How does she say goodbye to hair ravaged by chemo?
First, she dyes her beloved locks purple. I mean, really, why not? Any sane person would. Then she strolls through her neighborhood, pulling out clumps and letting them float to the earth like rose petals.
This is what she does; this is her path.
I know everything that Kim Turner Clark wants to tell me about her breast cancer. Every night, just before lights out, I click on her blog, Bad Manners Cancer (“so rude it just shows up without an invitation”), to read the latest post about the “sneaky little bastard’’ that has turned her life upside down and proved in the harshest way that life is luck, good and bad.
Turner Clark writes, “It’s so incongruous that I had cells in my body dividing madly, surreptitiously, and as healthy and good and powerful as I felt, I was horribly sick, my body going haywire trying to kill itself... I didn’t have any symptoms. Cancer is the great deceiver, the trickster.”
For most of us, cancer is a concept. It’s an illness that happens to other people. We are told that chemo causes fatigue, nausea and hair loss, but do we really know how that feels? No, we do not. Nor do we know how one’s head must spin when mortality knocks, especially when children are in the front parlor.
To call this blog good is an understatement. It’s a memoir in the making: searing and heartfelt without being sentimental. Oh, did I mention that it’s beautifully written, with imagery that will haunt you for days and make you shift in your comfortable chair, as compelling prose should?
If literary awards for blogs exist, this blog should win one. At the very least, it should be required reading in every household where self-pity has run amok. What makes the blog even more special is that it’s penned by a fellow East Side resident, a well-known local artisan and 48-year-old single mother of two boys, ages 10 and 16.
The November diagnosis comes from nowhere and whacks her silly – stage three breast cancer, invasive ductal carcinoma, the “wanderlust’’ variety. She soon learns that the tumor is large (one-and-a-half inches), and that the cancer is triple negative: the quickest-growing and most aggressive type of breast cancer, which does not respond to hormone-blocking treatments.
Turner Clark also faces uncertainty: “I thought cancer-schmancer sucks, yeah, but I’m tough; it will be a god-awful year and then I’ll be fine. One year. I was willing to give up a year of my life to cancer. I didn’t expect it might want a whole lot more than that.”
The moods of her early posts fluctuate between anger, defiance and paralyzing fear; a mounting “free floating anxiety” rooted in her feeling that “everything is out of control.” A flurry of visits ensues with oncologists and nurses. She feels overwhelmed by the new information in her “chemo class” and diligently reviews her “two inch thick” chemo binder at night.
Good news comes. An MRI reveals that the cancer has not spread. A bone scan is clear. A CAT scan shows no evidence of metastases. To prepare for chemo, she is “portified” – a surreal procedure in which a medical device is inserted under her skin to administer the “poison” otherwise known as chemotherapy drugs.
Turner Clark tells of her ordeal: “The procedure went smoothly, but I’m more than sore and I feel like Frankenstein with a slit stitched up the base of my neck. They told me not to shower for a week. LOL. Not shower for a week. That’s funny. This girl doesn’t go a day without a shower.”
Surprisingly, the first day of chemo is a “breeze.” The nurses are sassy and smart, the chair is comfortable. Five hours of drip, drip, drip. But by evening’s end, she is nauseous with a pounding headache. The next day, she can barely get off the sofa.
“I think I was overly optimistic about this week,” she writes. “I’m queasy and woozy, dizzy, befuddled, confused. My vision is blurry, the lights too bright. I’m tired and teary and just want to sleep. I’ve heard about chemo-brain.”
She is so wiped out over the next few days, she considers lying down during her shower. She has “axe-lodged-in-head caliber” headaches. Her gums bleed. Her guts churn. And then the inevitable: her hair, a luscious mane treasured since girlhood, falls out – in one day.
She reports that she has “two jars full of hair, much hair in the trash and down the drain,” and promptly embarks on her “ceremonial” walk in the neighborhood, letting go of the tufts left behind. Later in the week, she instinctively reaches for a comb after showering and stops herself, blaming “old habits.”
She admits, “I’m afraid of how disconnected from any sense of norm I’ll be when I don’t recognize myself in the mirror.”
Still, through all the uncertainty and discomfort, Turner Clark strives to be optimistic: “When I got in bed last night, I was tired, depleted, but happy. I wasn’t worried or scared, or pissed. This is my life and it’s still a beautiful life.”
Her most poignant posts are about her 10-year-old son, her “love bug,” whose courage is heart wrenching. He asks her if she “will be better by Christmas.” With a knot in her stomach, she explains the longevity of her illness.
One day, “love bug” spots a sign that reads, “After Cancer Every Day is a Great Day.” He tells his mother he’s excited about what most certainly lies ahead, for signs don’t lie. “Isn’t that great, mom?” he asks, cheerily. She wants to say yes.
After months of chemo, she’ll undergo surgery to remove the tumor and then comes the burning of radiation. Her journey is long. She is asking us to bear witness, and for that we should be grateful. If you’d like to follow along, go to www.badmannerscancer.blogspot.com.
Elizabeth Rau is an East Side resident who can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.