Written by Maryline Dossou
On February 13th, 2019, I got a phone call. I recognized the Pakistani accent on the other end of the phone but her cadence was different. Her voice had lost much of its firmness. It wasn’t the usual assured, almost bored tone I was used to hearing while she was two fingers deep inside my vag, but it was indeed my gynecologist. The results were back from my recent biopsy and she wanted to discuss them with me.
“Can you come in tomorrow?” She asked gently.
But it’s Valentine’s Day, I thought to myself. I have a party at work, I have to meet a friend after work and then I have a date (my first ever on Valentine’s Day!). I was going to have a perfect day. Surely this could wait until Friday. She insisted. I acquiesced. I’ll come sometime during my lunch hour.
That night, I met up with a friend from grad school. We met at a charming restaurant in Lincoln Square, where we ordered soup and rosé. We’d been planning to catch up for a regular good old immigrant airing of grievances, where we lament about being tortured writers trying to make it in New York and failing embarrassingly at love. She’d just been denied acceptance for a PhD program at Cambridge after coming impressively close. She’s brilliant and yet it had knocked her confidence so low, she was sure she wouldn’t get the Fulbright fellowship she’d just applied to.
I understood her need to escape the city. The city we love perhaps one-sidedly. The city where the ghosts of our exes pop up everywhere unexpectedly. The reminders of our many failures in this life. How we let down our parents, who had brought us to America for better lives. Who had taught us we could break the working-class cycle by allowing academia to suffocate us. We’d exhausted our young bodies working for the American dream that was seeming further and further away. Aren’t good things supposed to happen to good people? Isn’t tireless work supposed to pay off?
“Anyway babe, I haven’t seen you in fucking forever. What’s new?” she asked me, biting into a sandwich.
I was broke. I was dealing with another failing situationship. I was swiping on Tinder on autopilot, not even enjoying the company of the men I dated to forget the one who couldn’t care less about me.
“Oh and I might have cancer LOL,” I said with insouciance. Her eyes widened and I could tell she didn’t know whether to laugh (I have a very dark sense of humor) or to be concerned. I elaborated on my situation.
In April or May of 2018, I felt very suddenly one night something hard in my right breast. It felt like a lemon under my skin: hard, textured, dense. I’d spent my whole life being terrified of breast cancer, the way most women are. It is drilled into our minds since we are young that cancer, specifically breast cancer when you’re a woman, is the Big Bad Wolf. Lifetime movies, doctors, elders and increasingly-popular cancer advertisements had convinced me that breast cancer was going to come for us all once day and we’d better remain diligent about self-exams, lest we want to become a statistic.
I spent my entire life being worried that I wouldn’t be able to detect it if and when it happened to me. My breasts had been huge since I woke up one day in the third grade with D cups that shook my elementary school. When your tits are that big, you feel a lot of things going on with them. How could I possibly detect sublte differences in my breasts? How will I know? But I knew. The moment I felt it by merely resting my hand on my boob, I knew. And I made an appointment with my gynecologist for the next day. She felt a definite denseness in my right breast.
“But it could be anything,” she assured me. “You’re 27. Do you know what the chances are of you having breast cancer?”
Less than five percent.
Five percent of women are diagnosed with breast cancer under the age of forty. Some of those women have a family history of breast cancer and/or the BRCA gene but most have neither. I fell into the large category of women who had neither. So my gynecologist refused to refer me for a mammogram, claiming I was too young to be exposed to that level of radiation anyway, especially when she was so certain that it was probably just a cyst that would go away on its own.
But several months later, after bugging my gynecologist for months, my lump had grown larger and solider. By the time I was finally recommended for a mammogram (the end of 2018), it was visible through my skin. I had my mammogram in January 2019, after almost being denied again. A 3 cm mass could be seen in the resulting images, but the doctors couldn’t tell if it was cancerous or not, and so I was scheduled for a biopsy. Two of my best friends came with me to my biopsy and we had dinner afterwards. Although they were supportive of the gravity of the situation, they were sure the results would come back benign.
