I was diagnosed with breast cancer.
One month later, my son was hit
and killed by a late model, blue Ford F150 truck.
My former therapist said I was being struck
by the perfect storm.
You are in the middle of the perfect storm.
Whatever the fuck that meant.
It’s a scary feeling to learn you have cancer.
That goes without saying.
Thinking about it took up a lot of my mental energy—
there was a lot of fear and worry, and so many unknowns.
Then my son died and of course the cancer took a back seat.
At that point my feelings about cancer warped
and turned to anger. I thought it was
the stupid cancer that killed my son.
He was determined to go out and skate that day—
the day before my surgery. The day he died.
His friends told me this.
needed to get out on his board that day.
For a long time I chose not to—was determined not to—
write about it. The cancer, I mean. I guess subconsciously
I was trying to obliterate ever even having it.
You’ll find very little evidence
of my having cancer
in my journals.
I never posted on social media.
I never wrote about how terrifying the whole process
was, or about how sometimes I would stand transfixed,
staring at the huge glass etched sign outside the white brick building
on the corner, in the Upper East Side of Manhattan, that read:
“Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.”
Cancer Center. I’d stand there, simply frozen, taking in those words.
I didn’t write about how appointments
overtook my life. The exhaustion of meeting with so many doctors.
The breast surgeon oncologist, the radiologist,
my general oncologist. The geneticist.
I didn’t write about all of the waiting. The agonizing waiting.
There was a health food store called
I would stop in after every appointment to get a shot
of wheatgrass juice, and wonder how many people
from the cancer center two blocks down
had stepped in to get a wheatgrass shot.
I never wrote about how scared
I was of passing this on to my daughter.
Would she have to get her ovaries removed?
It all depended on genetic testing
that took two agonizing weeks to get results.
I remember the genetic counselor, her name was Julia.
It almost seemed like she was the type of person
who enjoyed handing out scary shit to people.
She told me how my type of cancer could jump
from breast to breast.
That it could possibly turn up in the other breast
before all was said and done.
She said that if I had a certain gene,
the cancer could spread to my stomach.
I asked her what I would do then?
You can’t remove my stomach.
I swear there was a gleam in her eye
when she responded:
Oh, yes we can.
We can remove your stomach
and give you a manufactured one.
I remember going home on that Friday night
after meeting with her. I had had plans to do something,
but canceled. My husband was working late, so I sat alone
on the couch until the sun set and the house got dark,
tired and scared—crying it out before
I could pull myself up to make some dinner.
This was before Judah died. I was terrified
that I could pass it on to both children.
When I spoke this fear to my doctor, I could barely
choke out the words. But he understood through my sobs
and hand gestures that I was asking
Will I pass this on?
I never wrote about the stage my cancer
had reached, 2B. The classification had to do with the size
of the tumor and the fact that it had moved further
into my breast from its original nesting point.
You won’t find any evidence of how the doctors
took me into a small conference room
and had me decide which treatment option
I wanted to take—how they showed me twenty years’ worth
of research to help me make my decision.
Did I want to do a lumpectomy?
It would preserve most of the breast,
but require radiation treatment.
Or, did I want to remove the breast completely,
and possibly not have to do any radiation?
Still I really wouldn’t even know that until they removed
my sentinel nodes during surgery.
I just wanted someone to tell me what to do.
I never wrote about the surgeon:
the very kind, caring, and good-at-her-job surgeon
with her long blonde hair and gentle hands
who was determined to leave my mangled breast
as pretty as possible, as she removed more and more
breast tissue, trying to get clean margins.
She had to get my permission to practice
a certain type of stitch that would
leave less scarring.
Judah was gone at this point
and I could not convey to her enough
how much I didn’t care.
There were student doctors at the cancer center
who took me into yet another small conference room
as my surgeon stood vigil
and asked if they could use my tumor for research.
I numbly signed the papers.
Yes, please use my tumor for science.
My kid is dead. I hate everything.
I never wrote about how I learned to visualize
my cancer as a black disk in my mind’s eye—
to be burned up by a white light.
I would meditate and form the black disc
in my mind and imagine a fire-like light,
like the surface of the sun,
slowly making its way over the disc, enveloping it.
