This Old Grey Goose is Kind of a Bitch

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So I was standing outside a groovy record shop in the college city of Eugene, OR one day last week. I was waiting for my husband, who could have happily been in the store for hours, but I was outside (because small store, Covid, etc.), scrolling through Twitter.

A youngish (teen? 20 something?) couple walked by.

The young woman looked up at where I was perched on the stairs and sneered. “Hi, Grandma.”

I froze for a second while the shock hit me.

I had chemo last year and lost all my hair. Before chemo my hair was kind of mousy brown and super straight. Now it’s a silvery grey and curly. To be honest, I kind of love it, but I know that it makes me look older.

So the encounter went like this:

Me: Why would you say that? Why?

Her: Because you look like my grandma, don’t you?

Me (in annoyingly prim and proper voice): Well, that’s so rude.

Her: *walks away*

Me: *curses at her* (probably could have handled that better)

And then I started crying. I cried because it’s been an extremely shitty year. I cried because I couldn’t help but wonder if my husband is going to be asked someday if I’m his mother. I cried because even though I mostly like my new hair, I don’t look like myself anymore.

And while I was crying, I was also mad at myself for my ageism. What the fuck do I care if I look like a grandma? Grandmas are awesome.

I’d like to think it was the sneer that set me off, but if I’m honest with myself, it’s also the idea that I now look 10 or 15 years older than I did (which is stupid and shallow and I’d really like to pin this on society’s expectations that women look eternally young).

And then I did that thing. You know the thing. The thing where for the rest of the day you come up with witty rejoinders, snappy comebacks, devastating putdowns:


Her:    Well, you look like my grandma, don’t you?

Me:     How dare you? I just went through CHEMO and my hair just came in like this. I’M ONLY 23 YEARS OLD. [I’m emphatically NOT 23 years old]

Her:    Hi Grandma.

Me:     I prefer “crone.”


Her:    *sneers*

Me:     *hexes*


That made me feel better, but for the rest of the day I was a bit melancholy. I got over the comment and could even forgive the young woman (just as she didn’t know what was going on in my life, I couldn’t know what was going on in hers). What’s stuck with me, though, is that this thoughtless young woman’s comments made me confront my own internalized ageism. I’m gonna have to do some thinking about that, some journaling. Because, as I told my husband after he came out and consoled me and I calmed down, “better a grandma than a cancer-riddled corpse.”

My breasts tried to kill me.

12 Signs of Breast Cancer — #KnowYourLemons Breast Health Education provides a new way to notice, think about, and assess any breast changes or weirdnesses

I don’t have cancer. I have had cancer. I maybe will have cancer, and I maybe will have had cancer.

In the end, I may die of cancer. Even if I don’t, I’ll still be what they call a cancer survivor.

I guess when I was diagnosed about a year ago (the day before my birthday, which COME ON UNIVERSE, REALLY?), I didn’t think about how intimately cancer would be entwined with my identity.

And the thing is, my cancer (<– see how it’s “my cancer,” not “the cancer”) is one of the easily treatable ones (<– there is no such thing as an “easily treatable cancer”).  I had two tumors, one on each side, both tiny, both non-aggressive, both hormone positive. And I’m BRCA negative.

At first, I was just going to have a lumpectomy, radiation, and 5-10 years of the hormone blocker tamoxifen. Then after some genetic testing, my oncologist recommended chemo as well.

“During the lumpectomy,” my oncologist said, “in addition to the tumors, we also found some ductal carcinoma in situ.

“Oh?” I said.

“Yeah,” she said. “Basically, you have busy breasts.”

It’s okay, you can laugh at that. I did. She did. We laughed like crazy.

So I went through chemo, as well, which is a whole other set of stories.

The thing is, I’m here on the other side of it, and while I try to let my body rest and recuperate, my brain seems to be constantly working to make sense of what happened. How did I go in for a routine mammogram, with no suspicion of anything out of the ordinary, to where I am today: fatigued, scared, and to be honest the teeniest bit paranoid?

