The scar having healed well, or at least as well as something that resembled a shark bite could heal, signalled that I would be beginning another new phase of treatment. Another dance into the unknown. No, actually not a dance, more like being dragged down an alley to the next Clockwork Orange type. It’s interesting to think about how the human brain compartmentalises everything. I learned after my diagnosis, there’s a thing called Cancer Psychosis, that persists from the moment of the words of diagnosis until, well, I don’t know when, just until. Whatever it is, I most certainly had it.
My estranged husband had turned up to announce the month before I was diagnosed that he would no longer let me live in the flat we once shared, which was in his name, so I was basically hurriedly dumped in a grim, dirty flat on the other side of London that some friends in a housing association helped me rent. I had lost my marital home, the last thing to lose of my martial anything, except for a scraggy aspidistra. Somehow that aspidistra survived 10 flat moves and 7 years of marriage. I was tearfully resigned to this move, and made the arrangements for the van to pick up my stuff in a heavy auto pilot funk that had been hanging around for the past few years, persistently clinging on to whatever was left of the abandoned Mrs. Me. A few days before the van came to pick my belongings up, the big news flash was I found out had Breast Cancer.
This was the vile gift of a trauma, on top of a trauma, foisted onto a severely depressed woman, who could no longer give a fuck: I had the grand total of 0 fucks to give anymore. Zero. I couldn’t even cry that much, I was all cried out. Utterly defeated. Totally fearful. I remember clearly the last time I talked to God, (which coincides with the precise moment I became an atheist) I said, “Okay God, I’ve been thru a lot of pain, illness (from a previous illness I had only just recovered from) and sorrow, I’m leaving my home alone now and everything I know..what is my new life, please God show me?” Thinking that God would show me a new lover, some new joy, a new career, or a dreamy new flat… Some new discovery from an endless list of unknown possibilities, as the world is vast and mysterious, and you see, I’ve always had this unquenchable internal little flame of hope. It’s my best quality: resilience combined with with resourcefulness. Instead God answered me three days later, “You have Cancer”. Bye God! See Ya! The arrival of this diagnosis, the ultimate kicking of a girl when a girl is down, with a Capital K, the unholy deliverance of the diagnosis of the BIG C, not only became the moment of my atheism but the moment of my conscious soul brain being pulled down a tunnel. Not of white light, oh no, more like a cold dark dank sewer tunnel.
I was immediately shoved into some kind of out of body arena: the aforementioned psychosis. I met a new set medical staff who told me I had to “fight”, when I truly couldn’t care less about the fight. I was living alone, without a phone, without family, without a husband and a few friends who didn’t know what they could offer, or even if they could deal with me. They tried to help in varying degrees but the loneliness and time spent solo with my thoughts, depression, was an excrutiating existence, this blank shredding fear and foggy despair being my only companions. I hated being so vulnerable, I hated that I had to ask for so much help. People didn’t like being around me. I wasn’t fun anymore, (which was the last thing my husband said as he walked out our door) and shallow as that may seem, some people just disappeared because of it. I was embarrassed and ashamed that I was in this near death position, and needy again. I smoked endlessly, and tried to force myself to eat (a great diet for someone who has just been diagnosed with cancer).
I walked daily around circles in the snow, the only person in Ravenscourt Park, the misty grey foggy London air, dreamlike snow, pondering over and over again if this was the last time I’d ever see snow. I would then return to this weird scuzzy new “home” with strange neighbours who owned fierce black pitbulls, yelping and defecating just outside my window. I made a tunnel on my sofa with a blanket and the TV attached at the end of my feet, so as to block out as much of this world as possible.
“I am totally alone, on a sofa and I have cancer. “Damn, damn, damn, damn.” Where was the guide book or Hallmark card telling me how to deal with this? Ten days prior, I panicked when I found out I was going into surgery, I asked the doctors to give me a few days delay to settle in. I manically screamed at my friends and demanded they come and paint this little dump. Jessica organised all this and they obliged, they had to, I was rambling, it was utterly important, I had never had surgery and this is the last place I could imagine where I could recover. It was all a blur… This blurry cancer psychosis, interestingly, was different from the surprisingly painful and deep marital heartbreak, I was still enduring.
