Growing up cancer was my father’s club.
Too many sweets, stomach cancer.
Too few vegetables, colon cancer.
Cigarettes, lung cancer.
Yet, my dad ate all my ice cream, took vegetables from my plate, lit up his pipe or a borrowed cigarette.
My father morphed my grandfather’s cancer however it served him best. Brandished too randomly and too frequently created my immunity to the threat. How could I know my grandfather’s cancer forced my father into a hushed grief?
When his sister got breast cancer, English switched to Yiddish, signaling family secret time. All us kids got swatted away. Hushed. A hush already three generations old.
One day, my aunt asked me to help her dress. I saw her bare chest, one breast gone, one breast whole. She was left with wide, flat, thick scars, slightly glossy skin. I saw sadness in the buckled remains of her breast, the void left when the only solution is excise, carve out, dig deep.
Letting go of a breast, losing my symmetry, facing a flawed self, was inconceivable. I asked why she refused reconstruction.
“I couldn’t fathom another surgery. I needed comfort, the comfort cancer snatched.” Her breast had served her well and she let it go.
She spoke about the women who fitted her for a prosthesis. How comforted she felt. How they taught her to use it. How they helped her discover acceptance. How she cried.
A few years later, I asked,
“Was your father a smoker? Is that how he got lung cancer?”
Her lids slid up slowly, eyes grew wide, her voice shrill,
“Who told you he had lung cancer?
“My fa…” She cut me off with a laugh. ”Oh, he would say that,” she huffed,”My brother...”
Thirty years later she went to her doctor for stomach pain. The cancer had returned and was everywhere. My 90 year old father flew cross country to be with her as she died. He never spoke of cancer. He only keened,
“My baby sister. My baby sister.”
Cancer took chunks of my father, too. A sun worshipper, melanomas chewed at his skin. Just before he died, tear duct cancer was found. My stepmother told me. My father did not.
In 2012, a research biologist told me my autoimmune disease guaranteed cancer immunity. I cloaked myself in that immunity and its safety, until 2019. Pathology results showed Lobular Carcinoma In Situ in my right breast.
LCIS is a precursor to cancer. Like a freckle, nothing to be concerned about. Unless it changes. Every 6 months mammograms and sonograms, or MRIs, and an exam of my breasts are done.
Late February, 2020, in the middle of the night, I received a text:
“Your brother has cancer and is on chemotherapy.”
“Who is this?” I asked.
I wondered whether it was true.
My brother and I are estranged. The last time we saw each other I had flown cross country to meet his attorneys. For two years he insisted there were millions in trusts in my father’s estate. For two years he refused his inheritance. This was normal behavior for him. He’s spent his life butchering relationships with his delusions.
He called again from a nursing home three months later. The last time we spoke he was about to be discharged home. He had a plan, some of it made sense, some of it didn’t. I just listened.
My last doctor’s visit shredded my cloak of immunity. My brother and his metastatic breast cancer more than doubled my chances to have a cancer of my own. Genetic counseling and DNA testing are now a necessity.
All I want to do is scream at him.
“How dare you!”
And all I really want to know is,
“Where’s the hush when I need it?”