, my actor friend in Madison, who reported on her performance at a benefit to raise money to build a Gilda’s Club there. She used me for source material. She had one of her personas tell the crowd that she had a friend who’d hennaed her head to...

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JUNE 10. LUMP

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pp. 91-92

My internist had felt a lump in my (former) left breast in August and told me then to get an ultrasound, but the last time she’d sent me for an ultrasound, the radiologist had found nothing and moreover had pooh-poohed internists as alarmists, so I didn’t do anything. I had an appointment with my...

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JUNE 12. BLEED ME A RIVER

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pp. 92-

The Boyish Gyne called to say that my biopsies were negative. He hypothesized that I’m in menopause but bleeding because of the fibroids. I don’t agree. I think I still have real periods but they’re very very looooonnng because of the fibroids. Why would I think this? Am I loath to give up this sign of young...

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JUNE 13. GUILT

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pp. 92-93

The beginning of this guilt. First a feeling of difference, of feeling what I have isn’t serious, not the real thing, starting from reading blogs by people with what they call mets — meaning the breast cancer has metastasized. Reading reviews of books by these people — feeling I haven’t really had cancer until...

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JUNE 19. THE TONGUE . . .

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pp. 93-95

. . . said the endodontist this morning, is a very curious animal. He was working on a root canal that couldn’t be postponed. He told me his brother is an oncologist who had cancer in his tonsils and directed his own treatment...

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JUNE 24. TAKING TAXOL/I FEEL PETTY, OH, SO PETTY

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pp. 95-97

That’s a line from an essay by TV writer Marjorie Gross. (She died of ovarian cancer.) I don’t know what chemo-poison she was referring to. The chemotherapy agent of the hour, of my hour of discontent, is Taxol. Sounds like toxic. It seems like toxic. A drug that’s injected in your veins that makes your...

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JULY 4. TAXOL: ONCE MORE, WITH FEELING

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pp. 97-98

I had my second round or session or infusion of Taxol on Monday, with chemo escort Sharon. When I told the warm and helpful Nurse Lora about the bone pain, she asked what number it was from 1–10. I said 3, but that I felt like crying. She laughed and said it sounded more like 10, and she wrote...

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JULY 8. PAIN AND PAIN

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pp. 98-99

The topic for today is pain and pain — pain that causes weeping and pain that comes with weeping, and how difficult it is to tell the difference between the two. After my first Taxol infusion, I had joint and bone pain that made me cry three days later. So I sat around and watched DVDs and TV for two days. This time..

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JULY 9. SUFFERING

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pp. 99-100

Don’t get me wrong; suffering, though universal, and though its universality provides the basis of Buddhism, is bad. Today I suffered. It meant being weepy, rageful at the drop of a pin, filled with ire at someone for being 14 minutes late (when it didn’t matter at all, and I didn’t show my rage) and...

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JULY 13. THE DANCER’S POSE

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pp. 100-101

At yoga we often do partner work. One day last week we paired up to help one another do dancer’s pose. My partner was one of The Twins in the Back. The Twins are girls who look about 20 and have dark, wavy hair. Usually they partner with one another. You can’t blame...

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JULY 16. CHEMO DAY

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pp. 101-102

Garnett picked me up and took me to Fancy for my noon chemo appointment. She had to leave at 3:30 and passed the baton to Linc. At one point I asked him to get me a blanket because I was cold, but by the time he found one, I’d had a hot fl ash and was sweating. As I told Lora, the hot fl ashes are the...

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JULY 23. THE MILLION-DOLLAR BRAZILIAN

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pp. 102-103

Well, first of all, it’s probably not a million dollars. It’s probably going to add up to $100,000, billed to insurance. But the “hundred-thousand- dollar Brazilian” just doesn’t cut it. Doesn’t begin to conjure up that sexy gal from Ipanema. What I’m talking about is the outrageous and barbaric practice...

