The Appointment

June 22, 2010

I have ten minutes to get out of the house. I dash from room to room trying to pull myself together. I take off my stinky, spit-up stained shirt and pants while brushing my teeth and then rummage through the closet for something that might fit. My size has changed dramatically in the last months—from postpartum extra pounds to rapid weight loss after the surgery. And then there’s the pouch to consider. I rinse my mouth out, and pull a blouse over my head. I pause over my favorite pre-pregnancy jeans and decide to give them a try. I’m delighted to discover that they fit, even over the pouch. Next I’m brushing my hair and putting on earrings, my watch, wedding ring. From the playroom I hear the sound of Toby’s favorite reggae music. Every so often Leo squeals, clearly enjoying Toby’s dance party too.

I study my face in the mirror for a moment. It won’t do. I look pale and tired: the dark circles under my eyes are a dead giveaway. Being awakened at 4:30 am by one child and then up for the day at 5 am with the other doesn’t help the cause. I dig out my makeup case from the vanity and consider its sparse contents—some mineral powder for my cheeks, a bit of lip gloss. I rarely wear makeup. I’m almost 40 years old and I still have no idea how to apply makeup like a grown-up woman.

I stroke on the blusher, apply the lip gloss, smack my lips together, and take another look in the mirror. I still look pale and tired, only now there’s a layer of pink on top of pale and tired. Fearing I resemble the eccentric woman I see from time to time at the supermarket and post office, with bright orange lipstick smeared around her mouth and her cheeks caked with circles of rouge, I grab some toilet paper and immediately wipe my face clean. For good measure, I pinch each cheek as I take one last look in the mirror. “You are not sick,” I remind my reflection.

With all of this uncharacteristic fussing over my appearance, you would think that I was going out on a date with David or to a party or out to dinner with friends instead of to an appointment with my oncologist. After the third or fourth time of reaching for the makeup case before a doctor’s appointment, I finally caught on to what was really going on. I realized that I wanted to look so good, so healthy, that the doctors would realize that of course they had made a mistake. “You look too well to have cancer,” they’d say. “This must have been an error.” And then they would send me home and I’d never have to go to a hospital again.

I know this is silly. I know this is fantasy. I know this also quite childish. But still, I’m compelled to want to look, well, downright awesome. I want to prove to the doctors that I am too fit and healthy and strong for their euphemistic “treatments.” (As an aside, all of this oncology speak makes me think about Orwell’s marvelous essay “Politics and the English Language” in which he unmasks the language of politics and war for what it really is: jargon and euphemisms designed to create distance from the truth and responsibility of human exploitation and suffering. I’m not saying that doctors are the same as dictators by any means but the medical profession has developed a language for cancer treatments that seems to downplay their real impact on real people. And of course, cancer is “fought” as a “battle.” But I digress…and will write more about all of that later.)

Of course, I realize that my doctors and I are not adversaries on opposite teams, although I did sit through some of those early appointments with the medical oncologist and radiation oncologist at Mount Auburn with my arms firmly crossed against my chest. They want to do what? To me? And that’s the crux of it: if I feel that anyone is “doing something to me” then it isn’t the right decision or the right time to make the decision. When I think about treatment in those terms, I’m terrified. It’s the same feeling I get when I read too many studies and statistics online. Cancer becomes bigger than me and the earth goes off-tilt and I feel like I have to hold on with my fingernails to avoid falling off the slippery edge.

One glorious afternoon this spring, our dear friend Steven facilitated a conversation between David and me. At this point, David and I were each having our own separate experiences and really needed to connect. David kept remarking how he had been unable to shed a tear since all of this started. We welcomed the opportunity for Steven’s loving guidance.

We were sitting on the deck, and at some point, my attention drifted away from the conversation and out to the trees that make up the little swath of conservation land behind our house. The wind blew gently, and the leaves seemed to shimmer in the sunlight. I realized then and there that the only way I can make it through this healing journey is by having radical faith, the antithesis of fear. When Steven had arrived I was in pretty bad emotional shape. I had been mired in computer research, studying up obsessively on the prognostics and treatment options for my newly staged cancer (at this point I have to thank those three positive lymph nodes for doing such a good job of containing the cancer from spreading anywhere else!). Sure, I was learning more about rectal cancer from the studies, but really I was just making myself more and more fearful.

So the trees opened their leaves for me and invited me to join their dance. Stand tall, they said to me, and send your roots deep into the center of the earth. From there you shall draw power into your core. And raise your branches high up into the sweet blue sky, so high that you open yourself to heaven and to all of the divine love that is right here for you. Flowing like nectar. Awakening your senses. Enlivening your intuition. It’s from this place, I told David and Steven, that I need to make my decisions. It’s from the strength of radical faith that I will move forward each step of the way.  I told them my vision of the tree, and Steven added something to the image: a bright yellow sunflower, pregnant with hundreds of seeds, radiating at the heart chakra. Yes! A burst of brilliant energy at the heart, going out, coming in, providing healing for myself and for others.

And so looking tired but pretty darn good in my jeans, I put on my sunglasses and headed out to the car with my backpack and a large container of water, and drove downtown to Mass General to meet with my oncologist, Dr. Clark. We talked for a long time. I told him about herbs and acupuncture, and green smoothies and green drink, but left out the conversations I’ve had with a medical intuitive or my future appointment with an iridoligst. He told me he was fine with my taking any herbs or supplements along with chemotherapy. At the end of the visit, he handed me a prescription for Xeloda, the chemo pill I have decided to take for 6 months. I folded the paper up and put it away in my black-and-white marble composition notebook. I haven’t looked at it since.

How I arrived at the decision to take chemotherapy is another story that I am still living into. Right now, I am preparing for the treatment in body, mind, and spirit. I am also preparing to wean Leo and to let go of this aspect of mothering which is so precious to me. Another letting go. When the time is right, when I feel absolutely certain that the chemotherpay has been transformed into holy medicine, only then will I start taking the pills. I remember learning that Tibetan Buddhists believe in the ability to transform anything—any thought, any experience, any problem, any substance. Standing as a tree with my roots sown deep, my branches reaching into heaven, I too believe, no, I know, that transformation is possible.



  1. Shira,
    Yes, become the tree and may your dancing relationship guide you through this journey with gentle love, fierce wisdom and beautiful transformation.
    Write on!

  2. Shira dear,

    Keep on tapping into your strength and remarkable insight, which you translate so gorgeously into inspiring words. Thank you for letting us share some of the journey with you.


  3. Dear Shira,

    I am rather speechless/wordless after reading your expression. Know that I am holding a loving space just for you, feeling some of what you feel, letting go of some of the same stuff and being strong, deeply rooted and flexible with branches raised high right along side you.

    Much love,


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