When my gastrointestinal doctor told me that I had cancer, the last thing on my mind was beauty.
“You have cancer in your duodenum. Hopefully after some treatments it’ll go away,” the man said gently.
I did not think to myself, “I wonder what color ribbon I should wear?” (Answer: the ribbon color for my cancer is lime green.) I also did not think, “Will I lose my hair and get a henna tattoo instead?” Nor did I pause to feel grateful that I didn’t have cancer in my all-important breasts, which as everyone knows, I should absolutely save.
Instead I thought the following, and I believe these are my exact mental words: Holy fucking shitballs of shit, I have some FUCKING CANCER.
I have recently become more aware of the role that beauty plays in a discussion of cancer because of the sexualization of cancer through “save the boobies” movements, which s.e. smith has discussed at length.
It has also become a part of the discussion because an actress named Kris Carr has weighed in with a cancer wellness regime and book series entitled “Crazy Sexy Cancer.” The books are about how she manages her cancer by devoting a lot of time and money to alternate medicine, exercise, and eating well.
A friend sent me a link to the Amazon site for her book “Crazy Sexy Cancer Tips,” thinking that perhaps it would help me in some way. I read the reviews and instantly realized that the book was, in short, not for me. To paraphrase one review, why return from chemotherapy, open up a book full of the usual beautiful, thin, made-up women with good hair, just so that you can feel like you don’t measure up?
The second hardest thing to do, after learning that I had cancer, was to tell my family that I had cancer. Hearing my parents cry on the phone was tantamount to taking a knife and repeatedly stabbing them in the heart myself, and is up there among the worst moments of my life. At that moment, I still didn’t really ponder whether I should pamper myself with pink beauty products or get special chemotherapy socks. I was too busy being in complete shock.
Sitting in my car after the diagnosis, I had to remind myself that I did NOT have the luxury of falling apart, or devoting an entire day to shock, or skipping work. At the time of my diagnosis, I was the sole supporter of my family while my husband finished school, and my little girl would be traumatized if she had to watch her mama go insane.
I gave myself 10 minutes in the GI doctor’s parking lot to fall the fuck apart, and then I dried my tears, went home, did the dishes, and helped my kid with her homework.
After my kid was asleep that night, I finally looked at my husband. He looked as if he’d been repeatedly punched in the face, his eyes glazed and hurt, and I felt a wash of complete helplessness.
“So what do we do?” my husband asked.
“Apparently I have to get a lot of tests done to see if my cancer is just in my stomach or throughout my whole lymph system,” I said. I still didn’t think about beauty, or feeling pretty, or (in the words of a male friend who tried his best one day to make me feel better) whether the treatment would give me a “free Brazilian.” Instead, I wondered whether or not I’d be around to see my daughter turn eight.
The next day I finally thought about beauty. I had to tell certain people at my office that I had to take time off to deal with a cancer diagnosis. One of them pulled me into his office and encouraged me to come right back to work after each treatment, because some people can simply take some painkillers and keep working.
I stared at him, unable to figure out anything to say while I realized that my priorities were suddenly vastly different from his.
I couldn’t handle work after such a discussion, and ended up walking out of his office, getting into my car and driving to the mall. I like staring at clothing, and I always have; it’s one way in which I deal with stress. I even like trying on clothes, because I am privileged to have a body that falls just below the cutoff for large sizes (in the US -- when I go back home to Thailand, it’s a totally different story).
I remember that particular trip to the mall pretty clearly. I walked into H&M, picked up a few dresses at random in the largest size that H&M has to offer, and headed into a dressing room. I put on a dress and stared at myself, and then had the following totally morbid yet totally reasonable thought: If my cancer is everywhere, this fucking dress is going to outlast me. It’s going to sit in my closet but I won’t be around to put it on.
I had to steel up all the nerve in my body to buy that H&M dress that day. The cashier asked me a standard question -- “How are you today?”
And as I stared at her with a dried-up brain, she cut the uncomfortable silence by saying, “It’s a nice dress. Bet it’s pretty on you.”
“Oh. It fits well enough,” I said after a moment, realizing that even something so simple as buying a dress was now completely different.
Which brings me back to the words that I’ve been struggling to write for weeks. It began with the idea that it would be easy for me to write about this complicated relationship between beauty and cancer, but the more I tried to think about it, the more the topic completely unraveled on me.
Beauty is beauty, with all of the host of problems that come with thinking about beauty in this society, here and now. Cancer is cancer, and as you can probably tell from this story, it has another enormous host of issues that come with it.
It took a few months after that for me to give a shit again about whether or not I looked nice. I had a few other, more pressing concerns, like a battery of tests that come with a cancer diagnosis. And before my oncologist and I decided upon my treatment regime, she asked me a question. “So, Achariya,” she asked, “Do you care whether or not you go through menopause? Because one of the side effects of killing all of the dividing cells in your body is that the drugs also kill your eggs, and you might also go through menopause.”
“Oh,” I stared at her. “No, I don’t wanna do that." I’ve had a child, and always figured that I could have more if I wanted to, but the decision was actually much deeper than that. Did I want to lose reproductive ability and go through that particular aging process before my biological time?
If fertility is considered a part of beauty (and this is clearly debatable), then it is probably vanity, in part, that gave me this knee-jerk reaction. I didn’t want more kids, but I did want to keep being fertile. (Men who go through this treatment are able to save sperm in a sperm bank, but obviously there is no menopause for them to risk.)
My own connection between beauty and cancer suddenly became about whether my body would remain the one that I’d spent the past 38 years getting used to, or whether my body would change beyond my own recognition.
I decided against the strongest chemotherapy, and we looked for other solutions. I was lucky, I suppose. In the process of finding out about my treatment, my oncologist met with the hospital’s tumor board and learned that my cancer, Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma (NHL), could be treated with one of the gentlest drugs of chemotherapy, Rituximab. Rituximab only kills B-cells (growing cancer cells and white blood cells), so I never had to give up ALL of my dividing cells, including my eggs or even my hair.
Eighteen months later, I am still going through chemotherapy. It takes an enormous effort of will to take myself to treatment, because when the drug enters my body, many things DO change beyond my control. My concern with beauty goes up and down according to my mood and healthiness.
On the other hand, cancer has added to my complicated feelings about beauty, and given me even more to puzzle out and think about. Many people with cancer think about beauty in a different way than I do (I’m not sure I can handle adding the word "sexy" to cancer in any way, shape or form), and my reaction to some of those ways is what initially inspired this bit of writing.
I realized through attempting to write about this difference that I do not have it in me to critique or criticize anyone else’s approach to cancer and beauty.
People with cancer face some fundamental questions about life and death that go beyond the word “beauty,” and if these folk choose to deal with beauty in a way that I do not really agree with, bless them, they’re doing it their way.