“Make a list of 5 challenges of your health focus and another top 5 list for the small victories that keep you going.” . . . at first blush, a fairly innocuous writing prompt bringing to mind the hapless record shop owner in Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity. A compulsive maker of lists, his “top fives” run the gamut of pop culture, eclectic compilations that include his top five episodes of Cheers, top five Elvis Costello songs, and the top five “women who don’t live on his street but would be very welcome.” Like Hornby’s character, I daresay I could produce similar lists . . . my top five album covers, pizza toppings, ice-cream flavors, lipstick shades, but there is something about breast cancer’s innumerable and immeasurable influences on a life that prevents me from listing a mere handful of challenges and victories. The more I think about it, the more daunting the task becomes. For me, it is precipitously close to “finding the good” in breast cancer and “making do” with little things for which I should be especially grateful because, as I have been told a time or two, I was lucky enough to get the good cancer.
As I resume normal activity, I am figuring out the rules of engagement in a life reshaped by breast cancer. Nominally normal, this life has had to make room for new experiences and customs, new words that have the power to transport me directly into and far away from fear, because when cancer came to call, fear and uncertainty moved in as well and show no sign of leaving. I liken these two to the couple that might land on our doorstep and overstay their welcome. The visitors who would infuriate us, missing all the dropped hints and seemingly unaware of the not-so-subtle signs that it really is time to be going. Wearily polite, we resign ourselves to the fact that, at the end of the day, it is the nobler thing to just wait for them to leave rather than ask them to go.
I wrote earlier this week of the certainty I used to find in life before breast cancer. Like Rip Van Winkle, I am no longer as sure of what awaits when I wander down once-familiar roads. The fast and furious flurry of appointments and euphemisms at the beginning has been replaced by something more closely resembling the routine of one who has been forced into a kind of exile. Banished by breast cancer to a new country that requires me to be bolder and braver than ever before. The irony of this is not lost on me as an immigrant in America, a part of the rich tapestry of the Irish Diaspora that is scattered all over the globe.
The fears and hopes of Irish immigrants new to Toronto was recently captured by Barbara Deignan and her boyfriend Cian McDevitt in a short film, DIASPORA. It breaks my heart to think of my own grandparents and all the Irish before me who were obliged to leave the island because of famine or poverty, because of diminished possibilities and broken promises. When the film was screened at the Toronto Irish Film Festival, those Irish immigrants who had put down roots in the Canadian city commented that such a film would have been invaluable when they first arrived, just to remind them they are not alone:
Breast cancer has made me an immigrant once again, but I am not alone as I learn to call this new place home.