Seeing Pink

November 3, 2010

Everywhere I turn these days I see pink. Pink ribbons. Cute pink gel pens at the Staples check-out counter. Pink ribbon rhinestone necklaces at the hospital gift shop. Pink sneakers. Pink ribbon bumper stickers. I recently picked up a free, local parenting newspaper. Guess what’s on the cover? Yep, more pink ribbons.

A small voice inside me began to whine: Where’s my ribbon? Where’s my rectal cancer pen? Then I opened the newspaper and read. Duh. October was breast cancer awareness month and the parenting magazine had run a heartfelt feature on mothers with breast cancer. Of course, their stories are inspiring and moving, and I felt an instant kinship with my breast cancer sister-mothers, despite the “divide” of different diagnoses.

Honestly, it’s embarrassing to say “rectal.” I know I should be more mature, but as a person with a photographic imagination, referencing the rectum—my rectum—just makes me a tad self-conscious. The higher organs of the digestive system seem to have far nobler-sounding names and functions. Esophagus. Stomach. Pancreas. Colon. Ileum. Even the appendix, that tacked-on little organ that has gone long misunderstood (as a storehouse of good gut bacteria it does serve a purpose after all!) is more musical to my ear than rectum.

When the issue of my health comes up, and lately it does fairly often, I usually tell people that I was diagnosed with cancer on my 39th birthday and am in cancer treatment. I would leave it at that, but curiosity always prompts the question: “What kind of cancer?” Why does it matter? I guess if I said the dreaded melanoma or other cancers that are difficult to cure then my interlocutor would be able to gauge just how much trouble I’m in. Everyone’s a cancer expert these days. So my face twists into a sort of apology and I whisper: “Rectal.” The usual reaction I get goes like this: “Oh.”


The truth is, now that I have only a little bit of rectum left inside my body, I’m coming to a whole new level of respect and appreciation for this workhorse of a muscle. I like its no-nonsense practical purpose: the rectum stores poop and when the time comes it pushes it out. In a nutshell, it’s the garbage collector. Not a glamorous job, but somebody has to do it.

When I scored reasonably well on my first standardized tests in the third grade, my father sat me down for a heart to heart. We were early for my acting class in the city, so we went to the diner across the street and ordered our second breakfast of the morning. After pouring cream into his coffee, my father looked at me intently and said: “You did pretty well on your tests. You know, you can be anything you want, a doctor, a lawyer…” He took a sip. “You don’t have to be a garbage collector.”

The moment he said those words, a wave of relief flooded my body, as though I were suddenly sprung from a life of toil I didn’t realize I was sentenced to until that moment. “I don’t have to be a garbage collector,” I repeated in my mind while visualizing myself hanging onto the back of a dirty, noisy truck. I will never forget that exchange. It was rare to receive advice from my father. He certainly had strong, highly critical opinions about my sisters’ and my life choices but he rarely offered fatherly guidance of the “you don’t have to be a garbage collector” sort. The classism of his remark aside, I think my father was trying to say: “You’re smart. Do something with your life.”

And now I find myself slightly obsessed with trash collection, admiring its vital function in society…and in our bodies. Isn’t it true that you take trash for granted until it’s piled up and smelly and something has gone wrong with the collection system? (Until you get cancer and have a temporary ileostomy?) When I studied in Madrid in ’92 there were strikes all the time, including a strike of the garbage collectors in the subways, and I can tell you that it was hot and putrid underground without those mighty trash men in their cute regulation blue jumpsuits.

When we first met my surgeon, he impressed us with his straight-shooting talk. He’s the kind of guy who will tell it like it is without the sickening sugary coating. He’s the kind of man who makes jokes about his line of work (you can imagine). He’s also the type of surgeon who doesn’t have an outrageous ego. “I’m basically a plumber,” he said with a big grin.

Although he’s a colorectal board-certified surgeon who came to me highly recommended, and while he’s performed hundreds of laparoscopic TMEs (my complicated surgical procedure) and teaches this technique all over the country, the fact that he called himself a plumber, well, it gave me pause. It actually gave me cold feet. I couldn’t imagine a heart surgeon referring to himself in such pedestrian terms. I wanted a dignified, noble, long-fingered, delicately mannered surgeon to open me up and handle my intestines. So I signed up with one (he wore a suit and tie) but two days before my surgery I canceled. I realized that I had gotten seduced by a necktie, and that in fact if I was going to have my insides re-replumbed I wanted it done by a plumber.

Before the surgery, my plumber checked me out with a flexiscope—a lighted narrow tube that gets inserted through the anus into the rectum. He turned the monitor on and there I was onscreen for all to see: David, baby Leo, and my dear friend Sara (and good sport) had front row seats. I felt a mixture of emotions: embarrassment, self-consciousness, anxiety about the tumor that sat crouched like a toad on the upper wall of my rectum. And then I took a better look, a more objective look, at a part of my body that had hitherto remained cloaked in darkness. When I could get over the weirdness at watching something we really have no business seeing, I marveled at the complicated and beautiful thing that was the human body. My rectum was many shades of pink, and illuminated and magnified on the screen above me, I could see all of its shimmering textures and alien geography.

It reminded me of a story my mentor, the poet Olga Broumas, once told me about teaching Women’s Studies classes in the 70s. Things were a bit more radical and experimental then, and in one class a woman volunteered to allow the students to look inside her vagina with the aid of a speculum. One by one, the students shone a flashlight inside the woman’s vagina and peered in—body just like their own body—and gasped. They had expected the inside of a woman’s body to be dark, dirty, ugly. Instead, they were shocked to discover that her insides—their insides—were pink.

Hot pink. Coral pink. Blushing bride pink. Earth just waking up to a new day pink. Light-filled and holy pink. This is my body and I love each and every part of it pink. Rectal pink. Amen pink.


One comment

  1. Hi Shira,
    This is Audrey — a friend of Ilana’s. We’ve met a couple of times, and Ilana just forwarded me and some other friends the link to your blog. I just want to thank you for this incredible gift. Ever since Ilana told me of your diagnosis last year, I have been keeping you in my prayers and in my heart. Your writing is exquisite, and I loved that you quoted one of my favorite Rilke poems from my favorite Rilke book. Wishing you refuah shleimah on every level, and thank you for the gorgeous and abundant honesty and wisdom of these posts.

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