But then, I got a phone call. And so, the next day, I would find out my fate. And my world would either be changed forever, or life would continue as it always had.
A moment of silence hung in the air before we burst into laughter. And we laughed so hard that night. At the absurdity of it all. Everything we had survived. At the idea that this could actually be happening to me after all I’ve already been through as a young, black, queer female immigrant. Who else could it possibly be happening to but me? But really, we laughed because it couldn’t be true. It just couldn’t.
And then February 14th came and I dressed in my most festive outfit. I’m not a very festive person by reputation but perhaps I thought being cheerful would shroud me in enough good energy to ward off any illness. Because that’s how life works, isn’t it?
Really, I knew what was coming that whole day. I felt it. Every step, every second, was bringing me closer to it and I could feel it. It raged in the back of my head as I chatted with my colleagues about problematic clients, about engagements and babies and the weather and all the banalities of everyday life that we take for granted. And finally, the time came for me to find out my fate.
Valentine’s Day has always been tough for me. I grew up as a middle child in a family that was never really close. My parents had an explosive marriage where my siblings and I were collateral. I grew up watching films where the object of the protagonist’s affections never looked anything like me but I always held out hope that, no matter how ugly I found myself to be, one day someone would look at me and never want anything else. Instead, I found myself in one failed situationship after another. Not even worthy enough of a real relationship. It felt like love eluded me in every aspect of life.
And so, despite learning the news that I had cancer, I went on a date that night with a guy I had met on Tinder (it was our second date). He took me to an Italian restaurant in Greenwich Village and got me a bottle of whiskey (my favorite). We went back to his place and he taught me how to play “Blackbird” on the guitar. But all I could think about was my decaying body and a guy I had no business thinking about. So I excused myself at some point in the evening to reconcile all that had happened to me that day and text the guy I had no business texting.
His response was a loving concern that warmed me. He vowed to get me fucked up and spend some time with me to get my mind off things. Next Thursday, I’m gonna take you out, he promised. I texted him on Wednesday to confirm and I didn’t hear from him again.
One in every eight women will be diagnosed with breast cancer. Although, so far in life, I haven’t been on the positive side of many statistics, I am “cancer-free” now. On February 13, 2020, after my work Valentine’s Day party, I found myself face-down in an MRI machine that was scanning images of my breasts to see if there was any cancer remaining.
On February 14, 2020, I received a phone call. As I was on the bus to Maryland to see my mom, I started reflecting on the past year. All the surgeries and treatments. Being cut, amputated, burned, poked, prodded, stabbed, grabbed, sliced, bandaged, poisoned, restrained, injected, penetrated, maneuvered and examined within an inch of my life. All that I’ve loved and all that I’ve lost. The crushing loneliness of having cancer. The insecurities that come with being bald and sick and dying. The endless hospital visits. Having to make the expensive decision to either freeze my eggs or risk infertility.
When my mother came to pick me up, she asked me cautiously, as she always does these days, “How is everything?” A vague allusion to all the tests and hospital visits I’ve been subjected to the past couple of weeks.
“They called me today with the results,” I answered. I could feel her entire body tense. “And I’m all clear. No cancer.”
She stopped the car and we cried. My mother, who, in the past year, had seen me bloody and bandaged after surgery, who had nursed me back to health, who had seen me cry out in pain in the middle of the night. This was our moment. And this is our day. Valentine’s Day is a celebration of love. Whatever form that love comes in. My friend got her Fulbright scholarship. She is currently in Serbia being the brilliant writer that she is and her ex is still here, mourning the loss of a program he didn’t get into and an amazing girl he let get away. And for me, from now on, Valentine’s Day will always serve as a reminder to love myself fiercely and radically. To love my body and take care of it. To value the love I have around me. And even though I am alone this Valentine’s Day, I am alive. I am here. And I am loved.