Chuckles, the cancer clown

7 Jan

It’s a gray, muzzy Saturday here in Seattle and I have to say the external weather and my internal mood are perfectly matched.

I’m not sure what happened. Last night, I went out with a slew of journalistic types — smart, snarky sorts with more quips up their sleeves than tattoos (which is saying something for Seattle) — and I had a perfectly lovely time meeting new people and yammering with old buds. One of those buds was a colleague I hadn’t seen in more than a year, which meant we had a lot of catching up to do.

In other words, there was a lot of cancer talk.

As usual when I’m out with a group of people who know about my situation, I became Chuckles, the Cancer Clown, cracking wise about the double mastectomy, the chemo, the hair loss, the radiation, the daily doses of tamoxifen — the whole nine yards. Listening to me talk about my breast cancer experience, you’d think it was all a big hoot. You’d think I wasn’t a bit fazed by the loss of my beautiful breasts and the fact that my chest now looks like a 10-year-old boy’s that’s been badly ironed.

Sure, my nipples are crooked and there are wrinkles and folds where there used to be lovely feminine mounds. But so what? I’ve got fabulous new fake boobs, given to me by a friend of a friend who got them at Nordstrom for $300 each. “I call them my gummi boobs!” I tell my editor buddy. “Aren’t they great? I can just hand them to some guy if he wants to feel me up and I’m not into it. And when I get tired of ’em, I can just tuck ’em away in a drawer!”

Watching me laugh and joke about my wig — made from my own hair which I had to shave to save (one of the hardest decisions of my life) — you’d never imagine me pounding my bathroom mirror, sobbing “Come back! Come back! Oh god, please come back!” at my patchy bald pate during those horrible long months following chemo.

I hide the pain, the anguish, the grief, the whole horrible mindfuck that is cancer treatment quite well. At least when I’m out with friends.

Once I’m home, though, things are different. Chuckles slips away and I’m left with Cancer Chick, the girl who winces as she pulls off the wig (the double stick tape is attached to new growth now and takes out a chunk of hair with each wear). After the wig is gone, Cancer Chick then changes into a nightgown and diligently rubs castor oil all over her chest — or what’s left of it — hoping it will soak into the skin and the muscle beneath and make it possible for the skin to stretch enough to hold tissue expanders and eventually implants. Hopefully, not implants that will encapsulate or explode once they’re inside.

Of course, this may all be for naught. Thanks to radiation — you should hear my stand-up routine on that particular topic — the skin on the left side might not stretch. It might not heal. So I may be forced to have some kind of complicated surgery that harvests a chunk of muscle and tissue from some other part of my body in order to build a boob there.

“I may end up with a butt for a boob,” I told my friend last night and we both howled at the wackiness of that.

I’m sure part of it was the beer. Part of it was the discomfort of having to talk about cancer in a group setting. Part of it was my almost fanatical insistence on making others feel comfortable about the fact that I’ve somehow ended up with this lousy, terrifying disease. And part of it — and this particularly grim blog post, no doubt — is the tamoxifen that has me swinging back and forth like a emotional version of Poe’s Pit and the Pendulum.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think it’s necessarily a good thing to have a stick up your ass about your problems all the time. Black humor is what got me through my warzone of a childhood and it has served me well through this current cancer zone, as well.

But it’s also good to remember — to acknowledge to myself and to others — that sometimes my cancer is not going to be amusing. It’s actually going to make me cry in front of you. Or stay at home curled in a ball under my coffee table. And despite the fact that I’m no longer in treatment, my grand cancer adventure is not over by a long shot.

Although, thankfully, neither is Chuckles’ brave little standup routine.

33 Responses to “Chuckles, the cancer clown”

  1. Kim January 7, 2012 at 8:30 pm #

    Aw, you’re adorable! Seriously.

    I deal with this cancer thing in the same way as you. What makes me laugh is when people read my facebook notes and comment with, “you’re such an inspiration” or “attitude is everything”. I didn’t sign up for this crappy disease and I certainly don’t try to be an inspiration. I’m just living through it like the rest of us that pulled the short straw.

    What caught my eye in this post of yours was “I’m no longer in treatment”. I’m a few months into this and can’t imagine…or really haven’t even thought about…what life is going to be like when there isn’t anymore treatment. Gah! What will I do with an open calendar? Good grief. I kinda wish that there was a “Make A Wish” foundation for us grown ups that go through life altering diseases. I could start writing my wish letter now so that I’d be able to fill my future calendar with a “Non-Cancer” event. Ah…if only!

