Two days after running the Brooklyn Half, I was on my way to Jamaica Bay to look at migrating shorebirds when I tripped and fell on an uneven patch of sidewalk in Broad Channel, Queens, and shattered my left elbow. It was my second fracture in 12 months.
At the beginning of the year, I had a plan. It had been 10 years since my breast cancer diagnosis. Why not use this blog to look back, while also celebrating survival? Yes, it was tough, I’d acknowledge, but it was doable, even funny at times, and look at me now: running half marathons, tromping through salt marshes in search of new birds, seeking out the best Uzbek food in South Brooklyn?
If that concept veered perilously close to what my sister survivor and political-intellectual heroine Barbara Ehrenreich has called “bright-siding,” well, I’d rely on self-deprecating humor and relentless honesty to keep it real.
Instead, I find myself in direct confrontation with breast cancer’s lasting impact on my body and mind. In particular, I’ve been thinking a lot about the shame that accompanies physical frailty.
I can already hear the rustling of friends and readers preparing to respond that I have nothing to be ashamed of, that’s ridiculous – to which I say: I love you all, but I’m not seeking reassurance.
One can know one has nothing to feel ashamed of while still feeling a sense of shame. In my case, shame has taken the form of telling as few people about my fracture as I can get away with (this post being my coming out). Shame shadows each retelling of my accident (it’s there, the shame, even as I joke, feebly, about “birding injuries”). Lying helplessly on that Queens sidewalk, I felt shame. I feel shame when I glimpse my hunched-over posture reflected in store windows. I feel shame as younger, busier, more confident people rush by me on subway stairs. I feel shame each time I see my puffy hand and (spectacular) bruises.
I’m not wallowing, honestly – I’m interrogating.
It’s not exactly a striking insight that the culture values youth and strength. Age and weakness are to be resisted, held off. Consider the fact that our first response to a confession of frailty-induced shame is to deny the frailty – “you’re the strongest person I know.” (Be honest, that was your response, wasn’t it?)
But our bodies do age, and we do get weaker (and slower, as my race times document so well). Maybe if we recognized that more openly, we could take away some of the shame that frailty brings.
I don’t know.
What I do know is that amid the swirl of emotions that accompanied my breast cancer diagnosis ten years ago, there was a lot of disbelief; surprisingly little fear; some rage; manageable grief; plenty of determination; an odd curiosity . . . and a measure of shame, which I didn’t understand at the time and mostly buried.
Survivors know the ugly truth about breast cancer is that even if it never comes back, you never stop living with the disease. That’s true physically – in my case, chemo booted me into premature menopause, and long-term anti-hormonal therapy accelerated and intensified my menopausal bone loss – and it’s also true emotionally.
Having been through the cancer wringer doesn’t just make us, in fact, frailer and more vulnerable – it also makes feeling frail and vulnerable more emotionally fraught. (That may be especially true for those of us, like me, who sailed through treatment – I was the woman in your chemo support group you secretly hated.)
Ten years out, and I’m feeling more fear than I remember from the months following my diagnosis. The shame I buried then has clawed its way to the surface. The fact that I’m ten years older now has, I think, a lot to do with this.
I’m also, of course, feeling a strong desire for a time machine and a do-over of my walk up Noel Road from the Broad Channel A train.
So, where do things stand? I had surgery just over a week ago. The procedure was a bit longer and more complicated than anticipated – my elbow, it turns out, was in five pieces, and is now held together with three plates, heralding a future of setting off airport metal detectors.
While I’m dreading the months of physical therapy ahead of me, what I’m fearing is my next bone density exam . . . and, more immediately, the swelling in my left arm and hand.
About that swelling: the left is my surgical side, and I’ve spent a decade coddling and protecting it (avoiding excessive weight, offering my right arm when my blood pressure is taken, remembering to print “NO IV/needles/BP left side” on the back of my race bibs about half the time). Thanks to precautions like these, or maybe just to dumb luck, I’ve avoided the chronic swelling that can follow injury to the lymphatic system. (Injury, in this case, meaning 14 nodes scooped out from my left armpit.) My vigilance has lessened over the years (I long ago stopped wearing a compression sleeve when I fly), and there’ve been a few previous cuts and scrapes and stings, but still: my left arm has led a very sheltered post-cancer existence.
Then I go and break it.
The swelling has gradually gone from extreme (at one point, the knuckles on my left hand looked and felt like wrinkly water balloons) to relatively minor, but it’s still there.
Swelling is expected after this kind of injury, say both my surgeon and Dr. Google, even in someone whose lymphatic plumbing isn’t all messed up. So maybe it’s that, which would be – in the off-kilter world that breast cancer survivors live in – fabulous. It was a bad break and an extensive surgical repair, after all. Or maybe my swelling is a little worse, and lasting a little longer, because of my compromised lymphatic system. That would be fine.
Or maybe it’s the beginning of a chronic condition – which I’ll deal with however I need to, and write about, and laugh at (bitterly, and not-so-bitterly, eventually), but still:
Frailty isn’t shameful, but confronting it sure does suck.
. . .
A special note to my breast cancer sisters: I doubt that anything in this post is telling you anything you didn’t know, or provoking fears you didn’t already harbor. I’m certainly not aiming to upset or depress or fuel anxiety. But I’m trying, as always, to be honest about my experience. If I weren’t, the fun parts of this survivor’s story – which is to say, the great majority of the past ten years, and, I sure hope, the next ten, and the ten after that – wouldn’t mean much.