I had been invaded by aliens.
I was trapped in a single cell in the blood stream of a giant, a cell which taught other cells their job, some sort of information disseminator to new cells which would then act as carriers of materials, recyclers, power drivers, garbage disposers. For the past four years, as I drove to work along the 401, a major highway through the northern part of Toronto, I felt driven by a force beyond my comprehension, driven at a speed beyond my control, along arteries with thousands of other single cells like myself.
I suspected that I was getting burnt out.
I taught English at an inner city high school in Toronto. The new Premier was making short term, poorly thought-out changes in education. The school administration had been recently designated management, a change from union members, and staff interaction had become confrontational. The students were bright, feisty, and immediate in their responses; they were refugees from every war-ravaged nation in the world, wounded and fighting back. And as a result of challenges on all fronts, many teachers were on the edge of hysterical collapse. As Head of the English department, I had to nurture and support these people. I was tired.
The sensation of being a cell coursing through a giant was disturbing, especially since I couldnt shake it. It slowly dominated my attention. I was due to have a year off with pay the following year and I believed that a year of rest far away on the west coast of British Columbia would rid me of this scourge.
It didnt. The sensation shadowed me while I canoed with my children to seal-laden islands to collect mussels for supper, or when I drove over the mountains through snow to the cool rain forest of Uclulet where the wind-bent fir twisted away from the sea spume and where the grey whales breached above the waves. I felt joy in the whales, exhilaration in the wild wind, excitement from the waves roaring up the long beach. But I also felt the familiar weight of dread slyly insinuating itself along my blood.
Gradually, during this time I had another sense of aliens that was not unpleasant, just strangely theatrical. I was being watched by aliens from another time and planet who were time travelers and anthropologists. They would stand in the kitchen and comment on whatever I was doing.
Note that she is throwing away aluminum foil. This is an example of mindless waste seen in many human activities. See how she runs hot water, just as though there is unlimited power. How short-sighted and archaic.
I found it amusing to peel potatoes, throw away used plastic wrap, flush the toilet, and shock these watchers with my flagrant waste. I also felt quite foolish. These visitors continued to plague me. However, I enjoyed being the focus of their attention. I imagined them to be tall, thin, graceful, and elegant with shadowy faces, silver hair, and soft sibilant voices.
During the year away from work, I took a job running a small art gallery in Victoria for a woman who had gone in for breast cancer surgery. Once, Doris returned for a short visit.
Susan, you must get a mammogram. Every woman should, and you must promise me you will see to it soon.
I was forty-two years old and hadnt given the precaution much thought, but I stored the admonition away along with a recollection to make my annual gynecological visit when I returned.
A couple of months after returning to Toronto and school, I made appointments for doctors and dentist. I went to a new gynecologist. My old one had gone to head another unit in a distant city. When I asked for a mammogram, the doctor said, Youre too young. You dont need one yet. Wait a couple of years.
No, I think Id like one now.
Okay, but you have to pay for it.
I had the mammogram and returned to the doctor for his assessment.
Theres nothing on the mammogram. The radiologist noted a slight tissue change, nothing of note. But you can get another one in six months if you insist.
The next appointment was with my GP, a kind, compassionate Czech with warm hands. I mentioned the mammogram and the result. During the breast examination, Dr. Polak said, I dont feel anything here. Feels like cookie dough just as it should. He gently probed and rolled my breasts, a part of his job he obviously liked. But, Id like to see the mammogram. Could you bring it over?
He examined the x-rays. Well, theres nothing here except slight tissue change.
However, both he and I had noticed a line of tiny dimples across my breast.
I think Id like a friend to see you. Hes someone whose opinion I have great respect for. Ill make an appointment for you. When is a good time?
I went to see Dr. Jamison a week later. He was a tall, handsome man with a soft Rhodesian accent. No lumps, nothing on the mammogram except this very slight tissue change. I dont think there is anything to worry about, but I think Id feel more sure if I could do a biopsy.
