Short version: my boob hurts, I’m sad I’m having a mastectomy, I miss my mom, I’m angry about capitalism, we should revolt. Long version follows.
My mastectomy is this week. In reading about breast cancer I come across the concept of “sacrifice.” I think about my breast, soon to be sacrificed. There are 85,000 chemicals introduced into consumer products, the vast majority unregulated, many known to be carcinogenic. Commerce thrives in the absence of regulation. So does breast cancer. There are those who profit; there are those who pay the price. Business as usual demands sacrifice.
Four weeks post-lumpectomy, I gaze in the mirror at my left breast. It still feels hot, looks discolored, and appears angry. Below the anger is pain. I feel sad for what I (my doctors) have inflicted on my breast. Now they will amputate that breast because of a few misguided cells. This seems unfair, but I don’t want those cells to spread. They don’t stay put. They threaten the rest of me. Primitive solutions are all I have; still I feel remorse. It’s not my breasts’ fault.
I speculate anxiously about my post-surgery body. Will I feel as though a weight has been lifted? Will it help my chronic back pain or will my pain worsen from scar tissue? Will the uneven loading cause even more back pain? Then what? Will I wake up and feel a rush of regret? Loss? What about my right breast? Will I always wonder what’s going on inside there? Will I feel tenderer towards it? Will I be fearful or clinging?
I wonder about the fact that seven out of nine members of my immediate family have had cancer. Kaiser has offered me genetic counseling. I prepare a family history of aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents, etc. The medical lens is narrow: risk factors, genetics. Zeno estrogens that reside in my breast, introduced by some of those 85,000 unregulated chemicals, are outside the scope. The counselor puzzles over the fact that both my brother and mother had thyroid cancer. This is very unusual. So, I explain: both were diagnosed within months of each other, both lived near a nuclear power plant, both were exposed 20 years previously to radioactive iodine in an accidental release. “Well,” she says, “that explains it”–on to the next question.
My brother still lives; my mother died within months–more “sacrifice” on capitalism’s altar. My mother, my brother, and those of us living and dying with cancer—we are “countless.” Nobody really counts us, at least in ways that could adequately uncover the links between the environment and our suffering. Those who benefit from this arrangement count on us to think of cancer as only a private matter, to bravely “battle” this disease as individuals, and to be polite enough to not speak of our cancer publically or in a political context. I wonder if I can have my breast back after surgery. Maybe I’ll mail my “sacrifice” directly to Monsanto.
My friend Marg’s mastectomy took place December 23, 2015. She is recuperating from the surgery but not from her anger at the chemical industry.
The Rosa Luxemburg Collective was the culmination of our years’ long experiments in collective living arrangements in Pullman, Washington.
Thirteen of us student activists rented an old fraternity house and split all the costs. As members of a hippie commune, we believed in locally grown, organic food. There were no local farmers’ markets so we started a food co-op and began looking into buying food in bulk from large producers. This opened our eyes to the nature of the food distribution system. It turned out that in the Northwest much of the growing and handling of food was controlled by a Mormon empire and the closest warehouses were across the state line in Idaho.
I was the bread maker and wished for whole grain flour made from a kind of wheat they used in Europe. You couldn’t get it then. Bread in the 1970s in the U.S. was mostly of the Wonder variety. Whole grains were just on the verge of popularily. In New York or Chicago you could find a local German bakery, but in our small town if you wanted whole grain bread, you had to bake it yourself.
Bread making requires the baker to be around for two risings, so twice a week on days when I wasn’t in class I’d bake all day. We ordered flour in 25 pound sacks, and stored it in the freezer to discourage bugs, so it was deliciously cold when I would first plunge my hands in. Making bread was my form of meditation. I used the Tassajara Bread Book method, making a spongey mass first so the yeast got a good start before growth-inhibiting oil and salt were added. The first batch of bread would be eaten immediately by lurkers lured to the kitchen by the yeasty smell. I knew to make enough so there would be loaves left for the next couple of days.
The irony was that Pullman is surrounded by wheat fields. One year there was a glut of wheat and the grain silos were completely filled, forcing farmers to leave mountains of the unhulled grain near the train tracks. I imagined jumping into the piles of grain as one would jump into raked leaves, falling in like quicksand. I imagined it stone ground by old-fashioned mills. I imagined it refined and baked into perfect loaves.
The wheat fields surrounding us seemed terribly romantic from afar, driving by them on Highway 2. Winter wheat is planted in the fall and begins to grow before being covered by snow, then peeks up through the melting snow in spring. By the end of the spring semester, tall spikes undulate along the rolling hills. The sight of those softly swaying hills in spring makes you want to run out into nature, strip off your clothes and commune with her. One day my friend Joe and I decided to do just that.
