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I don’t care much for today’s WEGO Health Challenge that aks if my health condition were an animal what would it be? It reminds me of those frivolous team-building activities often employed to “break the ice” at professional retreats or new employee orientations. We’ve all been there, and I know I am not the only one who silently groans when a well-meaning facilitator announces, “We’re gonna’ start with a quick icebreaker. Go stand next to someone you don’t know. . . . ” or some version of that scenario.

The ensuing game will require a level of cooperation and politeness, with us showing our best sides as we reveal little known facts about ourselves, or the ever popular “two truths and a lie.” Playing along, we will make  something up about what kind of car, animal, vacation destination most represents our richly varied personalities or which historical figure we would invite to dinner or what we would buy if we had all the money in the world. I understand the purpose, but in this case, the “ice” is breast cancer, and we have been skating around on it for too long, spinning on its   euphemisms and platitudes, treating it like an allegory. Time for real talk about breast cancer.

Along with a low tolerance for bullshit, a diagnosis of breast cancer exposed within me a fortitude that surprised me and just enough good humor to assuage the unbelievably insensitive words and actions of people I had expected to be kinder. Being playful about breast cancer by comparing it to an animal, real or imagined, rubs me the wrong way.

I suppose if I played along, the animals crossing my mind would be the kind we associate with unwelcome guests – a snake crawling on its belly imperceptible in the desert grass, a cunning chameleon, a rodent scuttling along the boards in the attic, a cockroach in the corner of the shower. Each one unwelcome, a thief in the night who slips through an unlocked window while you slumber, barely disturbing the contents of your home, but nonetheless leaving you feeling violated and unsettled, unable to pinpoint what was stolen from you. Uncertain.

In life before breast cancer, I rarely felt such unease, but 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 The fast and furious flurry of appointment-making and data-collection at the beginning of the journey has been replaced by something akin to the routine of one who has been forced into exile. Banished by breast cancer to a new country, where ironically, I often feel like an unwelcome guest myself, a stranger in a strange land, wondering if an ice-breaker might be in order.

In the resumption of normal activity, the rules of engagement change. Nominally normal, this life interrupted forces me to make room for new experiences and customs, new words that have the power to transport me directly into and far away from fear. When cancer crept in, fear and uncertainty moved in too and show no sign of leaving. It reminds me of those times when our house is a mess and friends show up on our doorstep, unannounced, but overstay their welcome anyway, infuriating us by missing all the dropped hints and not-so-subtle signs that it really is time to be going. Wearily polite, we just resign ourselves to doing the mannerly thing and wait for them to leave rather than ask them to go.

If I were playing the ice-breaker game today, I might share two truths and a lie. The lie? Cancer is a gift. The truths would flow from poetry such as this by the inimitable Ted Kooser:

At the Cancer Clinic
She is being helped toward the open door
that leads to the examining rooms
by two young women I take to be her sisters.
Each bends to the weight of an arm
and steps with the straight, tough bearing
of courage. At what must seem to be
a great distance, a nurse holds the door,
smiling and calling encouragement.
How patient she is in the crisp white sails
of her clothes. The sick woman
peers from under her funny knit cap
to watch each foot swing scuffing forward
and take its turn under her weight.
There is no restlessness or impatience
or anger anywhere in sight. Grace
fills the clean mold of this moment
and all the shuffling magazines grow still.

(from Delights & Shadows, Copper Canyon Press, Port Townsend, WA 2004)