I rarely go to a doctor, am rarely ill, would never have taken a test for anything, but because of the eerie, alien feeling I said, Ok. But do it after the winter break. I want to visit a friend in Chicago.
So, the appointment was made for January 9th 1989.
I had a supplementary teacher cover my classes for the day. I hadnt told my children that I was going to the hospital because it was only outpatient surgery and Dr. Jamison said I would go home in the afternoon. Daniel was thirteen and Lyle was ten and they would not notice my absence. I arrived at the Wellesley Hospital at 10 am. After signing in, I was given a hospital room. I changed into a gown, lay on the bed, and swallowed a sedative. A middle-aged Jamaican orderly came to my room with a gurney. He helped me onto the bed, covered me up with a blanket, and rolled me down the hall.
Suddenly, I was scared. Up until now this was an experiment, a rational choice to check my health and to appease Doris. The hospital became a node in the giants lymph system and I was coursing along at a reckless speed. As well, the time travelers were commenting disparagingly on my flimsy gown, the orderlys cloth shoes, the green paint on the walls, the PA announcements.
When we got to the elevator, I asked the orderly, Do you have warm hands? Mine were frozen and I was starting to shiver.
We got on the elevator with two young nurses. After we got off and rolled down the hall to the operating room, the orderly took my hands in his huge pale-palmed brown ones and held them, rubbing them slowly to warm them. Then he stared to pray.
Our Father, who art in heaven
Dr. Jamison and the anesthesiologist were chatting about a house they had both seen in Newfoundland that had been cut in half. One half had been removed, the other half was left for the residents to live in, its outside wall now squares of pink, orange, green....
Count backwards from ten.
Ten, nine, eighhhhhtt
I woke up to a nightmare in a white room darkened by curtains and low lights. A tall, very black nurse with a Barbie doll hairstyle handed me a bowl and I threw up saliva and bile. I felt dreadful, drugged and disoriented. The time travelers were discussing leeches, shamans, and plants like datura, poppies and foxglove. I was still trapped in the giants system.
Later, I was rolled back to my room. A nurse checked on my dressing and I realized I had a gauze bandage in the center of my chest.
Dr. Jamison will visit you soon.
Some time later, Dr. Jamison, followed by two worried looking students, rushed into the room. Dr. Jamison said, The biopsy revealed cancer. His low voice was concerned and agitated. I did not expect to find anything. Im so sorry. What would you like to do?
What are my choices?
You can have a lumpectomy or a mastectomy. Take six weeks and talk about it with your doctors and family and let me know.
Do you have any free time tomorrow?
Lets see. He took out his appointment book and flipped pages. Yes, I have some time in the middle of the day tomorrow.
Give me a mastectomy tomorrow.
Are you sure?
Yes. Ill call Dr. Polak and some friends, but book it and if I change my mind may I let you know sometime today?
He left, trailed by his students.
I phoned Beverly, a friend and a nurse. She had had cervical cancer in her twenties and would have good advice. She was shocked and said shed call me back after she checked with her friends who had gone through similar experiences.
I called Dr. Polak. Dr. Jamison says I have breast cancer. I told him Id have a mastectomy tomorrow. What do you think I should do?
Dr. Polak told me about the variations on breast surgery and reconstruction, giving me choices which didnt have much appeal.
Beverly phoned back and agreed with my decision. Her friends who had lumpectomies had to return for radiation, chemotherapy, and further surgeries later and said that if they had to do it over again, they would have had a mastectomy and not wasted all that time in pain, worry, and suffering.
Then, I had to call my children. What could I say that wouldnt scare them?
Daniel, I have just had a check up at the doctors and he says I must have surgery. Im going to do it tomorrow and Beverly asked if you would like to stay with her while Im away.
What kind of surgery? How will we get to school? When will you come home? Whats the matter?
I have breast cancer and have to have the cancer removed.
