I have a history of weird massage experiences. Actually, there have only been two, but my friends at work associate me with weird massage experiences (actually, I’m pretty sure they associate me with weird experiences in general, and I can’t blame them. I’m self-aware enough to accept that I seek out and embrace these experiences). A few years ago I went to get a massage at the mall. I had been to this place before, but when I showed up this particular time, the layout had changed, and there were private massage tables in the back. A woman escorted me to one of the semi-private rooms, and with her limited English, she asked me to remove my clothes. I assumed she meant to remove my clothing to the extent of my comfort level, and since I was at the mall in a room closed off by a curtain with a six-inch gap on one side and a half-wall on the other, I wasn’t comfortable being half nude. Therefore, when she returned after letting me undress, she seemed confused by the fact that I was still nearly fully clothed; I was wearing my bra and pants. My memory of what came next is a bit foggy, but I was lying on the table, face down, and I think that’s when she unclasped my bra. I remember being confused/shocked, and I find it a bit alarming now that I didn’t assert myself and say, “Woh there, tiger! I’m keeping that on!” but since she was a woman, I guess I wasn’t scared about being harmed, so I just let it happen. I think she was thinking that I misunderstood her when she told me to get undressed. I guess she thought, “OK, I’ll just do it myself.” Then, in possibly the most awkward moment of my life, she pulled my pants down–including my underwear. Again, my recollection of this moment is quite muddled, but I remember reaching back and attempting to pull them up, but somehow my underwear and pants remained half off. I’m lying there, face down, no top, no bra, and my pants and underwear down around my knees. Since the masseuse seemed quite assertive in her approach to undressing me, I don’t know why she didn’t just take my pants off all the way or pull them back on. Or yet, a better question, why didn’t I just pull them back on? The entire experience was so strange that I basically went numb, physically and cognitively. So I laid there for an hour while this large, powerful woman rubbed me down, focusing a lot of her attention on my bare ass cheeks. Maybe she thought I wanted her to focus on my ass cheeks because I hadn’t pulled up my pants? (If you haven’t had someone rub your ass cheeks, you’re missing out.) She was actually a good masseuse, so during those 60 minutes I alternated between thinking “What the fuck is happening?” and “Ahhhhh.” To add to the oddity of the situation, I’m at the mall, and right outside of the massage place is one of those attractions for kids where you attach them to bungee cords, harness them in, and let them bounce [“I go waaaaay high, Mommy!”], so while this strange woman is vigorously rubbing my buns, I’m hearing these four-year-olds scream with joy as they leap into the air. It was all so very odd. Then, the massage ended, and I had to awkwardly squirm off the table as to avoid having mall-goers see my breasts. Again, the semiprivate room had a half-wall, so if I had stood fully erect in front of it, I would have exposed my Double-D’s to the harnessed, leaping children and their moms and any others on their way to Auntie Anne’s or Sears, or wherever they were headed in the reject-area of the mall. That was my first strange massage experience.