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JULY 25. BARRY-WATCH

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pp. 103-104

Barry spent last night on the floor next to his bed. His helper didn’t show up last night and his cell phone was downstairs. The helper showed up this morning and got him dressed and into his scooter. Barry called me to come and plug in his new scooter. It took both of us about 20 minutes to figure...

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JULY 30. I HATE FANCY HOSPITAL

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pp. 104-105

It is 11:30 and I should be on my way to my last chemo appointment, along with my friend Sylvienne who flew in from San Francisco for escort duty, but Fancy does not have me on the schedule. In fact, I am not on the schedule until a month hence. I called this morning to see if I needed to be there...

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AUGUST 1. QUAVER

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pp. 105-106

I woke up today without a quaver in my voice or in my chest. Yesterday I could feel the quaver, the tears, as a liquid entity, filling ligaments or pipelines, or something, across my chest. Like they were there, an unending supply, and it wouldn’t do any good to cry them out because there would be more. I could...

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AUGUST 7. THE NEVER-ENDING END

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pp. 106-107

This morning I was on my way to meet a creative-writing client at Emerald City when a young man on a bicycle asked me for directions. I told him how to get to where he was going, and then he asked me about the message on my head. You must feel really strongly, he said. I felt unmasked. My head as...

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AUGUST 13. PORT REMOVAL AUTHORITY

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pp. 108-

While I was waiting for the port removal, I started talking to three older women — two friends who had come with a third who had to get her new port looked at. I asked how long she was going to have chemo and she said, The rest of my life...

AUGUST 24. DAMN, DAMN, DAMN

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pp. 108-

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AUGUST 27. HAIR IS STILL MIA

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pp. 108-109

Last night I saw Sharon for the first time since she left for Mexico in July. She asked me if I’d shaved my head; she was expecting that my hair had returned. Alas, I am still hairless. The oncology nurse said that I would keep losing hair three weeks after the last chemo. The last chemo treatment was four...

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AUGUST 28. NIGHT WITH BARRY

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pp. 109-111

Barry phoned when we were just going out the door to buy food. His elevator hasn’t been working for a week, and he was stranded outside his building. Sharon’s semester has started already, and she was in Indiana, teaching. Their downstairs tenant had carried him and his scooter down earlier so...

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SEPTEMBER 8. SEPTEMBER SONG

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pp. 111-114

That my hair has not returned. That I have about 20 little white hairs scattered all over my scalp, about a half-inch long each. And nothing more. That I visited the dentist twice last week as part of the world’s most protracted root-canal procedure, and the temporary crown has fallen out. That my husband does...

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SEPTEMBER 11. ROSH HASHANAH

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pp. 114-115

Tomorrow is New Year’s Eve for Jewish year 5768. I was shocked to read that among the traditional foods eaten on the Jewish new year are black-eyed peas, which I always eat on the first day of the secular new year. So my Texas and Jewish heritages converge. The peas and other foods (such as sheep’s head) supposedly...

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SEPTEMBER 14. SINS

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pp. 115-116

I threw my sins into the lake yesterday. It’s a Rosh Hashanah custom. Usually we throw bread crumbs as a stand-in, but there’s talk now that the crumbs could upset the ecosystem. So I threw a very few crumbs and some sand and some rocks. Seagulls found us and hovered and...

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SEPTEMBER 15. HERE COMES THE FUZZ

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pp. 116-

The thing is, we confuse recovery from chemo with recovery from cancer. So as my hair slowly grows back, I start to feel that I’m cured, that spring is in the air (though it’s an autumnlike day, time to bring the basil crop inside). My scalp now feels like a tennis ball, according to Garnett, or peach...

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SEPTEMBER 16. SADNESS, THE EMPTY ROOM

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pp. 117-

We (I) spend time talking to Barry and Sharon, telling them what they should do, in light of Barry’s MS getting worse, in light of his falls from his chair, and my nattering and nagging fill the air, fill the space, takes the place of emotion. But when Sharon talked about it last...

