For the first time in my life, I spend very few hours of the day thinking about my body. I’m not sure if this is a good or a bad thing, an even, or an or. It’s just a fact. I think about my posture and holding it appropriately, but that awareness developed way before cancer. Other than that, my body is an afterthought. Strange. I thought cancer would move it to the realm of all thoughts.
Describing the physical change and the idea of a new normal in the physical, social, emotional and psychic sense that occurs after cancer treatment is the impossible task. I’ve talked about feeling empty in my physical body now that cancer treatments are nearly over, but that’s an inaccurate description of how I feel. I understand that my body is present and that I am presently in it. I can feel it. I can move it. If I really concentrate, I can connect to its sensations. There is a blood surge beneath the skin on the right finger that I sliced with a knife a few nights ago. There is tightness in my left lower back. My weight is unevenly distributed between my right and left foot. Physically, I can access my body if I really try but, I don’t try often. I’m afraid and it’s because most of what is there is unknown to me.
Obviously, some post cancer things feel different than precancer things. Your chest feels different when your breasts have been amputated. Your hair feels different after it’s fallen out and grown back as do your eyebrows and eyelashes. My eyelashes, oh so gratefully, are much longer and thicker than they were before cancer. These changes make sense to me, perhaps because I was prepared for them—we are all in some way—by seeing photos and videos of hairless people with cancer. The rest of it is baffling.
Every day I start from a space where nothing that I physically possess feels like mine. Every morning, I feel like Mary Shelly and her bag of various parts from various people played swapsies with my body. My skin isn’t mine. It’s thinner, looser and dryer and I bruise more easily. I also have this patch of itchy bumps that I scratch bloody every day on my right forearm near my elbow. No idea what that’s about. I wasn’t radiated there, no vein was tapped for an extended period of time, no chemo splash. I have a similar itchy patch right above my heart where I was radiated. I also scratch this bloody daily particularly because it’s easily irritated by heat and sun. Moving on—hands. The pointer, middle and ring finger of my right hand are tingly numb all day every day. Every one of my pads is very sensitive. My fingernails are a mess. They are so thin and dry that they often split a jagged course down to my cuticles. I find myself cutting them shorter and shorter to minimize the chance of the nail grazing something that will cause it to split. Although I’ve made some serious strides in terms of mobility, the muscles in my right upper back and chest as well as my facia are a tightrope. These sensations are different than previous sensations, but most of them can be traced back to cancer.
The differences I struggle with most are the unexplainable. Why don’t my thighs feel like my thighs? Why doesn’t my back feel like my back or my ankles like my ankles? Technically, nothing happened to those things. If that’s the case, where did mine go? How can a person not recognize their own body parts? My organs don’t feel like mine, which I realize is a crazy thing to say because who is familiar with their organs? When your organs feel different, you will start to notice them. These days, my organs vibrate with anxiety. I’m sure this is because if the cancer comes back, it will likely land in one of them. Because my body feels like someone else’s, any time I look in the mirror naked, I’m surprised to find that every part is in the right place. I’m surprised to see muscles and shape and tone. How did that happen? Where did this body come from?
I will never know which of the physical changes and disassociation that I’m experiencing are related to the babies, which are related to cancer, and which are related to aging, but it was cancer and cancer alone that backflipped through the psycho-emotional piece. I spend much more time fixating on what my person is than what my body shows. I spend much more time picking through the pieces of myself that I’ve hidden away than I ever have before. I understand that my responsibility is to not only look at those pieces, but to also figure out what to do with them. This is a painful process particularly when your self-esteem is low.
Most days, I take these realizations in pediatrician doses and sort of walk them around my soul. What does it feel like to be an asshole? In what context am I am asshole? Do I want to change that? And if so, how hard would it be? Is core to me? I am uncompromising in my goals and desires. Is that changeable? How much do I care? Why do I find people so fascinating and then so tedious? What does that mean for my life long term? Do the patterns surrounding that need changing? What is this? And by this I mean this I don’t mean my physical form. I mean existence. All of it. Making sense of it. Raging at it, falling into it as if it’s the one that’s supposed to be and never is.
As you can see, cancer breeds a lot of annoying self-reflection. For me, this happens not because I was forced to acknowledge how close we are to death on any given day, but because I’m so absent from my body.
For the first time in my life, I understand that my body is a vessel to something else. Cancer made this cliché and others wrenchingly real, by the way. I’ve lived with several strangers in my lifetime, but physically I’ve never felt like such a stranger to myself.