I was lying in bed last night, having had a pretty good day—stable MRI, rock climbing, driving the fun new Mini Clubman, SNOW (alas mostly melted away now), and my left breast started itching. It was just a normal body itch—we all get them occasionally—some weird firing of the nerve endings, nothing sinister about it. I wanted to scratch, and yet, my reluctance to touch my breast—to risk feeling an unwanted lump—was so great that I lay for several moments, steeling my nerve, before I had enough strength of mind to touch myself. Finally, heart rate elevated, holding my breath, I scratched my breast. It was a relief to obliterate the itch, and when I was done, I steeled myself still more and really felt myself up, doing a thorough breast examination. I found nothing unusual. I never have in the left breast. It's always been healthy, and yet I found myself picturing a second mastectomy, and what I would do after that. Get two prostheses? Go braless and boobless? The problem with going braless and boobless is that women's tops are sewn specifically to enshroud a bosom, and they look empty without one. So, go braless and start wearing only men's tops? Stop trying to minimize the effect of my permanently radiation-thinned hair and give up all semblance of femininity?
Rather than relax and go to sleep, my thoughts then roamed over my body and alit on the lymph nodes in the left side of my neck, which developed into several hard little knots over the summer of 2007, after my mastectomy, while I was traveling in Europe (instead of moving to New Zealand). They began hardening during an intense cold and upper respiratory infection that Ian and I shared—the exciting kind where you cough and hock up loogies the size and texture of banana slugs. I clung to the possibility that my lymph nodes were merely stiff with cold recovery . . . but the knots didn't go away until a year later when I finally started Taxol for breast cancer again. To this day, it's an internal battle just to touch my own neck—which, I can say tearily because I just made myself palpate my lymph nodes, seems to be perfectly healthy.
Ian and I just finished watching Long Way Down, a documentary that Ewan MacGregor and a friend created of a motorcycle ride from John O'Groats in northern Scotland overland to Cape Town. At Victoria Falls on the Zambezi between Zambia and Zimbabwe, the friend, Charlie Boorman, and one of the cameramen, went bungee jumping. I cannot imagine myself ever doing such a thing. It's enough of a challenge to grit and willpower simply to live in my body. I don't need to create situations to cheat Death.
Don't get me wrong—I love my body. I love my strength, my athletic abilities, my wit, my creativity. But I am far from trusting that those things will be with me as long as I am aware of them. Most of us are born having an innate faith in our bodies, in our abilities, in our fundamental health—because, for most of us, those things aren't tested for decades.
When they are tested, though—when we have a serious illness, and instead of succumbing we regain so much ability and health—how do we regain faith in that? Is Faith possible in the face of Knowledge, or are the two mutually exclusive? Does this kind of Knowledge necessarily end in Fear? I hope not forever, but that's where I am right now.
Knowledge can be liberating. But it can also be very, very hard.