    Keep writing. I love your words. You’re such an inspiration! *big smile*

    • singleshot1 January 9, 2012 at 5:33 pm #

      Thanks for the kind word, Kim, and I so get the “you’re an inspiration!” bafflement. Much like you, I’m just trying to get through this crap as best I can. I suppose if I were really honest about the coping mechanisms I use to do that, I’d be less likely to be called an inspiration. And more likely to be called … I don’t know … unstable? But we do what we have to do make it through this mess.

      As for being post-treatment, you may want to read my hissy fit … er … blog post “Welcome to Limbo Land”. Believe it or not, being done with treatment is almost as big a mindfuck as going through it. ; ) Oh cancer, I just can’t quit you (and believe me, I’ve so tried).

  2. Mandi January 7, 2012 at 9:19 pm #

    Nice, I am going to start calling my new breasts “back boobs” – seriously, I probably will now.

    I have tended to handle cancer with humor as much as I can in public or around other people. I love this post because you show the reality of putting on a face and the reality of being home and facing the reality of what is.

    I am with Kim, it is interesting to be called an inspiration when you don’t make the choice to face cancer treatment. We just push through each day as we can and make the best of it.

    • singleshot1 January 9, 2012 at 5:35 pm #

      Love the back boobs comment. If I have to get a lat flap, I may even steal that. Chuckles is a shameless thieving cancer clown. ; )

  3. Bree January 7, 2012 at 11:28 pm #

    I heart you. That is all.

    • singleshot1 January 9, 2012 at 5:35 pm #

      I heart you right back, Bree!

  4. Sue January 8, 2012 at 8:49 pm #

    My hair is growing back in what my neighbor calls ‘that sexy lesbian look’. And he can say that because his sister’s a lesbian. I tell people
    My neighbour says my new short hair looks good, in a lesbian chick kind of way. I say I’m rocking the cancer patient look, or, when someone says he likes my hair, I tell him I’ll be sure to thank my oncologist.
    I wondered what I’d do when I was no longer taking my clothes off daily, even if it was just for radiation treatment. Truth is, I was too tired to care for a while. I thought the desire to get naked might grab hold of me at some strange time. Say, when I was out Christmas shopping. Never happened. I kept my clothes on, even in front of random strangers.
    Next time I’m curled up under the coffee table, I’ll think of you.
    Happy New Year. May it be filled with health, humour, wealth and love.

    • singleshot1 January 9, 2012 at 5:38 pm #

      You’re the kind of person I’d love to curl up under a coffee table with, Sue (and that’s not just because you look like a sexy lesbian). Hmm, now that I think about it, so do I.

      Now that I’m going “commando” (without the wig) more and more, I’m compiling a list of answers to the question “Why the hell did you cut off your hair?”

      My fave so far, “Lost a bet … to breast cancer.”

  5. Brandie January 9, 2012 at 10:16 am #

    I get that, we use humor or cute little sayings when talking about cancer in public. Which can be helpful and useful and diffuse what feels like awkward conversations at times. But I hear you that we also need to acknowledge it isn’t all fun and games. And there are moments that are so terribly difficult. The trick I suppose is finding the balance. And if I ever figure that out, I’ll make millions selling it LOL!

    • singleshot1 January 9, 2012 at 5:39 pm #

      I’ll definitely sign up for your “life-changing” seminars, Brandie! ; )

  6. Nancy's Point January 9, 2012 at 1:26 pm #

    Terrific post. Sometimes it does feel like we are leading several different lives post-cancer doesn’t it? There’s the life we let most others see. There’s the life we let a few see. And then there’s the one we keep totally to ourselves.

    • singleshot1 January 9, 2012 at 5:42 pm #

      Not only do I feel lke I’m living different lives, I feel like I’m actually different people half the time. And the person I used to be … not sure if she’s even there any more. (Although don’t tell my family and friends – I do a pretty good imitation of her for them.)