There were elements of that special break up/down trauma that were familiar, but there was this odd out of body experience that you feel when you could be actually dying. This time, it was sort of like being alive in a void, there was stuff going on all around me, but I was in no way a part of it. The fear of death is the biggest and most real fear of them all: all the rules change. There was also a side that was calm and I felt okay to cash in my coupons. It’s impossible to describe, until you really and truly experience it, and guess what? you will. A roof over your head doesn’t matter, food doesn’t matter, love doesn’t matter, lack of love doesn’t matter, money doesn’t matter, lack of money doesn’t matter, nothing matters, because you may be dead very soon. You feel nothing. You feel dead all the time, but you are alive. It’s not an uncomfortable feeling, it’s beyond sadness or discomfort, it’s a disconnect, it’s the feeling of “oh shit, right, this is it, get ready..but for what?” I proceeded to do whatever I was told to do.
As I walked thru the cold sloshy February London streets past all the white mansions of South Kensington, I floated up the steps of the Marsden. My now familiar cancer haze. My everyday daze. Like all medical procedures, the doctors give you the worst case scenario, and you have to negotiate if they are giving you the hard or the soft sell. My friend Liz came to my appointments to help me sort it out. I couldn’t focus on what the doctor was saying most of the time, a few times I had to hold back laughter as it didn’t seem like this was really happening. It seemed comical how seriously Liz and the Doctor were talking, discussing me seemed like a huge joke. Usually the things they say hurt, really fucking hurt, and then other things are tolerable. Case in point, Radiotherapy. Even the word Radiotherapy conjures up some kind of post war industrial machinery, used in enemy experimentation and torture. Side effects: burning of skin, blistering, or peeling, or it may cause a secondary cancer to appear, these may present weeks or months later.
That morning, day one of radiotherapy, the blistering, burning and peeling was all I could think about. I was alone again, and shaking, and I tried to get some steadiness by pulling strongly on my last cigarette (unknown that it would be my last cigarette, but that’s another story) as I entered the Marsden Hospital Radiology Unit. The first person I saw was a man in a wheelchair, who looked like he had been flayed, or had been the victim of a boiling oil attack. I felt dizzy and nauseous, and the room was starting to spin. My first view that day was the horrific sight of this poor soul, who obviously did not have long to live. I ran back to the reception desk and told them I would be opting out of this treatment immediately. I was hyper-ventilating and taken to another room to sit for a while.
(See photo one). As if in another scene from Wizard of Oz, a tiny curtain opened to reveal stacks of patients heads casts sitting on shelves. The light green death masks were gridded up with a marking as to where the tumour was to be zapped, the masks were all frozen to the same scream. A cold shot went up my spine, when I imagined the patients who would be trapped in these, the terror of being clamped into these masks so they remained perfectly still for their radiotherapy laser. I felt like the walls are closing in on me, and I felt I was suffocating and choking in one of those masks, when suddenly a nurse came in and said “My god, who put you in here?!!”
The nurses explained to me that the flayed man was not a casualty of radiotherapy, but some other final progression ailment: they talked me into attending my appointment. I was led into a theatre, told to strip to the waist then four or five technicians put me on a slab and manipulated my breast over and over again, trying to pinpoint the exact advantage point. Measuring and measuring and measuring again. Responding with quadrant numbers in radiologist/ astronaut lingo. Huge airplane like pieces of machinery hoovered heavily over me, threatening to crush me if I moved slightly. I was tattooed with three dots to mark the radiotherapy laser’s intersecting grid points. All my life I had successfully avoided having any tattoos, even when I lived in the East Village at the height of radical inking. I was one of the few East Village inhabitants who had no sexy, funny, or clever artificial marks on them. I had no cartoon, no rockabilly rose and skull, no ex boyfriend’s name regretfully tattooed in a cute cursive. I never wanted to tattoo my lovely skin, which had served me so well. I myself preferred to take the Japanese stance, that tattooing and piercing changes your karma, and laying on this table, I thought, here we go changing my karma, “change my karma god damn it!” Yeah, do me a fuckin’ favour and change my Karma! I asked the technician if I could choose the colour of these dots, and he laughed out loud, being portly and fey and kind, it was exactly the kind of laugh you would expect from this technician. He could hardly contain himself, and explained he had never been asked that before. I still don’t understand why you wouldn’t choose your colour, it is a tattoo after all and it is for life, I guess that’s assuming you will get to have a life.
