How Breast Cancer Changed Me

Cancer forced her to reconsider everything: her values, sexuality, and the meaning of life itself.  

by Valerie Williams-Sanchez • More.com Member { View Profile }

Rich, dark chocolate color poured over my fingertips like fondue, with a creaminess that made my mouth water for hot chocolate. Shiny and smooth, the polish was a glossy coating over the blackened nail beds of my fingers and toes, an elegant remedy, hiding chemicals still visibly in my body. It was the first mani-pedi I had had since completing the second phase of my cancer treatment. The chocolaty brown liquid was part of my chemo camouflage.

Much had happened since I’d last been to the salon. Namely, I had endured eight treatments of intravenous injection of chemotherapy, an adjuvant treatment cocktail over alternating Mondays. This represented some 24 hours spent seated, gazing out onto the Hudson River from a reclining chair at a cancer center while tumor-killing drugs were pumped into and through my body. 

It was the dead of winter, but snow had not fallen. The trees and ground were bare, cloaked in a ubiquitous grayness that shaded the landscape, smudging views outside the broad picture window where I sat. A record-breaking mild winter arrived in New York, and the weather was unseasonably warm outdoors. Inside, I was weathering one of the harshest winters of my life: my battle with breast cancer was storming.These days, darkness shaded my ashen face and collected like murky puddles under my eyes. My face and body were bloated and hairless. Form-fitting and explicit frocks gave way to draping ensembles that only suggested the curves of my engorged frame. A wig, with a hard, full bang, stood in for my own hair and for the areas of my face where arched brows and mascara-swept lashes once reigned. My crowning glory had fallen away like clumps of cotton candy pulled from a stick. I had removed slack hair painlessly over two days, during my return commute home. It was two weeks into treatment. My skin was sandpaper dry. My joints ached and limbs were painful, with shooting starbursts of sharp pain, conditions that couldn’t be masqueraded beneath make-up, or covered up with prosthetics.

Well-intending friends tried to bolster my spirits lying, speaking niceties like: “How are you doing, Val? You look great!”

In fact, I looked anything but great. I was sick and it showed. On my inevitable “bad days” that followed treatment, my feet were numb. Drugs made my joints tender so I walked gingerly, pausing between paces to be sure my legs were steady under me before each new step. Tennis shoes and flats replaced my stiletto heels. I moved ghost-like, cloaked in a chemo-induced fog, through and around my office. I returned to work on my regular schedule despite my treatments. Medications made my stomach alternately numb or created in me a vague nausea.

Treatment had thrown my system into “defense mode,” and so my appetite, when I did try to eat, was, at once, fierce. The cumulative effects of chemo made me feel increasingly and alternately ugly, naked and deformed. This is why it was comforting to return to the cheerful little nail shop to see the familiar rainbow palette of nail paints lined-up on clean, shelved walls.

The wafting aroma of vanilla and fresh cake, the commodity of the neighboring storefront, filled the salon. Surrounded by beauty, the sights and smells became a cathartic, sensory respite from the more sterile hospital environments in which I was spending so much of my time.

I breathed the sweet scents in deeply, taking in the calm of the place and relaxing deeper into the undulating movement of a massage chair. My feet bottoms, spotted black and brazed by medicinal cures, dangled weightless as they soaked in turquoise blue water. I breathed out.

My body was only now beginning to mend from the assault of chemical therapies that had been steadily introduced into my bloodstream over the past two months. Moving on to more localized, noninvasive radiation therapy, my insides, physical and mental, were finally beginning to relax, and to heal.

There, on that day wearing my wig and weighing a good 15 pounds more than on my last visit, I felt the care of the manicurist to be less like a vain indulgence, and more like some form of occupational therapy. Being pampered, rather than being poked, pricked and prodded, was more necessary than ever.

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