It’s Not Easy To Wrap In A Pretty Pink Bow

I have the stories of others playing constantly in the back of my mind. The ones I can’t tell. The closed pages, the strictly confidential. Many breast cancer sites are vetted before entering. You need to explain your diagnosis, age, care and prognosis before they’ll accept you. It makes sense, this is the place where women bare all – both literally an emotionally. Mastectomies, reconstructions, ports, drips, skin flaps and forced new beginnings. The truth is told about husbands, sex, relationships and fear. The worst stories “I think he’s waiting for me to die”. The unthinkable “He’s told me I’ve changed, he doesn’t love me anymore”. It is here that every couple of days I see/hear that someone “has their wings”. It took me a moment to realise it meant they’d died. Gone. Lost the fight.

I am now completely bald. I look like a woman with cancer. I wear something which reassembles a tea cosy to bed to keep my head warm and my children unfazed. The steroids have swelled my cheeks, my face is flushed, I shuffle through the results of chemo – I will myself to walk with purpose. My symptoms won’t last more than a few days, but while they’re here it’s ferocious.

Mine is the smallest of battles. I look around at those who are on round 19 after going through surgery with more to come. Femininity robbed – boobs scarred, no eyelashes to flutter, no raised eyebrow in a moment of suggestion. Gone is the flirt factor of the hair twirl, the flick. It somehow feels that it’s all so bare now, so exposed. Love me for who I am – no frills, no sparkles.

It is my husband who I watch in awe. Every sports practice, every drive to and from, every parent/teacher meeting. He is exhausted yet consistently beautiful and optimistic. The same jokes are made. Walking through the back yard with an arm full of plants from the nursery he took on his favourite tradesman routine “So where’s your husband love?” he asks finding me in the backyard.  I smile through the hot flush, the weak muscles and the aching bones. I could not be any less sexy if I tried right now. I’m wearing oversized pants a billowy shirt and slippers.

Like some sort of experiment, from diagnosis to treatment we lose a little bit more of ourselves. A girlfriend explains that she feels like a number.  “It’s as if I am number 866742, with said number tattooed on the side of my head. I expect to see other numbers tattooed on other heads when I stroll through the cancer care corridors. We all end up looking the same, no hair, no brows, that distinct “cancer” identity chapped on our foreheads. Bare. Naked. Exposed. As if being marched. But also bold whilst bald. It is by being bold that we take our vulnerability and turn it into a strength. I am equally fearless and vulnerable and think that it is beautiful to be so complex a being during this time and treatment.”

I agree, it’s complex. It’s unfamiliar, and perhaps harder for those to watch than those who are partaking. I have the stories of others playing constantly in the back of my mind. It’s not easy to wrap up in a pretty pink bow.

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