Home About Us Features Write Now! Submit Resources

Walking Only, On Oxygen

by Nancy Bowker

"May I go to the special breast-cancer-survivor exercise class?" I say in my message to the pulmonary doctor's assistant. Tina, a very pleasant young woman, calls me back and gives me a lot of instructions. "And exercise?" I ask. I hold my breath, hoping she will say yes. "No class," she says, "walking only, on oxygen."

A vision pops into my head of winged angels floating gently over cotton-soft clouds in the heaven of my childhood picture books. Hmm, perhaps that is pure oxygen swirling under their feet. Do angels really have feet? I wonder. Walking is probably a lot easier if you have wings. If you get tired, you can just fly for a while.

Out into the neighborhood I venture, sporting my portable oxygen tank with the forked canula sticking in my nose, and the tube loose from my face to the oxygen tank that is slung over my left shoulder. I know this might look a little odd. I have never seen anyone else walking on oxygen in my neighborhood before. Still I am not prepared.

People stare cruelly at me, adults and children. I am suddenly 14 with small budding breasts, a divorced family and no one to help me shop. All I can think of to wear, after California casual attire has been outlawed at my hoity-toity private New York school, is blue and pink plaid skirts, with a light blue top. I do love blue as a color to wear. But I am so self-conscious that it takes only a wrong look, and I will burst into tears. My sister told me one day when she was making play costumes with other girls, one saw a plaid and said, "That looks like a Nancy Bowker skirt."

I am walking, though. Yesterday some people looked at me and then averted their eyes. Some people responded to my "Good morning." I refuse to apologize for my appearance. My friends Kristen and Paula, who died last year from breast cancer, aren't having any morning at all. I will have a good morning. Walking only, on oxygen.

Nancy Bowker is a mother of triplets who was diagnosed with breast cancer in September of 2003. She tries to enjoy every day with her two boys and one girl who are now 10 years old.