I visualized the cancer retreating like this, every time
the worry threatened to overtake me. I used this method
while awaiting the results of an oncotype score—
the number that tells the doctors how aggressive
a tumor is, and what the likelihood of the cancer
returning would be, and whether I would need chemotherapy.
I used this light method again after the surgery
that removed my sentinel node and a few others
to find out if my cancer had spread.
Turns out, the cancer was only just beginning to spread.
I had micrometastasis, and hopefully, they said,
they had caught all of the cancerous nodes.
Again, the waiting. The waiting.
I never wrote about the integrative specialist
who discussed nutrition with me, and all the things
I needed to cut out of my diet now that I was trying
to remain cancer free.
Avoid gluten, dairy, sugar, white rice, white flour,
and alcohol, especially hard liquor.
She asked me how I would replace butter in my diet.
I looked at her like she was crazy.
I’m southern, I said. So that’s gonna be a no.
I was joking and partially relented to using
Earth Balance and coconut oil. But still.
I didn’t write about the radiation center
and the nine tiny tattoo dots
that framed the area around my left breast
just below my collar bone and down
to the top of my ribs,
made so that the radiation tech
would know exactly
where to direct the machine.
I had to learn how to do deep inspiration breath holds
so that I could hold my breath properly during treatment.
They needed my lungs to inflate and push my heart
away from my chest wall so as to decrease the possibility of
radiation damage to my heart.
I woke up at 4:45 a.m. and left the house
by 5:45 to make a 7:00 a.m. radiation appointment
I’d take the F train to Lex Ave and 63rd Street,
close to an hour from home. Some days I’d walk
in the freezing rain or snow, in the still dark morning.
All the while, mourning my son’s death.
All the while thinking:
Judah, Judah, Judah.
I miss you, I miss you, I miss you.
By week two, I had what looked like a sunburn
and I was feeling fatigued after each treatment.
I needed to get ten hours of sleep each night
to feel normal the next day. My New Yorker
walking pace had slowed to the point where I had to tell friends
to slow down because I couldn’t keep up.
The radiation oncologist, a tall,
good looking man in a perfectly cut suit and tie,
never told me that I could have what looked
like third degree burns by the time
I was done with my five day “boost”
nearing the end of my treatment.
The boost radiation tech
panicked after my third dose,
and sent me to the burn unit.
There was a burn unit?
Yes, a whole unit dedicated to the burns
that one could incur during radiation. On my last day,
after ringing the bell for making it through,
my breast was so red and raw the tech took
me straight to the unit where a nurse
set me up with bandages, wraps, and silvadene.
My treatment was complete right at the beginning of spring break.
I had plans to fly down to Tennessee, and I kept them.
Little did I know that the radiation would continue
to cook my breast.
By the time I got there, my entire left breast
and the surrounding area was blistered and on fire.
A two-inch circumference around where my nipple
used to be was a giant, blistery burn.
There were burns under my breast and in my armpit.
Eventually my skin sloughed off and there were
open burn sores where the blistered areas had popped.
I was on The Farm with my granddaughter
and lifting her up to put her in a swing
on the newly built playground in the woods,
I could feel my skin ripping beneath the bandages.
What is wrong with me? I asked myself,
I should be home in my apartment on my couch resting.
I didn’t know it was going to be so bad.
Later that evening, I cried in the bathroom
with Judah’s grandmother Mary, as she helped me bandage my burns.
I watched her reflection through the bathroom mirror,
her kind eyes wide as she cried,
Oh Dusty, over and over. Oh Dusty!
I didn’t write how deflated the radiologist
looked after walking into the small exam room,
a little cocky as he sat down and leaned back
in his chair and stretched his feet out,
so confident as I met with him one year after treatment:
This is a time to celebrate, one year cancer free!
What’s to celebrate? I said. My kid is dead.
from Rattle #82, Winter 2023
Rattle Poetry Prize Finalist
Dusty Bryndal: “I have written poetry all my life, but began building confidence as a writer and poet when my friend would make me read my poems out loud in her cozy, art-filled living room. I have since found a writing community who taught me that it is OK to write about the raw, ragged details of losing a child and that people want to read about sad things. For the last five years, writing poetry has helped shape my grief and my healing as I navigate the waters of my son’s tragic ending.” ( web)