  7. The Accidental Amazon January 9, 2012 at 1:46 pm #


    • singleshot1 January 9, 2012 at 5:43 pm #

      Thanks Amazon. And for the record, I’ll be writing about “freakin men” in a future blog post. ; )

  8. AnneMarie @chemobrainfog January 9, 2012 at 4:37 pm #

    Well Chuckles, I’ll be there to laugh with you and I’ll be there to sit underneath the coffee table, too. I get it…. and I really don’t filter myself when I’m talking about my experiences. Cancer is NOT F’ing funny but laughing helps, if you can, when you can… and if you want. And when you don’t feel like laughing…… or in my case, when I get really really really irritated, I LOVE the sound of glass smashing to the ground. I don’t have a full set of anything anymore. A glass here, a dish there….. I just need to get someone to clean up after my hissy fits. You would think I would have learned to control that glass breaking thing….after being stuck cleaning up the mess.. but NOOOOO…. there are times nothing else is as satisfying!

    • singleshot1 January 9, 2012 at 5:49 pm #

      I’m going to need to get a bigger coffee table, obviously, because so far it’s me, Sue, and now you. I love a party, though, especially one with people who don’t think you’re weird if you start sobbing in the middle of a “funny” story about radiation. And who hasn’t been there?

      As for the broken dish therapy, that’s frigging awesome (except for the clean-up). I once tore apart an Ikea desk with my bare hands (it was right after my mom died). Needed to work out some anger and grief, I guess. I’m actually thinking about learning how to box to build up my upper body strength AND work off some of my anger/rage about the BC. Hope there’s room under that coffee table for a timing bag. ; ) XXXXOOOOO.

  9. feistybluegecko January 9, 2012 at 5:24 pm #

    A brilliant post, and I think we might share the same script writer! I’m not sure why I crack so many cancery jokes, but I do too! As AM says, cancer is SO not funny, but heavens, laughing really helps! Maybe it helps me deal with it too, keeping cancer in its place and insulting it, as well as making it possible to communicate with friends about what is a horribly difficult and serious topic.
    Really thought provoking, well done.
    PS Do you get “Barbie toes” with Tamoxifen too 😉

    • singleshot1 January 9, 2012 at 5:54 pm #

      Thanks Feisty – always great to hear from you. And yes, I do try insulting the cancer as much as possible. Have also tried ignoring its phone calls and texts, wiping my ass with its face, and giving it lingerie that was 3 sizes too small for Christmas. May try signing it up for Weight Watchers next.

      Chuckles is apparently back in full force tonight. So I’ve GOT to ask. What the hell are “Barbie toes”? And if you know the answer to that, then maybe you can tell me what “twang arm” is?

      • feistybluegecko January 10, 2012 at 6:28 am #

        Ha ha – I love your insults, what a great idea getting a list of gifts for cancer. I would get it shoes that are too tight! And celery! And maybe an iron…..
        OK Barbie toes – I get horrendous cramps with Tamoxifen and it distorts my toes, sending them off in different directions, and causing my calves to spasm. The result is a beautiful shapely leg resembling a Barbie doll with the funny feet she has. I prefer to think of this affliction as Barbie toes than shitty cramps! As for Twang Arm, we hate each other but have learned to live together. I have cording in my left arm following the hunting and gathering of numerous lymph nodes which were doing no good. The cording feels like there is a guitar string running across my chest and down my left arm, which is really pulled taut and which I could twang and make a tune with. I have restricted movement, pain and numbness in Twang Arm.
        Glad chuckles is keeping you company tonight. Take care and keeping on laughing and crying, whichever feels right at the time.

  10. Amanda January 10, 2012 at 6:52 am #

    This is great and I do this ALL THE TIME. I’m actually terrific at making other people feel really comfortable and okay with my having cancer. Because I’m such an “inspiration” and so “strong” and really, only joke or rarely even bring it up, I think my friends actually pretty much *forget* that I’ve had cancer. Even when I was bald (I did not wear my wig very often), people got used to it and so got comfortable with it and then it was just like it wasn’t even a big deal. I have one friend who recently told me that she wants my life. (Really, you know you get a side of stage 4 cancer with that, right?) Stuff like that bugs me, but then, in some sick way, I like that she thinks of me as “normal” b/c though I never wanted to be normal in my earlier life, it’s pretty much all I want now. Thanks for your great post! 🙂

    • Sue January 10, 2012 at 10:29 am #

      Years ago I had a friend, a gp, who was also good at making others feel comfortable with adversity. After all, counseling was a big part of her job. She spent a lot of time doing deliveries, until she lost her first child: her own. It was surreal walking around town with her. She knew everyone. And she uniformly helped each one handle their grief at her loss. I guess I’m telling you this to remind you to get the support you need. Who takes care of the counsellor? Good question.

