- Nipple Unremarkable
Click for larger view
View full resolution
As I trudge around my sister’s Cape Cod lawn in the dark, trying to walk off chemo’s nausea and reflux, trying to breathe past the spike in my throat, I recite in my head a mantra of names from my home in Alaska thousands of miles away: iktua Bay, Squire island, Point Helen, Lucky Bay, green island, Long Channel, Dangerous Passage, Danger island. But names alone can’t displace the power of this new hot, humid place where I’m being treated for breast cancer, nor the new language—strange, dense words lapping their colorless syllables into my ear. Nor the new sensations: my body, sliced, stitched, bandaged, pierced, infused, [End Page 166] irradiated, pricked, transfused, staged, anesthetized. Chemo-brained, nerve-numbed, de-marrowed, yellowed. Though deflowered and defoliated, nonetheless pinked. Pinned, beribboned. In breast cancer chat rooms you find women at all hours asking advice about side effects of treatment, answering, talkstory-ing, worst-case-scenario-ing, signing off, not with their given names, but with their diagnoses, a string of numerals, abbreviations: cancer-slang like this:
peace and love, apple—aka, Mary Magdalene Diagnosis: 4/10 /2008, IDC, 5cm, Stage IV, Grade 3, 4/9 nodes, mets, ER+, HER2+
Years ago, when I moved into my first Alaskan cabin—uneasy during the eighteen-hour nights, nervous in the woods alone with a door that wouldn’t lock, and my nearest neighbor a persistent guy who didn’t own a car, just a snow machine—I renamed my myself Inanna Ivins for my phone book listing, thinking an alias would keep me safe. One night, the neighbor guy came knocking at my door anyway. Only the barking dog drove him away.
Who are you now, and are you safe?—I ask my new self, my new alias:
IDC, 2.5 cm, Stage 2A, Grade 3, 4/14 nodes, HER2-, ER / PR+++
Close your eyes, slow your breathing. Imagine a sheet of paper on a picnic table, held in place by a magnifying glass. Walk to the picnic table. Sit down, pick up the paper, try to decipher a language brute and unfamiliar: Stitch short = superior, long = lateral. A right breast mastectomy without an axillary tail measures 18 x 17 x 5 cm. It weighs 339 grams. The skin is unremarkable. The areolar measures 3 x 3 cm and the nipple measures 1.5 x 1.3 cm and is grossly unremarkable. Like seeds, spit the words out of your mouth.
Someone turns me on to yet another language, meditation CDs for cancer patients—one for surgery, another for chemo, another for radiation, another for fear—a woman named Belleruth’s voice in my ear each night, intoning: Imagine a place where you feel safe …
Imeditate upon it. No—I study it. No. I deconstruct. I read it again and again, the pathology report, ciphering out clues, searching for what I might have missed. Only after months do my eyes land on those words and stick: grossly unremarkable.
Close your eyes. Breathe. Count backwards from ten. Imagine a text, a page torn from a book, lying on a picnic table in Nickerson State Park, in the sun. Ninety-five degrees in the shade of unfamiliar trees, pines and scruffy oaks. Blue jays. Paint blistered off the wood of the table. A few crumbs. Sand grains. Burn ring from a magnifying glass on the page. A sudden, hot gust lifts it up, carries it away, into the woods. Does someone chase after it? Does it land face-down in Cliff Pond? Whose face appears reflected beside it? IDC 2.5 cm, nodes, ER/PR, positive, positive, positive, is that you? A face devoid of frame, lashes, eyebrows? Is that really you?
Other phrases, like early stage, I roll around in my mouth with others, [End Page 167] more pleasing: curative, survival. They taste better, but still can’t erase the bitterness. Early maybe, but still she’s invasive, she’s aggressive, she’s only stage 2, but not 1. Not 0, like some of those luckies chatting on breastcancer.com, first names all DCIS. The sisters in...