Joe was a fellow student who lived in a collective house farther out in the Palouse country, a century-old uninsulated wood-heated farmhouse, the kind with two storeys and a huge porch. Keeping the interior of that building warm in Palouse winters required the burning of much wood and continual fire stoking. Mostly the human residents were just cold. The fabulousness of spring, when it arrives in this northern climate, cannot be overstated. Spring fever, I believe, is more truly celebrated in places where winter grips with an icy hand.
That April day was a spring cliché. The sun shone warmly and fluffy clouds floated in a clear blue sky. It was the time in spring when various shades of green compete for attention: the delicate yellowish green of early spring leaves just beginning to bud, the dense dark forest green of firs. The wheat fields were a bright emerald green, sort of wizard-of-oz-ish. When I walked out of the farmhouse, I expected to see the yellow brick road shining in front of me.
In the sixties there was a TV ad for something. It involved a couple running toward each other through a wildflower meadow, embracing wildly and–I forget what happens next. I was very taken with the wildflower meadow and tried to reenact this running embrace when I could get a friend to play the other part. Through years of trial and error I found that wildflower meadows, any meadows really, were hard to run through, especially when one is looking up at one’s soon-to-be embracer and not at the ground. Rodent holes, depressions dug by hooves and unseen drainage ditches create truly hazardous conditions. Yet this image persisted in my brain. Meadows equal romance. OK, meadows equal sex. That’s what the TV was saying, right? Today it would be an ad for Cialis.
There was another factor at work here too, besides spring fever and the power of advertising. A subculture that encouraged sex in the outdoors had blossomed in the Palouse and we were part of it–cultural envoys in a way. By god, we took our envoyship seriously, feeling we owed it to the culture to have sex outdoors as much a possible. There was an entire day devoted to the worship of outdoor sex. “Hooray hooray for the eighth of May; it’s outside intercourse day,” had been a fraternity slogan long before I got to WSU. Our idea was to broaden the whole concept. Why focus only on one day a year?
The swaying wheat fields called to us and Joe and I ran through them with abandon, something, it seemed to us, young people were supposed to do. I was a country girl and so knew, as I said, that fields are not always our friends. I knew, too, that terrible chemicals were applied to agricultural lands. DDT, not yet banned, had been sprayed liberally everywhere during my childhood. We were admonished to keep our shoes on in the orchard and not to swim in the canals and creeks where farmers dumped pesticide residues.
All these things I knew but the TV ad image still had a hold on me. Joe and I loped up the hill behind the farmhouse. When we got to the top, we had a speclacular view of the Palouse, Kamiak Butte in the distance. Had we thought to bring a blanket? Possibly, but even with a blanket, the thick stalks of wheat resisted flattening. Up close, the wheat field was far less romantic than it had seemed far away. The cracked earth looked dead, sprouting nothing but wheat. There were no weeds. This worried me. If whatever had been used on this field could kill weeds, what would it do to our butts, or any part of us that touched the earth?
As much as we felt we owed the culture outdoor sex, the outdoors was feeling less and less sexy. We made a flat place to sit down, but then of course, wheat obscured the view. “Let’s get out of here,” one of us said.
As a child I had a spectacular memory. I routinely memorized all the books read to me. At two, I could recite The Night Before Christmas, which my parents urged me to do for adults’ entertainment. I just liked memorizing things, a concept difficult for me to imagine now, as an older adult who Can’t Remember Shit.
When did I lose my memory? In high school plays my parts were small, but my lines would desert me at critical moments. As a college student and a feminist activist who frequently gave speeches, I began to forget words as I stood onstage talking. I was told the name for that condition: nominal aphasia. Where did it come from? No one knew. When I said to my mother, “I used to be so smart. What happened?” she thought for a moment and then replied, “I just don’t know.” That was not the answer I was hoping for, but at least it was an acknowledgment that something had changed.
It wasn’t just words I was forgetting. I forgot nearly my entire childhood and had to rely on my brother for memories. I frequently forgot things I had pledged to do. I forgot the life stories of my closest friends and I routinely forgot people’s names.
Speaking publicly became increasingly difficult until I stopped speaking extempore and began reading my speeches. Writing has always been frustrating and slow. Just because a word is in my vocabulary does not mean it will come out of my brain. The feeling is like having a word on the tip of my tongue. I can almost see it, just out of reach. I spend much time looking up synonyms when I can’t think of the word I want.
My brain plays tricks on me. Just because I’ve finally remembered something does not mean I won’t lose the memory again in seconds. Certain words continue to elude me. For example, for years I could never remember the word lupine. Finally, it has come back to me. Still, for some reason I feel compelled to learn the names of things and I must memorize the names of trees, flowers and mushrooms again every season, like Sisyphus continually rolling that boulder up the hill.
