My middle name is Ilse, after my grandmother who sold her belongings for diamonds that she hid in the soles of her shoes when she left Nazi Germany with my father and his baby brother. She had breast cancer. Died before I was born.
My tumor was on the side of my left breast. I wanted everyone to touch it. I kept offering as a teaching moment. “This is what cancer feels like,” I’d say.
The tumor was two centimeters. Peanut-sized. My daughters were once peanuts and now one has a boyfriend and the other has blue hair. This tumor won’t get a driver’s permit because it’s gone now. As is the other one they found after they opened me up and removed all my breast tissue.
I learned about the cancer one month before my first novel came out and scheduled my double mastectomy for the week after the launch. People asked me what the book was about. “Secret keeping,” I’d respond.
People keep telling me it’s not fair. But it is common, and so why not me? One in eight women gets breast cancer. It’s not even that interesting to have it. Everyone seems to have breast cancer or has a sister, mother, or close friend with breast cancer.
After my diagnosis, my family took me to Sonoma for the weekend where we played games, soaked in a hot tub, and drank gin and tonics. When we played Celebrity and my mother got Kristin Wiig, she looked at me in horror. Because, you know, wig.
The surgery took six hours. When my surgeon visited me in the recovery room, she shared that each of my breasts weighed the exact same, a first for her. For a moment, the strange delight of this trivial news overshadowed the pain and pressure I felt with each inhale.
The moderator of my support group put it bluntly: A double mastectomy is a trauma. And your brain might respond as such. My dreams have been frightening. The other night I was running through a city in painful high heels, desperately thirsty, grabbing at glasses of water that kept breaking in my hands.
Last month, I started chemotherapy. Earlier this week, the hair on my head started coming out in clumps. Yesterday it covered the shower floor like a shag carpet. I had underestimated how awful this would feel and sobbed into my husband’s chest. Later that day, I sat in a salon chair as my hairdresser ran the clippers over my scalp. She complimented me on the shape of my head and refused to take my money.
Due to the aggressive nature of my cancers (plural), I am having 16 infusions of chemotherapy. This is what I’m doing this year. I am also swimming, planning a B’not Mitzvah, and watching The O.A. And when I am not suffering from a kind of nausea I can only describe as absurd, I am writing a new novel. This one is about a woman whose life may or may not be a figment of her imagination.