Is all fear bad?

When the pathology was done after my mastectomy it turned out that the moderate, grade 2 tumor shown in my biopsy was actually an aggressive, grade 3 tumor. I felt betrayed, shocked, pessimistic, scared. I even felt somehow like a dissappointment or a failure. I wanted to push away all thoughts of the pathology report, didn’t want to let this new knowledge into my consciousness, fearing it might erode the positive attitude that everyone — doctors, nurses, friends, family — told me I had. I’d been told so many times that a good attitude is crucial, and I believe that myself. So it seemed the best thing to do was to put up a force field.

It didn’t work. The feelings of betrayal and fear gathered at the edge of my mind, whispering among themselves. Much better then to look at the pathology report and let it sink in, do some reading, and get some advice. After I did that, I was no longer paralysed. I felt a new burst of energy to just deal with it and do whatever I need to do next.

Fear seems counterproductive. It seems that it can only make us feel small and vulnerable, and so we should eradicate it. But fear is woven into our DNA for a reason. Animals don’t overthink fear — they use it. A Cooper’s Hawk lives in our neighborhood, and when it swoops into the yard, the birds feasting happily at our feeders are instantly infused with raw, simple fear. Adrenalized sparrows, juncos, titmice, and chickadees vanish into the cover of nearby shrubs. A woodpecker and a nuthatch caught hanging from the suet feeder will freeze, moving only their eyeballs to try and keep track of the predator. Their terror is apparent in every feather. And you know what? I’m yet to see the Cooper’s Hawk succeed in taking one of these frightened birds. Every now and then I’ve seen the hawk come in very craftily and take a bird completely by suprise, before it’s had time to even register fear. But all the birds I see that feel the fear and then take action live to fly another day.

And they don’t dwell on what just happened to them. When the hawk flies off to find an easier snack, the woodpecker and nuthatch break from their tableau and begin beaking their way through the suet again. One by one, the sparrows and juncos, the titmice and chickadees, hop out from the shrubs and go back to picking through seeds, going about the business of living.

Things to do while waiting for cancer surgery, part 3: embrace the anger

There’s a lot of stuff about having cancer that can make you angry.

Someone telling you it’s not good to be angry can make you angry.

Swallowing the anger down and trying to force yourself to be serene and positive — you know, fake it till you make it — can make you even angrier.

Swallowing the anger down and trying to force yourself to be serene and positive so that someone in your life can stay serene and positive is simply miserable.

Embrace the anger! Use it as fuel. Burn it up. Create something with it. Write a poem. Write a letter telling the errant cells in your body how you really feel. Fix some little thing in your life that’s been bothering you for ages. Demand the medical answers you need. Make someone listen who you haven’t been able to get through to before. Use your anger to power the gym workout you’re meant to fit in between buying organic vegetables, doing a relaxation meditation session, getting a massage, reading that article on how turmeric boosts Natural Killer cells, finishing all the work you have to do so that you can eat and pay your mortgage and your medical expenses, taking the cat to the vet, cleaning the house . . . oh, and getting a restful sleep. When I’m angry I like to go to the gym and listen to late 90s adolescent rock, the kind sung by fey long-haired guys with a lot of eyeliner who are sick of trying to be what someone else wants them to be. I stare straight ahead and pedal like I’m possessed. I sweat the anger out and then I feel clean.

Things to do while waiting for cancer surgery, part 2: Accept that everything has changed, yet nothing has changed

Your life will never be quite the same. There will be life before the diagnosis, and life after diagnosis. You will never again be that person who says that they can only imagine what it’s like to have cancer. 

And life is utterly the same. It’s still full of bliss and heartache, as it ever was. It could still surprise you any second, for the good or for the bad, as it ever could.

And you are you still you. You’re not a tragic figure. You’re not a victim or a hero or a soldier waging a battle. You’re the old you, going through something new.

There are no simple emotions when it comes to cancer, or maybe to anything

How hard it is to predict human emotions. I had been waiting for weeks for test results that would tell me whether I carried a gene mutation that predisposed me to breast and ovarian cancer. I wasn’t anxious about the result itself. But I was anxious to get it because I already know I have breast cancer and need a mastectomy; the difference would be that if the test came back positive, I would have the other breast removed and my ovaries and fallopian tubes taken out later on.

When the genetic counselor said, “I have good news for you” and smiled across the table, I felt strangely neutral. My boyfriend, sitting beside me, was over the moon. I smiled weakly, and it felt kind of fake. Driving home, the traffic on the streets around the hospital seemed overwhelming. There was a sensation in my head as though there were a bee buzzing around inside my brain, and I got shaky and tearful. Later that night family and friends were, of course, happy and relieved when I told them my result. And I felt even more alien.

The winter storm came like a gift, and right at the moment it was needed the most. It hit this morning — sky choked with snowflakes, wind howling,  roads treacherous, and a whole day of this ahead of  us. Nature’s way of suspending normal programming. Instead of having my usual quick shower, I lay in the bath and watched the snow come down, and I stopped thinking for the first time in what seems like forever. I looked down at my familiar body and imagined what it will look like when transformed by scars, and that’s when I realized why I wasn’t feeling the simple relief and happiness I anticipated I’d feel if told I didn’t have the breast cancer gene mutation.

While I was waiting for the results, my mind was on high alert, my emotions on hiatus. I knew that I had to have at least a unilateral mastectomy, but I couldn’t get too settled into the idea, because there still might be decisions to be made. There might be relative genetic risks to be weighed, other surgical options to consider. When I got the results, the hiatus abruptly ended: I know the surgery I’m having, and now I just have to wait for my surgery date. I’ll have scars on my breast, and I’ll have a long scar on my belly where a plastic surgeon will take tissue to reconstruct my breast.  I know that I’ll get through it and end up feeling fine about it, just as I hope that anyone who’s reading this and going through the same thing will find a state of peace, too. This mixed-up feeling will pass. It’s a stage. We all need time to get used to things, to let a new reality sink in, and we all need to go at our own pace.

