It's Mother's Day in London, and it's a day that comes for me with a whole spectrum of feelings. In her 40s, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Images of her arise now, especially of the times we bathed together, those of her before me, a crimson line crossing across her chest where her left breast had once been. Thinking of her, I feel sweetness, grief and love.
After her mastectomy to remove the tumour, her cancer went into remission. Years later, long after the word “cancer” fell from our quivering lips, my mother, still in her 40s, hand't entirely won the battle.
When I was ten, my friend Carys and I made our own Halloween costumes: we cut out ears of cardboard, drew black whiskers across our cheeks, and wore paper-cone noses that twitched.
“Guess who we are?” I said to my mother as she unloaded dishes from the washer in the kitchen.
She turned around. She stared at us as if a white sheet had fallen over her eyes.
“I don’t know,” she said.
“We’re mice,” I said, “I’m Mickey and she’s Minnie.”
I remember her looking at us, pale and mute, her hazel eyes empty ovals blinking.
“What are mice?” She asked.
I felt hot and uncomfortable at first in front of my friend; I was embarrassed. Why was she pretending she didn't know what mice were?
A tumour in her brain wasn't allowing her to access specific words, specific knowledge with specific words. The cancer had spread, furtively upward, and was now taking hold of how she processed the world. Through the following months, she went through chemotherapy and radiation and all the ghastly side effects: hair loss, weight loss, and loss of vitality. She experienced pain and fatigue. Now and again, she lost her personality.
Then it killed her, that cancer, creeping as menacingly as mice would, furtively, into her liver.
Today, in London, Mother’s Day has taken on a whole new orbit of feelings for me. Two days ago, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I felt the lump several months ago, but I hadn’t suspected this would happen to me. I thought I was too healthy, too careful. When my gynecologist last examined my breasts, she had told me that I had cysts, and those persistent little pebble-like pieces there weren't cancerous. Over time, pain increased in my left breast; a hard gritty mass felt stuck inside, and my nipple flattened and shifted in one direction.
I went to the hospital, just to be sure.
The mammogram felt itself like the beginning of a dance. Folding my body across the machine, the nurse positioned me, the dancer, on the hospital room’s stage, lifting my hand softly upward and letting it fall back into a pose. My arm shaped like a crescent moon caressed a night sky ripe with the unknown beneath me. I lie there draped across the cold metal like a lover enveloping another, squeezed in tightly, held in care of the nurse and the cold machine.
The biopsy felt like another kind of dance entirely: intrusive and bitter. The kind of dance where dizzying lights are flashing from the ceiling and techno music chaotically corrupts a peace you wish for so sincerely to keep but can’t. A needle stuck sharply through my skin, chemicals nullified any feeling in my breast, until the doctor thrust another needle in, then another, then another, each followed by a pop, jerk, leaving a wide purple bruise.
A week later, in front of the doctor holding the results of my test, he needn't speak. I could see the news on his face: his eyes open and his body leaning forward, his face pale and preparing in that silence that hovers like an airplane waiting to land on the right words.
“I have cancer.” I said somewhere between a statement and a question.
He nodded. "Yes." And then, "Blah, blah, blah" with words I couldn't yet process fully.
My body shook; my lungs gasped for air.
“I am sorry,” I said.
For what,I was sorry, I’m not sure. For losing myself. For having cancer. For not knowing what to say. I felt at that moment that I took flight from my body, and that an actress took over in that vulnerable position on the vinyl chair. She was someone I had never met before. The feelings I was experiencing were completely new, and I had no compass in which to navigate them: a corrosive loneliness, an stinging terror, an anger so confusing that it surrounded itself with denial, a sadness so anxious it locked itself in shame. “This isn’t happening.” I thought. “This isn’t my life.”
It is my life now. I'm dancing with cancer.
I walked around that day feeling as if I had been thrown into a Salvador Dali painting, into a landscape that was part dream, part nightmare. Clocks weren’t dripping from trees, but I had no reference point for my feelings. I felt numb, as if something wouldn’t allow me to feel what was happening. The world felt surreal and unreachable. I seemed to be hovering above my body, unable to connect with my feet, my skin, the air, my hands.
“Where have I gone?" I asked, "Please bring me back.” I pleaded.
And then from my pelvis, a shuddering wave rose though my belly and into my sternum, shuddering my shoulders and wailing through my mouth into sobs and eyes into tears. Crying threw me back into my body again, into feeling and sensing the experience.
A stranger on a train once told I should try reiki, that I had a calm, healing and focused presence that she could feel. When I signed up for a course to train in reiki a few weeks ago, I was unaware of the synchronicity of this training falling on the weekend after my diagnosis.
Reiki is a form of energy healing that originated in Japan. Rei means spirit and Ki means subtle energy, so the practitioner invokes the conscious healing energy in the universe in through the crown of her head through her chest and arms and hands to heal either herself or another. Diagnosed with spondylosis of the spine, my teacher went to reiki when he had lost mobility in his arms and legs, and his doctor told him his degenerative condition would eventually confine him a wheelchair. Determined not to give up, he practiced three hours of self-healing a day and completely healed himself.
The teacher paired an intuitive and nearly psychic fellow student to work with me during the healing practice. After holding her hands over my tumour, calling upon the right universal healing energies, she saw colours of white and green, and the image of a dancer, dressed in white released and free from my core. The teacher nodded, saying that he saw something similar when he had worked with me: a modern dancer dressed in an elegant white dress, freed, expressive, creative.
I had seen this dancer before. She appeared in a dance-theatre piece I wrote last summer, and again she arose in my mind as I biked to the course this morning. I love dancing, and I often wish if I could live my life over, I would train professionally in dance. On one level, I feel this dancer is my own body wishing to free itself, to express, to flow through life with grace. I feel she is at the same time my creative spirit and my spirit of healing, energizing me and releasing me into the world. She is part of my healing, part my therapy; she is my guide and my soul. Or simply myself, waiting to happen.
Blocking creativity, especially if it is who you are in this world, said my teacher, causes disease. “You can not separate your creativity from you; it is you.” Perhaps this cancer is as much a teacher as anything. It is forcing me to release myself from the limitations I put on my creative spirit. I have always danced this line between the artist I have always known myself to be, and the face I put in front of the world, the one who holds back from expressing herself. This cancer maybe telling me, you’re not allowed to do that anymore, you can no longer sacrifice who you are.
And so here I am, dancing with cancer. I hope that you’ll in some way, in the ways you feel like, dance along with me, support me. Perhaps the greatest support we can give anyone is to allow each other to be ourselves, fully alive, free in the dreams we have for ourselves and in forms that are dreaming us into this life.
More to come: surgery, radiation, tests ... I'll keep you posted on how I'm dancing with it all.