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SEPTEMBER 17. HOMAGE TO OUR PODIATRIST

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pp. 117-118

Our podiatrist is avuncular. He is nice looking with short white hair that sticks up. He has a Hungarian vizsla dog who is ageing (who does not come to the office). His staff unties your shoes and takes off your socks, and when the appointment is over, puts your socks on and ties...

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SEPTEMBER 21. BIKRAM KOL NIDRE

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pp. 118-120

O man, was it hot in services tonight. We had an erev (eve) Yom Kippur dinner here and then three of us went to the little congregation that meets in a church. There were two ceiling fans and one rotating fan. I wanted to go stand by the rotating fan but didn’t want to hog the air. I have been a very sweaty...

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SEPTEMBER 22. FAST

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pp. 120-121

The weather was cool today, so it was Yom Kippur without that Bikram feeling. I had scheduled my arrival to services just about right: I got to the little-synagogue-that-isn’t-there at about 1:30, with just two prayers to go before the break...

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SEPTEMBER 23. FOUR WOMEN, FOUR BREASTS

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pp. 121-

I went to Ann and Peggy’s 30th anniversary picnic today. When they were cutting the cake, I was standing nearby and noticed Nancy (mastectomy) standing on Ann’s other side. Later I said to Ann (mastectomy): I don’ t think I’ve been anywhere where there were three one-breasted women. And then...

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SEPTEMBER 25. WHAT IS MINE

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pp. 121-123

Marcel Marceau is mine. And that’s not a typo. He is mine because his father, Karl Mangel, was born in a small town in Poland and was a kosher butcher in Strasbourg. I understand kosher butchers. I understand Yiddish-speaking Polish fathers, though mine wasn’t either. After his father was...

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SEPTEMBER 29. HAIRLINE

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pp. 123-124

I look like Sluggo, Nancy’s pal in the comic strip. My hairline is lower than my tattoo-line was, and I look like a Neanderthal. My tattoos are mostly faded. I want to get someone to rewrite the US OUT OF IRAQ on the back of my head. My scalp still shows through the hair. My eyebrows are growing...

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SEPTEMBER 30. GENES AND HORMONES

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pp. 124-

I found out Thursday I don’t have the BRCA gene mutations, more common in Ashkenazi Jews than the general population. That mutation predisposes the bearer to breast and ovarian cancer. I didn’t think I had it, but wanted to make sure, and the genetic counselor had...

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OCTOBER 1. CANCER BITCH TURNS A CORNER AND RUNS INTO A WALL

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pp. 125-127

Tonight I looked in the mirror and thought to myself, You are cute. I think I have just passed the awkward Sluggo stage and am now a boyish woman in a shorter-than-crew cut. I even have most of my eyebrows back. I am surprised that in all this time, no one’s thought I was male. I did have girly-feminine designs...

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OCTOBER 7. THE CURLY-HAIRED ONCOLOGIST

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pp. 127-

Linc went with me to the appointment with the new oncologist. Two hours after the time of the initial appointment, she came in. She made the mistake of asking how I was. I told her. I said I was annoyed at having to wait so long. She said she was sorry and that she’d spent 15 to...

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OCTOBER 9. HYPER

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pp. 127-129

Days like this I think I’m manic. I’ve been sleeping a lot, probably still because of chemo, and I keep sleeping later and later and then I have to get up early some time and I screw up my inner clock. Last night I went to bed late but this morning I couldn’t sleep. I got up early...

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OCTOBER 15. GOOD NEWS, SORT OF

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pp. 129-

US cancer rates are on the decline, a group of scientists announced today. In further good news, the AP reports: New breast cancer diagnoses are dropping about 3.5 percent a year. It’s either because fewer post-menopausal women are opting for hormone replacement therapy, or — here’s the punch line — fewer...

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OCTOBER 16. BUZZ CUT

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pp. 129-130

Tonight I received a teaching award from Smart U. First there was a reception, during which I had my second Very Hot Flash of the day while standing near some hot hors d’oeuvres. Luckily I was wearing Hot Flash Defensivewear (silk scarf tied around my hairline) to catch some of the sweat. As...