  11. Hilary January 10, 2012 at 12:04 pm #

    Nice post.I miss the jokey part of cancer….I made *lots* of jokes about treatment. My favourite: “Chemo. The Brazilian your Esthetician doesn’t want you to know about!” as though it was some tabloid headline. I laughed too, made jokes about getting a double mastectomy (I ended up with a single) and having a whole selection of prosthetic breasts, jokes about pulling wads of my hair out, jokes about how many different wigs I could have….and eventually, there just wasn’t room for funny any more, because radiation after the chemo was debilitating. Tamoxifen caused carpal tunnel and yes, the Barbie Toes too, and surreptitious weight gain. My brain is fried from the toxicity. I finished treatment two years ago December….my yoga peeps tell me how life changes all the time, how we should roll with the changes. I’d like to tell them to f*** off.

  12. Kate January 10, 2012 at 2:25 pm #

    Love your blog. I came accross it on the today show site.I recently finished treatment in July. I used humor too to get through it all. I never wanted anyone to feel sorry for me, so it was my defense mechanism. It was like I turned into “Cancer Katie”. I hated those sad eyes people would give me when I was out with my kids or “you are so brave” statements people would make. I will be forever grateful to my family and dear friends who got me throught it.
    I too felt like I was a different person navigating my “old life”.

  13. Vanessa January 12, 2012 at 5:25 am #

    Hi All…really? Me an inspiration and so strong? I get that all the time. The problem is you haven’t seen me when I get home from work and take my wig off and barely have the energy to walk up the stairs to bed. Plus the aching in my legs is so bad I don’t dare get up without planning everything I need to do and what order to do it in. I’m not a crier but I’ve found myself crying more and more. One of my friends recently told me I needed to take the mask off and let people see what’s really going on with me. Yeah…awww…look at the weepy girl with cancer. I don’t think so! It’s bad enough as Kate said…looking at you with those sad eyes. Don’t look at me as if I’m Vanessa Cancer! Yes, we get through the treatment and we will be cancer free but it’s never going to be over. We’ll always be looking over our shoulder…just waiting for the other shoe to drop and the cancer to rear it’s ugly head again. Sorry. I’ve been such a Debbie Downer lately.

    I do have questions for you, singleshot1. When you start dating someone, how do you tell the person? When do you tell them? Any advice is greatly appreciated.

    Keep writing…I so look forward to your next post!

    • singleshot1 January 15, 2012 at 5:37 pm #

      Hey Vanessa — I just did a new blog post — The Carrie Bradshaw of Breast Cancer — where I bring up your dating questions and talk about what’s worked for me when i got “out there”. Hope it helps!

  14. Beth L. Gainer January 13, 2012 at 9:02 pm #

    Brilliant posting. I totally get it. Going through treatment, I used to crack jokes and got people laughing. But deep down I was crying inside.

    Thanks for showing your vulnerability and candor.

    • singleshot1 January 15, 2012 at 5:40 pm #

      And thanks for such a sweet note, Beth. I’ve used humor as a defense/coping mechanism for years and it’s actually served me really well (i.e., maybe if I can get my dad to laugh, he won’t beat the shit out of me again!). The problem is it sometimes becomes too effective and you can’t shut it down. Blogging about it — and hearing from so many others who’ve done the same thing — really has helped. Take care and thanks so much for reading and taking the time to comment.

  15. john helm January 26, 2012 at 11:03 pm #

    thanx for your good words.
    i’m sorry that this has happened to you.
    i’m sorry that i can’t help.
    …it does,nt make sense.
    …it can’t be made to attack only bad people.
    … it makes you feel picked on.
    …it’s unfair.
    …it hurts so.
    …i can’t share your pain.
    …i don’t know how to tell you how profoundly beautiful you are.

  16. pinkunderbelly April 15, 2012 at 9:30 pm #

    Whenever one of my friends tell me my new boobs look great I remind them that the boobs they’re commenting on used to be my belly, which I had to grow to epic flabbiness to have enough building material for the new boobs. So not funny, yet if I didn’t laugh about it, I’d be bawling. All the time.


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