What the hell just happened?

And while my survival-centered lizard brain tries to make sense of that, the rational part of my brain scolds me, reminds me that I’m crazy lucky, that it could have been so much worse, that I’m blessed, privileged, fortunate. And I am. God, yes, I am.

I’m not complaining, really. I’m just trying to make it make sense.

I read about cancer survivors running 5ks within months of finishing chemo.

That ain’t happening.

Any cancer-related internet search is filled with medical advice to stay positive, to eat well, to exercise—I know this because I Google while lying on the couch eating an ice-cream sandwich.

The positivity message is good and wise and helpful. But I’m so damn tired. A long walk today means two days of muscle pain and fatigue tomorrow.

And I’m just so freaking sick of hearing myself whine about it. And yet I can’t stop whining about it.

And that’s it. That’s where I’m at. It is, as they say, what it is.

There you go, brain—I gave you space and time and words to think through this. Now I guess I’ll get up off my bum and go for a walk.

Feeling crabby

Sidney Hall [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Urania’s Mirror, Sidney Hall [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Happy birth-month to me!

My birthday was last week, and, as per usual, I was out of sorts.

I’ve never really enjoyed my birthday, to be honest. It’s not that I mind getting older. Heck, I have Gratiano’s line from The Merchant of Venice–“with mirth and laughter let old wrinkles come”–etched onto a mirror in my bathroom. And it’s not because of past experiences. The last 40+ birthdays have been pleasant enough.

No, I think the reason I dislike my birthday so much is that it come in JULY, which is HOT, and MUGGY, and SLOOOOOOW. I vastly prefer the crisp busyness of October, or the sparkly excitement of December, or the stinging promise of April.

The other reason I dislike having a birthday in July is that it makes me a Cancer. As a child, I was always looking out for markers of my identity (most of us do that, right? I’m not alone, right? Gulp). The easiest and therefore most popular way to do that is to look up your zodiac sign, and I always hated the descriptions of “me” (the Cancer “me”).  I still do. This description is an excellent example of NOT me.  (I especially love this: ” Cancers often find that a robust workout session is just the tonic for their touchy feelings.” Snort.)

I’m a Cancer. And I thought that sucked.

I got that the crab symbol came from the constellation—unlike some of the other zodiac signs, it kind of fits (if you squint). But I still hated it. First: who wants their zodiac symbol to be a crab, a synonym for a grouchy malcontent? Second: the Crab was the mascot for our local minor-league baseball team, and I would see the cranky and dissatisfied look on his ugly little crustacean face everywhere. Third (luckily I only learned this as a teenager): “to have crabs” = (ahem) not exactly socially acceptable.

But the worst and most confusing part of “being a Cancer”: what did it have to do with the horrific disease people whispered about, the menace that terrified my parents enough that they almost stopped smoking, that prompted me and my friends to put on sunblock in the anemic Northern California sun?

For a while as a child, I even thought that being a Cancer meant I would, eventually, get cancer. In kid logic, that kind of makes sense, right?

A few weeks ago, I read an excellent article entitled “Wombs, Worms and Wolves: Constructing Cancer in Early Modern England” by Alanna Skuse that finally answered the question I’d forgotten I’d had: what is/was the connection between Cancer, the zodiac sign, and cancer, the terrible disease?

According to Skuse, a Wellcome Trust Scholar at the University of Essex, the tumors that came to be recognized as cancer were named after their appearance:

“Not only were they [tumors] peculiarly gruesome even by the standards of the age, but, crucially, they evoked the very name of the disease, a derivation of the Greek karkinos, or crab. Round and red, the tumour appeared like the body of that creature, whilst the blood vessels extending outward were ‘verie like unto the feete of crabbes, descending from the round compasse of their bodies’.”

The connection then—the resemblance of the constellation and the tumors of physiological mutation to a crabby little crustacean—is just coincidence.

I am very relieved.

Virgos: you are on your own.