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OCTOBER 21. ALL HER LIFE

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pp. 130-

My mother came in last weekend to Cancer Bitch World HQ. My mother would have fl own in for every chemo treatment, but I wouldn’t let her. I asked if she would help me with my clutter, and she agreed. So we spent most of Saturday and Sunday going through photos. We filled some albums and...

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NOVEMBER 26. LOSING DAYS AND YEARS

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pp. 130-131

Once I asked an E. B. White scholar why White’s essay, “Once More to the Lake,” is so much anthologized and taught, and he answered: Because it’s the best essay in the English language. Or something to that effect. Which may be why I’m calling it to mind. I guess a great piece...

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DECEMBER 1. IN MEDIAS RES

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pp. 131-132

This is the third year in a row that the grad students in my teaching seminar are holding a weekend of free creative writing classes for the public. I came up with the idea my very own Cancer Bitch self and it is a very nice thing for everyone involved. No one pays a thing. The students get the experience...

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DECEMBER 2. TEACHING ONE-BREASTED

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pp. 132-133

Today was the second and last day of the workshops led by my students. I had to fill in for one of them for about 30 minutes today. I was wearing a long-sleeved hot pink shirt that clearly hugs my right breast and left non-breast. I’d been wearing it all day but hadn’t spent much time in front of...

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DECEMBER 3. LIBRARY CANCER CARD

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pp. 133-134

I’m in the midst of checking out a book at the Smart U library, and the clerk tells me my account is blocked because I owe $200. Which can’t be. Because faculty don’t get fines. So then the finance person comes out and I tell her I renewed everything online, and she says you can renew books just...

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DECEMBER 9. THE FEAR

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pp. 134-

Fame. Ambition. Strive to create work as excellent as Dante’s, as poet Donald Hall says. Not to be famous. Not to become known. But to create work that is sui generis. It is the work, not the life that is important. Though we confuse the art with the life, and fall in love...

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DECEMBER 19. THE PHANCY PHLEBOTOMIST

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pp. 134-135

I had a blood test today on Ye Olde Cancer Floor at Fancy Hospital. The phlebotomists have always been nice and personal and usually talkative. We were getting started today when another phlebotomist came by eating a shortbread cookie. The two of them talked about how tempting they were, and then...

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JANUARY 1. THE NEW YEAR

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pp. 135-

We went to Barry and Sharon’s for New Year’s Eve, as we’ve done for many years, and as I did for years before meeting Linc. The guests vary a little from year to year, but there are stalwarts. Sometimes it is a sit-down dinner and sometimes it’s not. Once it was a barbecue and...

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JANUARY 4. CAUSES, NOT CURES

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pp. 135-

Jack the Environmental Activist sent this to me: No matter how much our efforts to treat cancer may advance, the best way to reduce cancer’s toll is to keep people from getting it. We need to join the rest of the industrialized world by issuing a national ban on asbestos and...

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JANUARY 15. WORRY AND NOT WORRY

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pp. 135-136

I fell on my back about a month ago in step aerobics. This may seem impossible, but I did. We were sitting on our risers or whatever you call those long fl at boards, holding those colored stretchy bands with handles. My legs were straight and the band was around my feet, but...

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JANUARY 16. ANNIVERSARY: THE RITUAL CRUSHING OF THE PILLS

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pp. 136-137

I decided that the best way to commemorate this event was to grind up the pills that I’d been issued for chemo side effects. I mean, my understanding is that I can’t have any more chemo, and if there were some kind of chemo for me in the future, I’m sure the doctors...