A couple of weeks ago I had another strange massage experience. I went to the massage place where I have a membership, and I was going to be seeing a new massage therapist. He brought me back to the room, and he asked about my high blood pressure since I had marked that as one of my health issues. (This was on paperwork that I had filled out when I had first become a member. I had had a few different massage therapists during my visits there, and no one had ever asked me about my blood pressure.) He was concerned that it had never been noted in my paperwork that I took meds for my blood pressure, and that it was under control. He seemed a bit Barnie Fife-like, but I thought, OK, he takes his job seriously. I can respect that. Then I asked for a booster to be placed under my chest because I have a port, and it hurts to have it smooshed against a table. He wanted to know why I have a port, so I took off my cap, exposed my bald head, and told him I have cancer. Then he looked really concerned. “Oh my gosh, I’m so sorry, but I can’t give you a massage.” I told him I had already received massages at this location during chemo, and he apologized, saying that perhaps those other therapists were too afraid to tell me that I couldn’t get a massage without a doctor’s note of approval. At this point, Barnie Fife seemed super strange, and I didn’t want him touching me, so I didn’t fret about not getting my massage. He asked me if he could speak to my doctor, but it was a Sunday. Did he think I had my oncologists’s personal number? The most annoying part of this experience was that he was presenting himself as a medical professional. He asked me, “Is it in your lymph nodes yet?” YET? I’m thinking: What the fuck do you mean YET? It’s not in my lymph nodes; it’s not going in my lymph nodes. I asked him to explain to me why a cancer patient shouldn’t receive a massage, and I did this not because I knew he was going to give me a solid, medically-backed reason, but because he was going to say some stupid, crazy shit, and I was going to eat it up. He said something about the kidneys and something about pregnant women, and then he asked if I wanted some tea. So he walked me out to the waiting room, got me some Early Grey, and then as he escorted me to the front desk, he asked me, in his doctor voice, about how I was handling the nausea. In my head I responded with, “I don’t have nausea, you dumb bitch. Not everyone gets nausea during chemo. You get tons of anti-emetics; chemo has changed since the old days,” but I just replied, “I don’t have nausea.” He tells the people at the front desk, “I’m afraid I’m not having a good day (What the hell had happened to him earlier that day?), but Jenny is not getting a massage today due to medical reasons.” The people at the front desk looked confused as Therapist Fife spoke, and then they looked to me. I returned their gaze with a facial expression that asked ‘what the hell is wrong this guy?’ Then I left.

I went home and told my dad, “Well, I couldn’t get a massage because I have cancer.” His response: “WHAT?” He was infuriated. I explained what happened, and he was trying to keep calm, but he was so offended by the situation. “I have to go up there,” he said. “That is NOT OK.” I told him that this particular massage therapist was probably not the brightest nor the most socially adept, so I would just call a customer service number later and explain the situation. Clearly, the company needed to start enforcing consistent policies in terms of treating cancer patients and reminding their massage therapists not to pose as oncologists. However, my dad couldn’t let it go. He said that if the guy was in fact retarded, he’d take it easy on him, but this issue needed to be addressed. So off dad went. When he returned home, he said that he had been calm when airing his grievances to the front desk employees (the culprit had already left the building). He told them that we would not be suing them, but that I would need some free massages, and his request was granted. Yesterday I called another location to make an appointment, and after being put on hold a few times and speaking with two people, I was told that I would need a doctor’s note granting me permission to get a massage.* I cancelled my membership. Next time I’m going to a different massage place, and I’m telling them I have alopecia.

*The only restrictions on getting massage therapy during chemo involve deep-tissue massage (which I never request), or post surgery/radiation situations, and I’m pretty sure most people with open and/or healing wounds and tissue irritation due to radiation are not going to arrange for a massage. The official site for breast cancer information provides information on the benefits of massage therapy.

I have to give some props to my dad. I’m a big fan. The massage situation reminded me of other Dad moments throughout my 35 years. There have been a few times throughout my life where I have nonchalantly dropped some serious information on him, and his reaction was the same as it was after The Massage Incident: “WHAT?” One time (I think I was maybe five) I dared my sister (who would have been three) to remove her water-wings while we were at the neighborhood pool. Dad was resting on a lounge chair, so I got out of the water and calmly stated, “Dad, I think Jessi is drowning.” “WHAT?” He shot up out of the chair and within a second, Jessi was out of the pool. She had just been sitting on the bottom of the shallow end with her hands up. I’m sure he had a moment there where he asked himself, “What the hell is wrong with my kids?” Another time, when I was 11, we were on vacation in Hawaii, and Jessi and I had walked ahead on our way back to the hotel from the beach. Dad and my youngest sister, Emily, had returned to the outdoor shower because Em had left something there. Jessi and I were told we could cross the street, but we had to stay there and wait. A little Polynesian man with a cooler approached us, verified that our parents weren’t with us, and then suggested we take a walk with him. We didn’t. After Dad and Em joined us, we headed back for dinner, and while walking, I casually remarked, “Dad, that man back there tried to kidnap us.” “WHAT?” he yelled as he shot straight up in the air. There was another time in my life where, although I didn’t see him do it, I’m sure I made my dad go “WHAT?” When I was three, he was supposed to be watching me, but I escaped from the house to ride my tricycle. A group of boys in the apartment complex pushed me down a hill, and at the bottom of that hill was a parking lot. I slid under a car, and the license plate cut me right below my eye (I still have a scar from the stitches). Apparently, the boys ran to my apartment and told my dad that I was under a car screaming. Can you imagine the panic my dad must have felt? That same year I scaled the wall of the laundry room, and the iron fell on my head, so my parents rushed me to the ER. Apparently, it was a bloody car ride. Can you imagine the panic they must have felt?  I think about these situations, and I reflect on the benefits of being childless. Even from an outsider’s perspective, it is obvious that parenting is an exceptionally difficult, emotionally taxing condition. Cancer seems like a breeze compared to parenting, so to all of you raising children right now…


