Ever since my brain decided to go a little haywire, it has been my aspiration to be able to walk and chew gum at the same time. Well, yesterday I did it! I didn’t even mean to, but I had a regular dental appointment, and afterwards they gave me some sugar free gum to chew, and before I knew it, I was walking and chewing gum at the same time!
Why is this a big deal? For starters, in the hospital I was told that I was not able to swallow properly. A speech language pathologist came to my home to watch me eat–that was awkward–after I got out of the hospital. She pronounced my swallowing improved enough that I could eat and drink and even take pills without restriction. Since I love to eat, that was a great day. She also told me that swallowing requires the coordination of hundreds of muscles and nerves, which makes it one of the most complicated things that a body does. And the stakes are high because if you don’t swallow properly, food can go into your lungs, cause pneumonia, and kill you. Fun fact, as La Neige would say.
(So when I say that I inhaled a piece of Mexican chocolate cake at my favorite restorant, I may not be speaking metaphorically.)
I love food, I love the way that it sustains us, I love it as an outlet of creativity. For the past several years, I have been following the blog Smitten Kitchen because
- I like her chatty style
- She shows that you can cook anything in a tiny, unglamorous, urban kitchen.
- She is a former vegetarian and is vegetable-forward
- You can find a recipe for pretty much everything on her site, including great brisket and my go-to latke recipe, which has a little too much salt, FYI
When I was diagnosed with breast cancer, I took a hard look at my diet and gave up alcohol and also went mostly-vegan. That was not hard. My deal with myself was that I was going to eat healthy, but if things went badly, I was allowed to eat whatever I wanted. Because, really, no one has eaten more raw kale in their lives than me, so I feel that I deserve any chocolate that comes my way.
But then I had to think about what I wanted to eat. Turns out, I don’t care about alcohol much, but I have a very sweet tooth, and I looove fruit.
So if I’m craving carrot cake, I’m going to make the carrot cake. What is not a good idea is eating a slice of carrot cake, having your husband say, “Is this carrot cake cooked all the way through?” then putting the carrot cake back in the oven and forgetting about it for two hours. If you do this, you will not have edible carrot cake.
But there’s more! When I was up at 5:00 (because steroids) I had time to make an apple/pear/cherry crisp that was still warm for breakfast. This recipe is a keeper. You might think that you don’t need a whole stick of butter for breakfast, but you would be wrong. Also, you can make it with any kind of fruit you like. I used Cortland apples and bosc pears and some frozen cherries that I had on hand.
So there I was in the dental chair yesterday, and the dental hygenist said to me, “So what’s your prognosis?” OMG. I have tried to be grateful for anyone who is brave enough to engage with me around a difficult subject. But don’t do this. Don’t ask anyone what their prognosis is unless you are prepared for the answer that you don’t want to hear. I was not in the mood to make the nice dental hygenist feel better about my cancer prognosis. I think I said something like, “It’s not good.” And I managed to say this while she cleaned my teeth, with poor speech and swallowing.
THEN she said, “Did you catch it early?” OMG, OMG. Don’t do this. “Catching it early” is part of the narrative around cancer that I hate more than anything. And there’s a lot to hate about cancer. So let me just put it in writing–it seems when someone says, “Did you catch it early,” they’re really saying
- It’s okay, because you caught it early!
- Did you do what you were supposed to do? Because you’re supposed to be vigilant enough to catch cancer early. And if you don’t, it’s your fault, so I don’t have to feel bad for you. After all, notice that I asked if you caught it early!
- Did you exercise control where you could? Because I cannot deal with the fact that illness strikes randomly.
- Were you paying attention to your family history, like you were supposed to? (Fun fact, I have no family history of breast cancer.)
In fairness, we are trained to ask this question, so there should be no shame around asking the question that we are trained to ask. Lately there is a small literature that has arisen around training people to ask new questions. But that seems exhausting–not everyone has the wherewithal to figure out what the right thing to say is. Honestly, there is no right thing to say.
What I have noticed is that there are two groups of people who seem to understand the cancer experience, and they are 1) people who have experienced chronic illness and 2) people who are inherently religious and whose religious traditions tell them to provide for the sick. I am grateful to these people and to the traditions that guide them. (Edited to add: I could also include the wonderful mental health professionals in my life, but they understand chronic illness very well and are maybe even in the first category.)
Or, as I recently heard in a brilliant On Beingpodcast:
But, this is — it sounds funny — one of the great joys of working with people on the edge of life. The view from the edge of life is so much clearer than the view that most of us have, that what seems to be important is much more simple and accessible for everybody, which is who you’ve touched on your way through life, who’s touched you.
From my recent walk around London. Have you had poutine?