Finding reasons to laugh amid tragedy

Posted: Saturday, October 31, 2009

Cancer is a funny thing. I say that because the only thing that made my diagnosis and treatment for breast cancer bearable was to share it with my loved ones with a sense of humor. I wouldn't dream of downplaying the seriousness of this disease, and can only write about the tools I used in my own journey. If I didn't find the comedy, I would have been swallowed up by the tragedy.

I was diagnosed by my cat. He liked to curl up on my chest and knead his ample cat bed with his paws. In July 2007, he did this relentlessly, paying special attention to the pillow on the right. When it felt like he had found a mouse under my shirt, I paid attention too, and discovered a golf-ball sized lump. When the tumor was removed in August, it was a tennis ball. Zero love, indeed. The test results came back; I had the Big C in my double-D.

I moved to Seattle in November 2007 for treatment, but was single and had no family who could make the trip with me. I took a lonely and anxious ferry ride, noting a sign in my stateroom that my muster station was the cocktail lounge. I mustered immediately, and mustered often, because really - safety first. The chemical cocktails that came next also made my feet tingle and my skin flush. And my mouth blossom with sores, and my stomach roil, and my fingernails fall off. It's my party, and I'll cry if I want to.

Six months of chemotherapy started in December 2007, and seriously, where is the justice in losing the hair on your head but still having to shave your legs? But I will say, I've always been one to appreciate the small pleasures in life: mini-Reese's, bite-sized brownies, Snickers singles. I experienced a surprising pleasure a few days after all my hair came out, when I decided to take a nap. Any day that includes a nap is already a very good day. But then I scooted down onto the pillows I had been sitting up against and the warm, warm pillow made contact with my newly bald, cold head. That? Was sublime.

When my eyebrows and eyelashes came out, I got creative with the make up pencil. My first attempt to draw eyebrows made me look like Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest; my second attempt looked more like caterpillars crawling across my forehead. But I got the hang of it. My feet hurt so bad I had to quit wearing all my fun heels and could only wear boxy, black orthopedic shoes that made me walk like Frankenstein. I couldn't decide what was worse: having cancer, or wearing black shoes with brown pants. The horror!

Seven weeks of radiation started in July 2008, and I thought it would be pretty helpful if it made me glow in the dark. It sure would be easier to find my car in the theater parking lot. Instead, I never made it in to the movies, I just fell asleep in my parked car all the time.

One night, when radiation was just about over, I thought I couldn't get my eyeliner off. I looked closely, and realized I had tiny black dots along my eyelids. They were eyelashes coming back in. I sat down hard on the edge of my bathtub, and burst into tears. I was going to get through this. When I dried my eyes, I looked for eyebrows but didn't see any. Then I realized I was looking in the wrong place. I did indeed have three eyebrow hairs. Right between my eyes. And I was never happier about nose hair.

I moved back to Juneau in October 2008, and I just passed my first year check-up of being cancer-free. That year of treatment was terrible, and painful, and isolating and hard. But I chose to see my cup as half full, because after surgery, that's all it was anyway. Just don't substitute an affectionate pet for proper medical screening. My cat doesn't make house calls.

• Nicole Hallingstad was born in Petersburg and has lived in Juneau since 2003. She has been a breast cancer survivor for two years.

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