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Cancer Dancer

by Cherie Magnus

It was three years since I had lost my husband to cancer, and I was trying my best to be a Merry Widow. In Paris studying French, I met and fell in love with a handsome Frenchman, and we made plans for me to move to Paris.

During my final routine physical exam before leaving, the jovial doctor's round face fell in the middle of a joke about France. His fingers worriedly palpated the soft side of my right breast. "How long have you had this lump?" he asked, suddenly all merriment gone.

Scared, but not too scared because I had had exams and regular mammograms since Jack died, I said, "Oh I don't know, a couple of years. I had a mamo three or four months ago and nobody said anything. Besides, according to what I've read, I have zero risk factors for breast cancer."

He was already on the phone. "OK, I'll send her down immediately. All right, young lady," he said turning to me, "You're to go downstairs and have a biopsy. The surgeon will do it on his lunch hour so we can get this thing figured out and you can run off to France." He smiled, but there was no humor in it.

The procedure didn't take long, nor did it hurt. Soon I was putting on my blouse and buttoning it up over the large bandage on my chest. "So now what, Doc?" I asked.

"We wait for the lab results. And hope it's nothing."

So I went back to work at the library, and I waited. I stopped packing and planning. I only waited. A week later I got a call when I was working the reference desk at the busiest time, right after school, and the library was full of patrons.

"Reference. May I help you?" I answered the phone.

"Mrs. Magnus? This is Dr. Solomon. I'm sorry to say that your test came back positive."

"Positive?" I repeated, looking around the busy reading room in panic and the group of teenagers congregated around the desk where I sat. "What does that mean?"

"It means a malignancy. Please make an appointment to come in and see me. We have to discuss what we're going to do."

"I have cancer? But I can't, I'm moving to France. My husband had cancer, not me." All of a sudden the busy bustling library was completely silent, all of the patrons still, only the word "cancer" echoed loudly around the room.

I went upstairs to the open mezzanine that was the library workroom. I didn't know what to do, so I just stood there. What I really wanted to do was smash crockery and china dishes and pottery, to throw plates and vases against rocks the size of mountains, to hurl and pitch Carnival Glass and Fiestaware and pate de verre and crystal ashtrays and saucers won at fairs with tossed dimes, until there was a quarry of shards higher than my apartment at Park La Brea. But I stood silently in the workroom until I could gather up my purse, find a librarian to take over the reference desk, and go home.

Olivier took a leave from the French school, which was glad to save some salary as the school was floundering, and came to Los Angeles the night before my surgery.

I had a lumpectomy and a lymphnodectomy, which wasn't too bad in the scheme of things. It wasn't like having a kidney removed or open-heart surgery. He measured the fluid in the drain every few hours, and changed my bandages. I was happy.

Olivier asked me to marry him. "In France, divorces can take seven years! Will you be patient?"

I nodded. Of course I would be patient. I had work of my own to do-to get well.

Then he returned to Paris, and I began chemotherapy. People like to say, I said it too, "Oh no, I would never have chemo!" But when the doctor tells you it's do or die, you do it. I didn't think once about not doing it.

My friend Nancy took me shopping for head coverings at St John's hospital in Santa Monica where they had a "cancer boutique." My hair had not yet started falling out, but the doctor assured me that it would. Nancy enthused over various cotton turbans and scarves, and I bought all she liked, plus a couple of washable cotton hats with fabric flowers jauntily pinned to the brims. I thought I should look at wigs, too, but somehow the idea seemed just too hot. I was really suffering now with the heat. The surgery and the drugs thrust me immediately into "chemo pause," and the hot flashes came every ten minutes, day and night. There was no escape from the crushing heat. Most of the time I just lay on my bed and sweated. When a hot flash struck, it was like standing on hot coals in the flames of hell. It felt like my brain was on fire.

My hair started falling out as predicted, three weeks to the day of my first chemo. I immediately called my youngest son. "Come over quick and bring your hair clippers!"

He stood me in the bathtub and shaved my head. He swept it all up and threw it away in the bottom of the trash, while I studied my naked head from all sides with a hand mirror.

"Mom, you have a beautiful head. Bald isn't a bad look on you!"

We both laughed, and then I cried. I was glad to get this part over with all at once, and not have the little deaths of hair on my pillow and filling up the drain. At least it was cooler with no hair.

Without hair I didn't have to worry about waxing or shaving. I looked so strange without eyebrows or eyelashes. Even with big earrings I didn't feel very feminine.

Other patients on the same chemo were not so strongly affected by side effects. I liked to think that my sensitivity made the drugs more lethal to the cancer cells in my body.

The drugs did something to my nerves, and I couldn't bear noise of any kind. I couldn't listen to music, play the piano, or leave the windows open for air, as the metal vertical blinds clacked together and made me crazy. It was as if all my nerve endings had been sandpapered. I couldn't read either, as I lost all powers of concentration. I couldn't think. The one thing I could do, and did do, was watch French movies on video. On a good day I would watch two.

I had a wild idea: why not go to Paris to be with Olivier? If I could have a chemotherapy treatment there, I could be with him for five weeks if my doctor said okay. My oncologist thought it would be a great idea to get all those love endorphins and so gave his permission. Olivier found an oncologist in Paris who agreed to give me the treatment at the H?pital Saint-Louis with the same drugs I was taking in L.A.

Yes, sure, I was being extravagant, impetuous and spontaneous. I didn't give two figs about saving money. For all I knew, with my lymph node metastases, I didn't have to worry about any future. If I had any money from the sale of my house, I was going to spend it. There was no way I was going to die with money in the bank. I wanted to be in France, so, I went to Paris.

This piece was previously published in Cherie's memoir, The Church of the Tango, Mirasol Press, 2012.

Cherie Magnus, a California native and survivor of two breast cancers, lives, writes and teaches tango in Buenos Aires, Argentina. She was a dance research librarian in the Los Angeles Central Library and a dance critic for local newspapers before moving to France, Mexico, and finally to Argentina in 2003. Many of her articles on dance, books, travel and international culture have been published in magazines, professional journals, and several anthologies. She is now working on a prequel to The Church of Tango: a Memoir, Arabesque: A Memoir of Los Angeles in 1960.