Then the green lights ran in a matrix across my chest, all the technicians and attendants ran into another room. Leaving me alone under the airplane ready to crush me, they fired the machine and I was zapped. It felt lonely, it felt final. Lying there the lasers reminded me of one of my favourite light shows from probably my favourite gig ever, Kraftwerk. I went with Camila, her boyfriend and my husband, those were Happy Kraftwerky days, electronic music and green lasers. There’s so many things you learn in these situations. Like, I never realised that so many people had cancer. I looked behind the curtains in the theatre and there was a wall of monitors of people like me on identical slabs, all getting zapped. It was like an assembly line in Detroit, in fact the sounds of the gleaming machines, MRI machines, all sounded like the whooping of airplane engines or Cadillacs revving or hardcore EDM ; those sounds at the end of the world. The hospital staff on all levels couldn’t be nicer, more sophisticated or more sensitive to their patient’s needs, but seeing those monitors, and the patients elevated as if in a mechanic’s garage, awaiting their precisely aligned zaps; was science fiction come to life. The cancer assembly lines written by Philip K. Dick.
Another thing you learn is how to deal with your humanity, and nakedness. For 28 days I had to quickly enter that large arena, take off everything above my waist, lay down and go thru the ritual of four or five sets of hands moving my tits into place. There’s a certain kind of absurdity and vulgarity to only being half naked in public. I thought of the painting by Delacroix, “liberte, egalite and fraternity”…with it’s topless heroine, barreling thru the French streets. I did not feel “liberte, or fraternity”, my experience was not triumphant. I felt like the dumb topless girl in front of the student assembly, being sniggered at, like some repeating teenage bad dream.
One day I chanced upon the first step of regaining my dignity and identity. On my daily radiotherapy walk home from the tube I frequented a TK MAXX on Hammersmith High Street. I followed the orders of 1: Go to appointment/ Strip to the waist, 2: Get zapped 3: Go home 4: Return in morning 5: Repeat. This TK Maxx provided the perfect shopping sanctuary and diversion. The staff are low paid, and lackadaisical: life has offered them a career on auto pilot, no one notices you, so if you are a dazed psychotic cancer patient, this is the shop for you!! (Feel free to use that gratis, TK Maxx for your next ad campaign). Suddenly I spied a fabulous pair of Silver discounted Marc Jacobs Boots in Size 41. A cobbled gift from the elusive TK Maxx Gods. A major score in the TK Maxx treasure hunt. I immediately decided that if I was to lie in the middle of this arena, with strangers and students fondling my sick boob whilst being monitored on screens from a safe distance, that I would make a statement. On the radiotherapy slab, I was like the Witch from the Wizard of Oz when the house fell on her; only your feet stick out. (She may have been naked from the waist up too, we’ll never know..)
These shiny shiny boots were a gloriously reflecting affirmation to all the people who were there trying to save my life, a high five to everyone in the safety room behind the viewing window, to myself and to the world. It became the running joke and source of my fashion pride in the radiotherapy arena. I felt no joy, or happiness, or hope, and I had a questionable future, if any: I was topless, cold and perhaps defeated, but the message was loud and clear, I still had a killer sense of style and a killer sense of humour, and maybe that was enough. I knew if I was going to be topless, and flagwaving thru the streets shouting “liberte” that I would sure as hell be wearing these boots.
by Suzie Zabrowska
Delacroix : Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite 1830