At some point, maybe in my 30s, I began to think of my poor memory as a disability that I had to live with. I worked at letting go of feeling bad for forgetting. I accepted that I would never get better and I asked friends to adjust (they know never to tell me secrets as I can’t remember whom to keep the secret from). This helped, although there wasn’t a certified category I fell into—still isn’t.
Mine is an invisible disability. Over the years I’ve been able to live with it and live a pretty normal life. I do what people in the early stages of Alzheimer’s do. I fake it. I make lists. I write everything down. I apologize. Now that I’m in my 60s, I don’t feel so alone. Most of my friends are struggling with age-related memory loss, but I think to myself: This is what it’s always been like for me, my entire adult life.
Although I’ve accepted my predicament, I still want to know what happened to me and why. My wife, who worked as a speech pathologist with brain-injured clients, sees the world of human interaction through the lens of cognitive function. It’s a sort of worldview, like socialism or humanism. Her worldview has taught me to look at my own disability as a kind of brain injury. Of my memory loss my wife asks, is it a storage problem or a retrieval problem? This is one of the things she tests for as a speech therapist. She says anomia (or nominal aphasia) is not the same thing as short-term or long-term memory loss. In the case of anomia, I have a retrieval problem. The word is in my vocabulary; I just can’t retrieve it. Long-term or short-term memory loss involves a different part of the brain. So I exhibit two different kinds of memory loss.
How did my brain get injured? Physical injury is a clear possibility. I was a rambunctious child who fell off horses (and was taught always to get right back on). Really, considering how many times I climbed to the tops of things, I was amazingly fall-resistant. But there was one time when the horse I was riding ran me through an orchard and I was swept out of the saddle by a low branch. My riding buddy told me afterward that I was knocked unconscious and had seizures. My lower back was sore from hitting the cantle, but I didn’t notice any effect on my memory at the time. Then there was a minor car accident where I suffered neck lash (not the more serious whiplash, said the doctor).
Loss of childhood memories is often associated with childhood trauma, but I don’t exhibit any other signs of trauma. I think I had a pretty ordinary childhood.
Could pesticides have eaten my brain? I was born into an era when pesticides were seen as a revolutionary antidote to bug infestations. DDT was everywhere in the 1950s and home gardeners sprayed it freely without knowledge of its destructive consequences. In my hometown of Yakima, Washington, the apple capital of the world at that time, most of us worked as apple pickers in the fall. Our schools even closed during the harvest so kids could help their families get the crop in. We lived in the middle of orchards where crop dusters routinely dusted everything around us. Farmers pulled big spray tanks behind tractors that shot a fan of pesticides clear to the top of the trees. We often stood close to the tanks and let the mist blow over us. Every spring, right at the time when farmers would start spraying, our family would harvest asparagus along the ditch banks and where it grew in the uncultivated area around the trees. We loved it and we ate pounds of it.
As kids, we went barefoot everywhere, but we were cautioned not to walk barefoot in the orchards or to swim in creeks and ditches, where farmers routinely dumped the dregs of their spraying (killing aquatic life in the process). When my neighbor Carla’s horse got out of his corral and into her family’s apple orchard, he died from ingesting pesticides sprayed on the orchard. The year was about 1965. What was the chemical? Trying to sort out the historical use of pesticides is making my head hurt. Besides, as Rachel Carson explained in Silent Spring, these chemicals can combine to form new poisonous compounds that we can’t even test for or identify. Research into pesticide-related illnesses among farmworkers and crop duster pilots has shown memory loss to be only one symptom of pesticide exposure.
Not only did I grow up in a pesticide-rich environment, but also Hanford, the nuclear plant that manufactured the plutonium for the first nuclear bomb and for most of the bombs in our nuclear arsenal, was only 50 miles east of our home. There was that little incident in 1949 when I was six months old. It was like the leak at Three Mile Island except it wasn’t an accident. This leak was deliberate, and it was covered up until the 1980s. The plant has been leaking radioactive isotopes and radionuclides into the environment since 1944. Radioactive materials entered the environment through releases in the air, in Columbia River fish and through food grown nearby and milk from cows pastured nearby. Now decommissioned, the plant is still leaking. There is still a huge amount of radioactive material in the soil and plants around the reservation and we are told it’s only a matter of time before the polluted ground water finds its way to the Columbia River. Hanford is the most contaminated nuclear site in the U.S. and cleanup is the longest with no end in sight. In Yakima, we were exposed plenty, but the people directly downwind suffered most. Called downwinders, they organized citizens groups to find out more information after the government was shown in 1986 to have covered up releases. Most of those people died from rare cancers. Memory loss was probably just a mild side effect for downwinders exposed to radioactive materials.
I long ago accepted that I will never know what ate my brain. Maybe after I die some scientist will want to dissect it and I’d be happy to contribute to the advancement of science.