The What-If’s

I used to hate January. It meant going back to school/work and the end of the holidays. The barren landscape and cold air seemed cruel without twinkling lights. However, in the past few years I have learned to embrace the starkness of this first month. There’s something rejuvenating about it. All of the holiday excess has been stripped away, and it’s sort of cleansing. This year, especially, I welcomed January with a smile since it means I’m closer to the end of my cancer treatments. Over the break I had my first ultrasound since starting chemo. When my tumor was first discovered, it was 3.5 cm, and after five treatments of chemo, it had shrunk to 1.4 cm. Yeah baby! I knew that Red Devil was in there raising hell, and I’m glad to know it paid off. I started Taxol over winter break, and I have had three treatments so far (25% done!). I will get these weekly, the last one being March 9. As promised, Taxol has been gentler on the system. I’m at Mercy now, (instead of at Barnes) and it’s 3 miles away from my home (instead of 23 miles). Also, I go right in and get started with treatment (as opposed to signing in, waiting for 30 minutes before I get my blood work done, then waiting another 45 minutes to get started with chemo). I get my steroid drip (RAWR! FEED ME!), then I get my Benadryl drip (a lot of people are allergic to Taxol), and I get sleeeeepy, and then the Taxol comes in and does it’s thang (KILL ALL THE CELLS!). It’s about a three hour process. 8:30 am is the earliest you can get your poison, so that’s when I go in. Starting Monday I will have a student teacher in the mornings, so she will be able to run the show until I’m finished getting #allthemeds pushed through my veins.

My new oncologist, Dr. Kosuri, (who was actually the first oncologist I met with before we went with “the best”) is just the greatest. She has a warm, reassuring presence, and she genuinely seems to care about me. When this whole cancer ordeal started, I didn’t think I really needed a close relationship with my oncologist. I didn’t need to be buddy-buddy with this person; I just needed him or her to treat my cancer. Now I realize the significance of having a meaningful relationship with the person who will save my life. I saw Dr. Kosuri on Wednesday, and when I left, she gave me a hug. She initiated it, and I left there feeling so cared for. Even my mom made a comment about how every time we leave Dr. Kosuri’s office, she feels so reassured. I told Dr. K that I was feeling so much better, and she said that I would probably continue to feel pretty good until maybe the last three weeks of treatment; then, the cumulative effects of the chemo may catch up with me, and I may feel a bit more fatigued. Luckily, I’ll have my student teacher, so I won’t have to be on stage as much.

I was given some clarity on a few subjects during this week’s visit with Dr. K. My last chemo session is the week before my spring break, so I just always assumed that spring break would be a good time for my surgery. However, I’ll have to wait a couple of weeks after chemo ends to make sure all of my levels of [insert science words] are up to par and that my body is ready for surgery. Then, probably two weeks after surgery I’ll start radiation (five days a week for a month). Therefore, my treatments will go about a month longer than I had originally thought. No bigs. Also, I will take Tamoxifan for 10 years after radiation ends. I’ll see Dr. K every 6 months for five years until I’m officially considered cancer-free.

