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.
My return to the shop had been a while in the doing. The neuropathy I had experienced during chemo made me think twice before allowing any clipper or pumice-wielding beauty operator anywhere near my still numb extremities. The lack of feeling would make me susceptible to cuts, scratches or other injuries, typically warded off by the sense of touch.
“Uh, please don’t cut my cuticle,” I said firmly on this day. “Just push them back. And don’t cut, just file my nails, please, on that hand,” I said nodding toward my left hand. The woman doing my nails nodded in tacit compliance, dropping the metal clippers and taking up an emery board instead.
Now, following the lymph node dissection I had endured prior to chemotherapy, the threat of lymphedema – a clinical term for swelling of the limbs cause by blockage in the lymphatic system -- made cutting my cuticles a risk I’d been advised never again, in my life, to take. Yeah, things were different, inside my body and out.
Sitting in the salon chair, wearing my wig with feet dangling in the warm whirlpool, I relaxed further into awareness of the conspicuousness of my still imperfect form. My breast reconstruction was still incomplete. Instead, I bore a soft tissue expander at my left, which now fully expanded with saline, created weird, almost cubist asymmetry to my physique. On one side I had a rounded, ballooned and raised breast mound paired alongside my natural, softened and curved breast. My frame appeared adolescent on the left, middle-aged on the right.
In like fashion, the expansion process had left me with feelings something akin to the pubescent awkwardness and embarrassment of my changing form that I had felt in my youth. Following each session, I left with an ever more slightly filled-out left-breast mound and heightened self-consciousness over my changing appearance.
Day after day, I watched my body change and evolve. Each day, there was a bit less swelling, a sprig or two more hair and a bit less numbness at my fingertips and arches. As my body transformed, it was as if I was growing up again, reliving my transformation from a pudgy, awkward teenager into a woman.
But, I was healing, moving through a process that had given me cause to question everything: how I define myself, my values, my sexuality, my raison d'être, and even the meaning of life itself.
A collegiate-level athlete in my youth, and still very physically active, I wondered if the illness would change all of that? Would my body be forever destroyed by chemo, leaving me sickly and weak? Would I still feel womanly after the ordeal? Or, would anyone want me when all of this was through?
Conversely, I thought, why should a few changes to my appearance make me feel so different about myself? Was I being shallow and superficial? Would any of this treatment even be worth it? I mean, what was the point? Was fighting what seemed to be the inevitable, futile?
Life replied to my questions. One answer was the joy of talking with my daughter about her life. She recently had landed her first job at a pizzeria and got her first paycheck. Another answer was feeling the kisses and loving embrace of my ever-supportive boyfriend. Still another answer came in the form of engaging powerful and empowering conversations with other women who were going through or had also gone through the same experiences. Hearing from and seeing the supportive nods of friends, co-workers and even total strangers who spontaneously shared their experiences, giving encouragement, love and knowledge freely seemed still another answer. Even, receiving feedback for my candid and open writing, all of these things were the answers I needed, affirmations of the richness of my life and motivations to fight for it, through treatment.
In hindsight, many aspects of my pre-diagnosis life had turned to drudgery, activities and tasks had blurred into tedium with which I had become disenchanted. Breast cancer was my wake-up call to take nothing — not a breath, a smile, a passing chat with a stranger, even the presence of an eyelash — for granted. Because now, everything was precious, even a hangnail had assumed new urgency and importance.
In the light of this new awareness, everything around me seemed new and different. I looked out the salon window to see cascades of cherry blossoms, forsythia explosions, pink-toned bursts of crocus and hyacinth, and hosta shoots thrusting from the ground. All signaled spring and another day in my renewal.
Finally, moved from the massage chair, removing hands and feet from under dryers, I was pleased with my nails’ mani-pedicured shine. They looked beautiful and healthy. A new season in my life has begun.