The last few weeks have taught me that there is no universal way to respond to any news, good or bad. We can guess how another human might feel in any circumstance, but it really is only ever a guess.

Things to do while waiting for cancer surgery, part 1

The wait seems as though it will never end. You know that inside your body the wrong cells are proliferating without rhyme or reason. If you could get in there yourself and take them out, you would. What do you do to pass the time until the doctor does his or her work? I have almost a month to wait till I have my breast removed, and I’m trying to come up with constructive ways to fill every minute. This week it’s sourdough bread. I’m on day 4 of making the starter. I apparently don’t have much control over the fact that the wrong cells are proliferating in my breast, but goddamnit I can control the naturally occurring yeast on wholewheat so that they proliferate to the point where I can use them to do something positive: make bread.

My sourdough starter is called Bob, because according to Frank, my boyfriend, all creatures — chickadees, squirrels, snowy owls — are called Bob. Say hi to Bob.


Bob is currently living on my desk because the warmth of my desk lamp is encouraging him to multiply and produce all sorts of delicious gases. I check in on him all day as he quietly bubbles away.


A cat isn’t essential to sourdough starter making, but it is a nice addition. The cat is not called Bob. The cat is called Pinky. Pinky and Bob have a cozy life on the desk, versus what they would face in our town at the moment if they were outside:


If you want to make your own Bob, here is a vastly simplified version of Rose Levy Berenbaum’s recipe. Her book The Bread Bible really is the bread bible. But like me, if you are waiting for cancer surgery you may feel overwhelmed with choices and complicated decisions and be craving for simplicity:

Day 1
Mix 1 cup unbleached rye flour or unbleached wholewheat flour and 1/2 cup bottled water in a bowl until it forms a stiff dough. Cover it tightly with plastic wrap and leave it somewhere cool (65°F / 18°C) for 48 hours.

Day 2
Bob won’t look any different, but be patient with him.

Day 3
Remove and throw out about half of the starter (about ½ cup). Stir in 1/2 cup bread flour and 1/4 cup bottled water. Cover tightly with plastic wrap and leave at in a warm place for 24 hours.

Day 4
Remove and throw out about half of the starter (about ½ cup). Stir in 1/2 cup bread flour and 1/4 cup bottled water. Cover loosely with plastic wrap because Bob is now burping up delicious gases that need to escape. Leave Bob in a warm place for 24 hours.

Day 5
If Bob has increased to at least 3 cups, he’s ready. (If he’s not quite there yet, keep repeating the step for day 4 until he is.) Remove and throw out about half of the starter, stir in 1/2 cup bread flour and 1/4 cup bottled water. Cover with plastic wrap, and let Bob sit in a warm place for about 4 hours or until he has almost doubled. You can now use him to bake bread or refrigerate him to bake with later, using any sourdough recipe.

Always use clean utensils. The starter will give off all kinds of heady smells, and that’s fine. But if it gets any dark streaks in it, throw it away and start again, because it’s gone bad.

the word “cancer”

Whenever I say the word cancer, I am overcome by primitive fear and superstition, as though I’m somehow giving power to the disease in my body. Tempting fate. Casting a curse. The sound of it makes me recoil as if it’s a snake about to strike: can-ssssssser. When I tell people I have cancer, I see from their eyes, and hear from the beat of silence, that it has the same effect on everyone.

When I found out I had cancer, I wanted to invent some other word for it, some way to soften it and feel better about myself.

But silence and avoidance are exactly what give power to our fears. I wouldn’t be softening anything, I’d just be strengthening fear’s grip.

The only way to live comfortably with what we fear is to stand and look at it—really look at it—when all we want to do is turn and run. So I read about the origins of the word.

Hippocrates named the disease karkinos, the Greek word for crab, around 400 B.C.E. Then in the first century A.D., Celsus adopted the Latin equivalent, cancer, when he wrote his medical encyclopedia, De Medicina. It seems that no historian can say with certainty why Hippocrates named it for the crab and why the name stuck through successive generations. Choose your reason: By the time patients had symptoms and came to see Hippocrates, they were in the end stages of the disease, when tumors hard as the shell of a crab could be felt beneath the skin. The pain of advanced cancer was like the sharp, penetrating jab of a crab’s pincers. The disease was tenacious as it took hold of the patient, like the crab’s inexorable bite. Tumors promote the growth of new blood vessels to bring them nourishment, and to early surgeons primed by the name Hippocrates gave the disease, these looked like the legs of a crab creeping into the surrounding tissue.

At first it seemed that knowing these facts hadn’t helped me any.

The next morning, I lay in bed half-dreaming, half-waking. Outside my window the world was hard and white, for snow has fallen ceaselessly this winter in the northeastern United States, and it’s all encapsulated in ice. But beneath my bare feet I could feel the warm, wet sand of Victoria Point, on Brisbane’s Moreton Bay, near where I grew up. The sand was alive with tiny crabs. Sand bubbler crabs. They come out of their burrows at low tide to search the sand for food the human eye can’t see, rolling the picked-over grains into little balls as they go. They fascinated me when I was a kid because they worked so frenetically at their task; they never stopped moving. And now they began to move as one. They abandoned half-rolled balls of sand behind them and marched toward the distant blue-green water. Faster and faster they went, silently and resolutely, toward the horizon. They faded from view, until there was not a single crab left on the sun-warmed sand before me.