How Having Breast Cancer
Can Be Really Distracting

Meredith Norton
When she was but thirty-three years old, Meredith Norton was diagnosed with breast cancer. "I had just been told that I had only a 40 percent chance of being alive in five years. I needed a double mastectomy." Then, she says, she realized that

    I would never win any wet T-shirt contests. I'd never get nipple erections and I was about to lose all my hair.

It turned out that she was only to lose one breast, but in the process, she went though months of chemotherapy. And, when, finally, it was all done and over with, her doctor told her that anyone who had, like her, gone though a Stage III "locally advanced breast cancer" would have a 80% chance of recurrence.

§     §     §

It's hard not to fall madly in love with Norton. Lopsided is so funny it puts one in mind of John Callahan's tale of being a paraplegic, Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot. This is, for example, Meredith Norton on doctors: "I couldn't do this particular job for myself. I'd chosen to herd pygmy goats in Minorca while she went to medical school."

    She did the training, passed the exams, got the degrees, and had the authority to pump me full of toxins and chop off my breasts. I had no choice but to lie still and trust she wasn't too distracted by her house's termite problem to confuse me with the lobotomy patient at 9:30.

As I say, it is hard not to fall in love with Norton, especially with the way she finally twists this passage around: "All doctors are people, even though we wish they were something better."

Her ability to characterize herself in bawdy asides is so woeful that it has to be funny. After her original diagnosis, "it occurred to me that only two things had really changed: one, I was still going to die, but my means of death was more probable now that I had cancer; and two, nobody was going to let me pick up the tab for these overpriced drinks."

Norton complains about the morphine for her operation because it "was dampening the natural high I was already experiencing from having my husband and ex-fiancé and ex-boyfriend all visiting at the same time."

    There I sat on a mechanical, Posturepedic dais, bald and one-titted, while the two exes rushed to fluff my pillows and Thibault [her husband] studied my appearance, wondering if he had in fact won or lost.

She survives "sixteen weeks of accelerated, dose-dense chemotherapy, a mastectomy, and fifty-four radiation appointments." She doesn't lose her spirit, or wit, or charm ... at least until near the end of it all, when her doctor tells her (now he tells her) that "Recurrence is almost guaranteed," Which means more chemotherapy, an infusion of Herceptin, "for an entire year, seventeen cycles." Herceptin, she was told, would present few problems, but the pills made her sleepy, discolored her skin, turned it ultra-sensitive, makes it frail and excruciatingly painful.

At the end, she asks herself: what did eighteen months of this physical (not to say mental) outrage leave her? Is she now brave, tolerant, wise, more kindly, a saint?

Nothing doing. There is no prize, not even a booby prize, for going through all this. "I was the same sort of cancer survivor as I had been a student, successful but poor, meaning I lived, but managed to learn nothing."

She tries to convince us that nothing was gained. But that is not true. Meredith Norton has given us a crackerjack manual on how to survive breast cancer.

Earlier, I compared Lopsided to John Callahan's autobiography. I could have gone back further than that, all the way back to Betty MacDonald's The Plague and I which is about the ups-and-downs of living through tuberculosis. Like Norton, she saw the ghastlies. Like Norton, she decided that it was better to laugh than to cry. Like Norton, she survived. Like Norton, she offers a guide to those of us who are or will be unfortunate enough to develop breast cancer. If this sorry scenario came to pass for any of my friends, I would immediately send over Lopsided, telling her to use it as a guide to what has passed and to what is to come. It is a message in how to survive by being a contrarian.

For example, how, I ask you, in the world could anyone fall for an in-dwelling catheter? Norton does. During her earlier pregnancy, when the nurses went to remove it, she complained. "I'd had it in for three days after my Cesarean and had gotten to love it. It seems odd to adore a tube hanging from your crotch, attached to a plastic bag filled with warm urine, but I did."

    I'd spent the previous nine months running to the toilet every twenty minutes, day and night. The last two months I ran to the toilet and still peed on myself when I stood up afterward. It drove me crazy.

"Urinating effortlessly and at my leisure into a bag was downright luxurious."

--- Lolita Lark
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