“When Cancer Changes Your Appearance,” by Brian Nelson in The New York Times, is an unusual essay, well worth your time.
I’ll wager that Mr. Nelson has dealt with more health problems than everyone on my block put together. He links to the Google document he’s created just to keep track of his doctors and maladies. He talks about the physical changes resulting from cancer treatments, which most recently have caused shocking facial swelling and affected speech. He writes:
“How does one deal with someone whose appearance has changed from the dashingly handsome (O.K., I’m taking some poetic license) to totally disfigured and, one might say, grotesque? We’ve been trained by movies and TV to worship perfection. After all, the bad guy is always either bald, short, limps, is missing an eye, scarred or has some other abnormality to distinguish him from us, the perfect audience. My close friend recently told me he was “shocked, I tell you, shocked,” by my appearance when he saw me again after six months. I’m shocked sometimes too.”
Why would someone choose to share such personal struggles in words and pictures? To help others, of course. And to distract oneself, to create a routine; to matter.
About 20 years ago I collaborated with Seattle veteran TV journalist Julie Blacklow to create a news feature that dealt with my getting treatment for a breast lump. Alarmingly titled “Kimberly’s Breast,” it ran during National Breast Cancer Awareness month. Ms. Blacklow did all the work; I showed up and flashed the relevant body part.
At the time I worked for Seattle’s best daily newspaper. (Now the city’s only one.) The week leading up to the airing of the special, promos seemed to blare out of the newsroom’s TVs every 15 minutes. Each time the announcer’s ominous tones entreated viewers to tune in to follow one woman’s challenge or some such phrase, everyone in the room looked stricken. I got tired of assuring them I was okay and finally hung up a note at my desk: “I’m Fine. Go Back To Being Sarcastic Wise-Asses.”
I’d asked Ms. Blacklow if she’d follow me through the medical process, starting with the first mammogram. (I’d found the lump myself and my primary-care doc sent me to a practice that specialized in such diagnostic radiology.) I reasoned that if it did turn out to be cancer, I’d need a project to keep from caving in to babbling panic. As I tend to do, I imagined the worst, and then came up with a plan to deal with it before it could actually happen. (I can’t prove it, but I’m pretty sure it was an ancestor of mine that coined that famous glass-half-empty toast, “May you be in Heaven one half-hour before the Devil knows you’re dead.”)
Through mammograms, ultrasound, removal of the lump, then more mammograms, the doctor, nurse and one very tall cameraman gamely crowded into a tiny exam room. (Like all good shooters, the camera guy could fold himself up like a map and fit into an impossibly small corner.)
In the end, the lump was not cancer, the story had a happy ending, and people no longer needed permission to be sarcastic wise-asses, so I took the note down.
Folks who’d had a breast-cancer scare in their world said thanks. Some of the people who hadn’t faced that particular fear seemed to understand the business of Oh-shit-I-found-a-lump a bit better. One of the curmudgeonly printers in the back shop took me aside and informed me he’d watched the show, then told his wife to get one of those mammogram things, pronto. She did.
I was glad I’d done the show.
Mr. Nelson, whose story is much more dramatic than mine, seems to live his life with a great mix of fortitude and humor. He climbed up on a very big stage to share his thoughts and experiences. I hope he’s up to his swollen neck in congratulatory email and text messages today, from people all over the world who feel less alone and scared because he went so very public about such very personal stuff.