CancerLand Bookshelf: My One-Night Stand with Cancer

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Alysa Cummings

Alysa Cummings

The CancerLand journey is made up of moments.  Strange moments.  Defining moments. Once-in-a-lifetime types of encounters, often intensely traumatic experiences that mark and change you:  physically, emotionally, spiritually.  Forever it seems.

Ask any cancer survivor.  Some will say it’s the moment of diagnosis – the day that a doctor says those life-changing words, I’m sorry, you have cancer.  Others will recite from memory the date of their biggest surgery, or their last chemo infusion.  Or recall vividly the day their scalp began to tingle uncomfortably before their hair started falling out in clumps.

Meanwhile, those cancer survivors who are a bit further down the road to recovery may mention the first time their oncologist shared some good news for a change:  Everything looks great.  I’ll see you back here a year (!!!) from now.  Some of us joyously celebrate the first time a day flows, easily and sweetly from dawn to dusk, free of any medical drama at all.  A day we didn’t need to think about our cancer once.  These are defining moments as well, of the healing kind.  (Can it be possible we’re taking some baby steps towards integrating our disease into the rest of our lives?)

Cancer survivors have all kinds of stories to tell – about many different types of moments in the journey – and many of us are eager to share.  We feel grateful when we can find an appreciative audience to listen and understand.

Tania Katan’s memoir is filled with many such CancerLand moments.  For me, the most memorable being her decision to run a 10K race half-naked.  Keep reading and see if you don’t agree.

My One-Night Stand with Cancer

Excerpted from:
My One-Night Stand with Cancer
by Tania Katan
(CA: Alyson Books, 2005)

It’s Sunday morning, 6 a.m., and really cold outside.  If I had nipples, they’d be hard right now.  I’m thirty-three years old and at the City of Hope’s 10K to raise money for breast cancer…

I have two goals for this 10K: to run the entire 6.2 miles in less than an hour, and to do it without my shirt on…

When I think of looking and feeling healthy, I think of a body in motion, a body moving so calmly and quickly that it inspires other bodies to move.  In deciding to bare it all, or at least half, I want to present a healthy body in a different form.  That’s all.  Last night, however, I was freaking out about this action.  I mean, could I get arrested for indecent exposure?  What if people see my scars and get scared?  What if they see my scars and don’t say anything?

…Angela looks at her watch, then at me.

“Tania,” she says in a loud whisper, “it’s time.”  Just as I’m about to disrobe I realize I’m standing only inches away from a kind-looking woman on the sidelines and that perhaps I should fill her in on my little action before I freak her out.

“Excuse me,” I say nervously.

“Yes?” she says calmly.

“Um, in like a second, I’m going to take off my jacket, exposing my mastectomy scars, and I just wanted to tell you so you won’t freak out.”

The woman pauses for a moment and says, “Can I hug you?”

We embrace.  I unzip my jacket, toss it to Angela, who smiles upon receiving it, and wait for the announcer.

“10K runners, take your marks and…GO!”

My shoulders are relaxed, legs are moving fast, breathing is efficient and easy.  I almost forget that I’m half-naked until I reach the first water station, where several stunned cub scouts are barely able to hand me a cup of water.  Somehow the fifty-five degrees feels warm to me.  I am booking, running so fast that I have to remind myself, Tania, pace yourself…

“HEY, Tania! Mary Kay shouts from the finish line, snapping photos as fast as she can.  “You look amazing!”

A larger-than-life digital display hangs over the finish line.  One of the cub scout leaders, an older guys with a whistle around his neck, yells to me, “You did it! Good job!”  …My body doesn’t want to stop running; I keep moving forward until I land in a crowd of cub scouts, who adorn my neck with a pink ribbon with a heavy gold medallion hanging down and sticking to my sweaty chest.

Angela and Mary Kay hug me and tell me how proud they are of me as we stroll around the woodsy grounds of the City of Hope, and even though everyone is wearing a winter coat, I am naked, sweaty, and glowing.  Slowly people begin to notice me, my chest, sneaking peeks, tenderly avoiding eye contact.  I see a woman tap another on the arm and gesture in my direction.  I see a group of teenage boys, who under any other circumstance would be considered tough, look at my scars and soften.  Children are the only ones who look directly at me, no shyness, just curiosity.

In the car on the way home, Angela, Mary Kay and I can’t stop talking about what we just experienced.

“You know what I was thinking,” Angela says, “is how many people will go home tonight and, while lying next to someone they love, bring up your image and talk about it…Do you understand how big this is, Tania?”