Every day now, I wake up and remember that I am a changed person: I have had breast cancer.
It's not just that my body is different. I carry a spacer plate in my chest while I await reconstruction surgery: It's like being Darth Vader, except under the skin.
After seven months of chemotherapy, I am constantly tired, with a fatigue like a low-grade fever that flares and subsides. After months of baldness, my hair has come back in a mass of gray curls: I look like a stubby version of the late Beatrice Arthur.
Cancer changed me. Before cancer, I was a workhorse of a woman. I walked five miles a day. I raised two children. I worked, mowed the lawn, volunteered, walked the dog, cleaned house.
And then I lost not just the ability to do everything, but the ability to do anything.
I wanted so badly to be the person who could say that chemotherapy didn't bother me a bit.
I'm not. I'm the person whose behind gets kicked every time the needle goes in.
But I am alive. I don't take that for granted.
I had a double mastectomy Feb. 9. I began chemotherapy in March. I still go to chemotherapy most weeks.
Chemotherapy made me very humble very quickly.
During the first rounds, I was so wiped out that simply getting off the couch became a matter for intricate negotiations with myself: In 10 minutes I'll get up and get something to drink. In 20 minutes I'll feed the dog.
I became winded carrying a load of towels up the stairs.
During the Taxotere round of chemotherapy, the muscle pain was so overwhelming that I would sometimes sit at my desk at work with my eyes glazed in tears.
Even picking up a book seemed a major effort, and there were times when my mind refused to decode the words before me. The works of Anthony Trollope were a great consolation. Each time I would ruefully tell myself that I was at heart a 19th-century Englishwoman, I would equally ruefully remind myself that if I were a 19th-century Englishwoman with breast cancer, I would now be dead.
Every trip became an excursion. Going to the grocery store was a safari: monumental, unending and exhausting. Hauling bags of cat litter into the house left me drained.
Even now, my days are limited and my life reclusive. I get up, feed the pets, take a walk, go to work. In the evenings, I come home and go straight to bed.
In some ways this forced restriction has been a blessing. The world goes on pretty well without me. My children are venturing into adulthood and finding their independence. I'm important to a few lives, entertaining in others, helpful to a few more, just another human cog.
That's liberating, in a way. I'm free now to re-enter society on a small, intimate scale. A few weeks ago, I discovered a morning glory vine on my back fence. Each morning when I changed the dog's water, I wandered out to touch one of the dew-slick blooms. It seemed both the ritual of an eccentric woman and an affirmation that beautiful things could still spring up out of nothing.
Still, the hardest part of cancer is not the chemotherapy. The hardest part is hearing people in the health care debate talk as if cancer is a lifestyle choice or a temporary flu.
I find myself wanting to beg every woman I see to get a mammogram. If you can save yourself a moment of the pain, the nausea, the constant fatigue, by a simple exam, do it.
Having cancer changes everything. Cancer makes life infinitely harder. But it also gives you a sense of how few the moments are, and how sweet.