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JANUARY 20. REPLACING, REFILLING, ENDING, NOT ENDING

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pp. 137-

The New York Times reported Thursday on problems with breast implants. First of all, they don’t last and have to be replaced. Second of all, they can leak and spill and scar. All good reasons not to have an implant, Linc said, reading over my shoulder. But you notice women’s breasts, I said. I didn’t,,,

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JANUARY 24. ONE MASTECTOMY, TO GO

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pp. 137-139

You’ve no doubt heard of drive-by surgeries — the derisive term coined by health reformers for inadequate hospital stays mandated or permitted by health insurance companies. I thought of fast mastectomies as I read a profi le of photographer Lee Miller (1907–1977) in...

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JANUARY 26. WHAT SCAR? . . .

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pp. 139-141

. . . I asked Linc today. He’d asked me if I remembered showing everyone my scar last night. I thought it might have been the scar under my collarbone, a raised pink almond sliver where the port had been inserted and removed. It wasn’t that scar. Apparently, under the influence of demon...

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JANUARY 28. THE ESSENTIAL GUIDE

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pp. 141-142

Little gray mice have come in from the extreme cold and we are trying to kill them. They’re cute but are home invaders, bringers of germs and worse, I tell myself. We’ve caught a couple of them in traps but there are more, running around the kitchen and office and laughing...

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FEBRUARY 8. ABOUT THE BITCHES

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pp. 142-143

I thought Susan Sontag showed everyone that our personality defects don’t cause our cancer. Now we have the lovely bestselling Skinny Bitches telling us the opposite, and I would bet that more people have heard of them than the late Sontag. The authors of...

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FEBRUARY 20. BLUT UND BODEN

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pp. 143-144

So. I’ve got a new disease. Or condition. It’s rare, and usually strikes men over 60. Attentive readers will recall that I have too many platelets in my blood (aka essential thrombocythemia). I’ve found out I also have too many red blood cells. The official term is polycythemia...

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MARCH 9. HOISTING A PINT OR, THE ANNALS OF POLYCYTHEMIA VERA (IN VERA VERITAS)

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pp. 144-145

The other morning I woke up to NPR and thought I heard that British veterans with my disease were suing the government. I figured it had to be part of my dream world, but it was real. Apparently hundreds of British and New Zealand servicemen who witnessed...

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MARCH 19. I WAS MARCHING

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pp. 145-147

I am marching with the Code Pink women’s group up Michigan Avenue, holding pink signs and banners aloft, and the shoppers and other pedestrians fl anking us on the sidewalk are either neutral or making the V peace sign. The cops are out in force at bends in the...

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APRIL 7. THE ARCHIVISTS

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pp. 147-148

The Smart University archivists came by today to Cancer Bitch Central. They filled up one and a half gray acid-free boxes, made from flat pre-boxes. They took papers I wrote in college, syllabi from my student years and from my teaching (at the same place), some photographs...

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APRIL 22. DEATH

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pp. 148-152

This year my accountant asked me again if I saw the world any differently because of the cancer. I said no. Which is mostly true; I now have one more thing to worry about. As I grow older and possibly middle-aged I think that even if I lived to an old age, I could die...

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JUNE 1. POSTSCRIPT: BITING THE HAND THAT FED ME (POISON)

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pp. 152-155

The morning was sunny and clear and mild today during the largest cancer survivors’ celebration in the country. Of its kind. Meaning, this wasn’t a pledge walk. About 3,600 people gathered in Grant Park downtown and then walked noncompetitively for four miles along the...

NOTES AND UPDATES

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pp. 157-161

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ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

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pp. 163-164

First, I want to thank everyone who reached out after my diagnosis, whether by sending a card or plant or by asking how I was feeling. I’m grateful to my husband Linc Cohen for being the consummate cancer-spouse who always said and did the right...


E-ISBN-13: 9781587298523
E-ISBN-10: 158729852X
Print-ISBN-13: 9781587298028
Print-ISBN-10: 1587298023

Page Count: 170
Publication Year: 2009

Edition: 1

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Subject Headings

  • Breast -- Cancer -- Anecdotes.
  • Breast -- Cancer -- Patients -- Blogs.
  • Breast -- Cancer -- Patients -- Biography.
  • Wisenberg, S. L. (Sandi L.).
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