When we left Dr. K’s office, my mom reminded me of the potentially significant cosmetic damage to the breast that a lumpectomy and radiation could cause. Her unspoken suggestion was, “Maybe you should consider a mastectomy?” Statistically, a lumpectomy plus radiation is just as effective in preventing a recurrence as a mastectomy. However, just how janky will my left boob be after a lumpectomy and radiation? How scarred are we talking? When you google “breast after lumpectomy and radiation,” you see the worst case scenario. I am adding “just how janky will my left boob be?” to my list of questions for my surgeon. IF, in fact, I will be left with a marred breast, what should I do? Should I let it be? Obviously, my appearance is secondary to my health, but should I get a new pair of boobies? The ones I have now are nice, but they won’t always be nice. I could get a new pair for free, and they’ll always be nice. Also, I wouldn’t have to wear a bra. However, the thought of waking up from surgery and seeing my bare, lacerated chest is frightening. I picture a large hospital incinerator being filled with parts: in goes a cirrhotic liver, next a stone-filled, withered kidney, then a pair of black lungs. Then, on top of this ugly heap, my pretty breasts. It just doesn’t seem right.

Another point of clarity in this last visit with Dr. K was my acceptance of the fact that I will never be pregnant. If I want to have a child, I will have to rely on someone else’s womb.* I’ll be 36 when I start Tamoxifan, so I will be 46 when I stop taking it. There’s a good chance I’ll never have a period again. After five years of taking Tamoxifan, I could try to conceive, but I’ll be 41, and more importantly, I have a hormone-fed tumor. Becoming pregnant and filling my body with elevated levels of estrogen and progesterone is likely to cause a recurrence of my cancer. Early on in this ordeal during my IVF treatment (to remove my eggs before the chemo scrambled them), my sister told me she would carry my baby. We joked about how I could drink at my own baby shower, and she could give birth and then go home and go to bed. As I mentioned before, on days that I get chemo, I also get a steroid, and this amps me up and makes it difficult to sleep. On Wednesday night I took a Zquil, but this did not help. I lay there considering my options: If I have a child using one of my frozen eggs and an anonymous sperm donor, how much will this cost me? I moved home to pay off my credit card debt and to save up for a house, but maybe I forgo the home and instead save for the sperm and the science? Can I really afford to raise a child on my own? Should I stay a teacher, or should I pursue something else that would allow me to make more money? but a teacher’s schedule is ideal for having kids, especially if you’re going to be a single mother. Of course, there’s always a chance I could meet someone and do it the semi-old-fashioned way with his sperm and my egg and a petri dish. BUT, I’m in my mid-30s, and I live in St. Louis, so I’m going to go the safe route and just buy the sperm. Besides, when I think of being a parent, you know what I see? I see my kid and me in a Honda driving to the Grand Canyon where I’m going to enroll him or her in the Junior Ranger program. There’s no dad. There’s just the kid and me on one of our adventures. I’ve been single for so long that I’ve basically gone feral. Like a mama bear, I would be fiercely protective of my cub. There wouldn’t need to be a papa bear. I’m not saying that I’m opposed to having a traditional family, I’m just saying that I think I have a better chance of being eaten by a shark.

But what if I don’t have a child? Would I regret it? Would I feel like I had missed out on the quintessential female mammal experience? I don’t know. I guess it’s that whole ‘hindsight is 20-20’ thing. There are certainly perks to being childless, but in my gut I know I was meant to be a mother, and a good mother at that. I know I could raise a child who would grow up to be someone from whom the world would benefit. So many questions. So many unknowns. If I had a band, I think I’d name it Jenny and The What-If’s.

*I want to clarify that Dr. K never said that I couldn’t/shouldn’t get pregnant; she just confirmed my research that getting pregnant–and therefore elevating my hormone levels–increases my odds of a recurrence. Because of this, I have made the decision to forgo pregnancy.