Cancer? No Thank You.

These are my swim gloves. I love them, but I’m pretty sure that with all that pink-on-pink color, I caught breast cancer from them. Pretty sure. 

Or it might be that I have too much protect-yourself, wear-a-mask, wash-your-hands, wear-gloves, keep-your-distance, never-cough, hoard-toilet-paper American-COVID19 mentality in my head that makes catching breast cancer from pink swim gloves seem reasonable to me. Even rational.

Here’s what I am sure about: if you’re going to catch cancer, don’t do it in the middle of a pandemic.

I realize in my last entry, I kind of snuck my diagnosis in, tucked it behind some healthy sentences, in true cancer form. It likes to be sneaky like that. 

This is a blog about open-water swimming, and it will stay so. But I had to make a quick side-trip here to tell a little bit about “my cancer journey.” That’s what the voice I kept hearing called it while I was on hold 42 minutes waiting for my surgical oncologist. 

Barf. 

If cancer is a journey, then get me the f*ck off this hell train. 

I’ve mentioned in earlier entries my belief that those of us called into open water have some kind of relationship with darkness. Nothing like testing the bejeezus out of my own theory.

As my cancer hell-train chugs along, I’ve been amazed at the parallels between the challenges of cancer, and OW swimming. (Makes you want to jump right into the sport, doesn’t it?) 

Not just living above a deep darkness (with, around, among, under, choose your best preposition there), but the perseverance and resiliency required to get through it, especially with the COVID19 complications. 

Being an OW swimmer, I already know how to tap into those reserves, and apply them. It’s very handy. 

Take our annual crossing swims from Whidbey to Camano. When we finally get close to Camano, there is usually a stiff current to struggle through before we reach the beach. Right when I think I’m going to see bottom, suddenly the shore isn’t getting any closer, and I feel myself losing ground. Or so it seems. 

I’m always tired by then, my shoulders are sore, and I’m ready to get out, warm up, and eat my weight in Brie. But I don’t stop. I tell myself, “I can go a little bit farther.” I keep putting one arm in front of the other; keep counting my strokes by 50s—48, 49, 50, 1, 2—; keep singing whatever Lady Gaga chorus I have in my head. 

Eventually, I see a blob of white shell through the deep green, then another, then rocks and seagrass, and I’m there. Best feeling in the world. 

The things we work the hardest for are the things that mean the most.

Sunset behind Whidbey from Camano side.

This push of self came in handy a few weeks ago when I had to drive to Olympia for a second-look ultrasound and biopsy. Bellevue had an opening two weeks away; Olympia had an opening the next day. Hello 4-hour drive!

Everyone in the radiology department was very nice, especially the nurse with one lazy eye that looked like Marty Feldman. (I wondered if I’d misinterpreted “second look” biopsy.) But then I was walking around, tits out and hanging in the breeze, so I had no room to judge.

The radiologist looked like he’d seen better days, and insisted on “gowning up” for the procedure. Let’s be clear: a biopsy sample is about the size of 1/16th of a meal worm, and there’s very little blood. 

Even Marty the nurse asked him doubtfully, “You want to gown up?” I could tell we both thought this step extremely unnecessary, at first. 

But while he was injecting my armpit with lidocaine for the lymph node biopsy, I felt a sudden spray on my lower arm. I’m guessing he’d overshot and gone through the skin to the other side, the needle spraying lidocaine on my forearm. 

With his face right next to mine, I simply whispered, “I don’t think it works that way.”

Then I kept counting: 48, 49, 50, 1, 2…. 

Eventually I made it out and back to my car, where I laughed myself silly. And cried a little bit.

Then I laughed again as I sat in the Trader Joe’s parking lot trying to fit a bag of frozen mashed cauliflower balls into my sports bra for the ride home. I could write a book about which frozen foods work best in your bra after a biopsy. FYI: hashbrown patties make a good second choice. 

–TJ Wiley Forsyth

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