Are you going to die?
I dont think so. Ill be home soon. Come down to the hospital to see me as soon as Beverly says its ok. Maybe in two days. Let me speak to Lyle.
Lyle was less apprehensive and more imaginative. What are they going to cut off?
They will cut off the cancer which is in my breast and so they will cut off my right breast.
Then you will be an Amazon!
Yup. Your mom - the Amazon.
How can anyone reassure children in such a situation? I was terrified that I would die and leave them before they were old enough to handle the loss of a mother. I was afraid I was looking Death in the face and was not prepared for any of the consequences.
Beverly picked up Daniel and Lyle, their books, clothes, favorite quilts, and took them to her house not far away.
I was moved into a room with two other women; one was there for cancer treatment, the other for thyroid surgery. I was still shivering.
The next day the same Jamaican orderly wheeled me to the operating room, but this time Beverly was there also. She was quiet and steady. He hummed a hymn. I shivered. Dr. Jamison was concerned about the speed of my decision. I said, Go ahead, and counted backwards from ten. The time travelers watched with critical attention. I slipped into unconsciousness as a single cell.
I woke up very slowly. I didnt want to vomit. I sank back into a drugged torpor and drifted in and out of awareness. After a long time, I let the nurse who checked me know that I was awake. I was taken back to my room. I very slowly looked around me. It took a long time to recover my wits.
Later, Dr. Polak visited and we discussed prostheses. He told me that he had a patient who made her own. I told him if I made one I would stuff it with grass seed and if it got wet I might have a chia boob. He told me that he had a patient who had testicular cancer and had a blue marble for a replacement testicle.
One of the women I shared the room with, Donna who was in for thyroid surgery, had had her throat cut. She was thin, with long blond hair, frightened eyes, and a bandage wrapped around her neck. I gave her a back massage because her muscles were in spasms. The older woman, Carol, who had cancer, was short and fat with a snarl of brown, frizzy hair and a light-hearted, constant smile. She told us the story of her life. Her first husband, a German, who used to beat her. After she left him she met a man in a bar who asked her on a date. He wasnt German. She would never again even look at a German man. He was Irish. She went dancing with him after much cajoling, married him, and loved him and his charming, tender ways. He had died a slow death of cancer and she almost died of sorrow. She wanted to pickle his penis and keep in a jar in the kitchen. It was sweetest, loveliest thing
The three of us laughed over the inexplicably attractive qualities of men, the shit that we were always struggling to extricate ourselves from, our ambivalence about being cared for and caring for others. The smell from Carols colostomy bag, the interruptions of the nurses, the tasteless food, our anxious guests, our huge fears about mutilation, ugliness, death, dependence, rejection were met with stories, self-satire, songs. Farewell to Nova Scotia and Kookaburra were two we sang together late at night. Donna and I had awful voices, cracked and flat. Carol sang like an angel, high, sweet, and clear.
The day after the surgery, I woke to sun streaming through a frosted window. The room was bright with pale sunlight. There was some vast difference. I realized with a start that the aliens had gone. There were no time travelers. I was no longer in the blood stream of a giant being propelled along against my will. I was alone and free of dread.
My children arrived and were reassured, although they watched me very carefully for many months afterwards. My friends visited, bringing delicious food and books. Dr. Jamison told me that I had had two kinds of cancer, that the report said I had no cancer in the lymph glands that had been removed, and I didnt need radiation, chemotherapy, or drugs. I was back at school in two weeks and my students didnt ask why I wrote on the chalkboard with my left hand. They were intuitively understanding, not knowing the reason for my absence, but worried about me just the same.
Twelve years have passed. I still watch for time traveling visitors and check for sensations of being swept along by uncontrollable forces. My awareness of being trapped in a cell in the bloodstream of a giant and being studied by anthropologist aliens is one I never want to repeat; but I also feel gratitude.
These aliens probably saved my life.