Wednesday, September 21, 2011


There is a phenomenon that happens post-surgery, when you’re back at home and cozy in your jammies, trying to heal and deal with your new self-image (whatever that may be, depending upon how severe your surgery). In the case of mastectomy, it presents itself as a layer of hiding. Make that multi-layers of hiding. And this hiding has little to do with whether or not you have started the reconstruction process.

The first layer of hiding is from myself — and any mirrors that may reflect back to me an image I’m not yet ready to behold. I steer clear of all reflective surfaces for the time being.

Next there is hiding from my husband, lest he find me newly unattractive. I feel the need to spare him — and myself — from this moment for as long as possible. This second layer of hiding is easily handled, on the surface, at least, by donning a bathrobe selected for just such a non-veiling (vs. unveiling) occasion. In my case, that would be putting on the pale green robe my husband purchased (unbeknownst to me) while we were vacationing in the Oregon wine country last fall. A trip that will forever be sandwiched between “The Mammogram” and “The 'Come Back' Letter." Imagine my surprise when I found said robe beneath the tree on Christmas morning! That was divine. But it will always be remembered as the Christmas that came after “The Biopsy,” after “The Call,” before "The Surgery."

But wait, there's more: Post-cancer surgery offers up a third layer of hiding, wrapped in the form of friends and/or family — yup, the very people who are your lifeline, your safety net, your thread back to the jacket of normalcy you wore before cancer unraveled everything. They phone or text or email or drop by in an ebb and flow of checking in, checking up, and checking out. It’s all good — except when it’s not.
  • The “checking in” part is great! I can handle that easy enough by text or email.
  • The “checking up” chats I leave to my husband. Those require more verbal acuity than I have the energy to muster at the moment.
  • It’s the “checking outs” that are the most difficult to decipher —and to deal with. I’m not talking about the “eyeball” type of checking out you might expect when people first glance at a newly deflated chest. (That is another post for another time.) I’m talking about complete checkouts of the unexpected and puzzling variety. As in: The calls that never come. The cards that are never mailed. The flowers that don't get delivered.
Don't get me wrong; I am grateful — very grateful — for the kindness shown to (and showered upon) me during these dark and dismal days. But allow me a moment if you will. Complete Checkouts are the people who can’t deal with your cancer — or your vulnerability. They don’t know what to say. They don't know what to do. And so they do nothing — mistakenly thinking that no contact is good contact — or at least better than awkward contact. 

But they would be wrong. Because reaching out in whatever way is comfortable for you means so much to me! Aside from making me (and every person I know who has gone through the BC experience — and it happens to the majority of us) feel ignored and unloved during one of the most challenging times of my life (and let's not even draw the correlation between cancer and death, another subject that renders people silent), here's the really troubling part: Complete Checkouts turn out to be the people you least expect. And they are stealth.

And that, folks, is the dirty little secret of a cancer diagnosis.

Complete Checkouts can make a girl feel like doing a little checking out of her own. (Not in a “I want to die” kind of way, just in a “go away” kind of way.) So that's what I do. Within the plush folds of my velvety robe, I find my safe harbor and my escape. It’s my own Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. I slip it on and slip back into the land of yesterday, when my boobs weren’t called foobs and I didn't look like a cross between Barbie and the game Operation.

Still healing and dealing and hiding over here. This could take a while.


  1. Oh, Renn-this touched a nerve! Actually it touched all of them. Avoiding looking at myself, not having my (then and don't know what to call him today) "husband" making me feel all warm and fuzzy about ANYTHING, friends who came running to be "part of the event" when I was diagnosed to fall off the charts when I really did need things (like rides for my last two rounds of chemo-I took car service-was on ativan for anticipatory nausea and couldn't drive myself). I just needed a ride there and a ride back. I didn't like company while I was in physical pain as the poison dripped into my veins. People only wanted to do things the way THEY wanted. "If I'm driving you, I'm staying with you." Enter Robert DeNiro in the role of Taxi Driver (I wish). And then, I met all of YOU. And for every person that dropped off the charts, ten of you are now in my life. I treasure your words on my blog and I love that you have invited me to share your story. Cancer is a solo journey until you find your sisters. I found mine. You make me smile all the time! Love, AnneMarie xoxox

  2. I know what you mean... most everyone is beyond supportive and helpful and caring.
    But then, it's someone close to you that surprises you by not checking in, not calling, not being there for you. My youngest sister is that way. It's changed my relationship with her, although she probably doesn't even know it.

  3. Ladies, I knew you would understand. I'm sure it's hard for folks on the outside looking in to get how this really feels. But it needs to be discussed. It's time to air cancer's dirty laundry! ;-)

  4. I think it's great that you make it clear - contact, concern and most of all love, even in the most bungled way is much better than nothing for fear of embarrassment or some such difficulty. Because of you, I'm not going to let that happen on my watch -
    Mary x

  5. Beautifully said, Renn. I was surprised by the check outs as well. I remember thinking a day or two after my mastectomy, lying bald and exhausted with my drains, wondering...if I don't get flowers for this, what the hell does a girl have to do? But I guess the thing is, the patient is the only one observing the whole process. Individually, our friends may be assuming that someone else is doing the coddling and hand holding. It is a good reminder of the choices we ourselves make in the future. A simple phone call, a plate of cookies, a word of concern - gifts of gold for the person shouldering the weight of a serious disease.

    Sending you a hug.

  6. Oh, honey -- I get it. I really get it. The complete checkouts are so baffling to me. I have a family member in the complete checkout group and it is very weird. I'd rather have someone say the wrong thing than say nothing. I really treasure and value my friends who did what I needed rather than what they wanted to do for me. One friend drove me to all my post-surgery appts, one vacuumed my floor and played with my dogs. Invaluable! I'm so glad you're getting the word out. And as for your avoidance process and hiding out in your robe, you are entitled. Listen to your heart and do what you need to do. But remember, you're a rock star, scars and all.

  7. Mary: I'm so happy to hear that! Yes, bungled is better than being ignored. Spread the word! ;-)

    Cynthia: I hear ya, sistah! Very true that our friends/family members assume others are filling in the gaps. Simple comments ARE like gold!

    Pinkunderbelly: "My friends did what I needed rather than what they wanted to do" sums it up. In the best of worlds, people would offer their help — and we would feel comfortable telling them what we really needed. And thanks for reminding me of my rock star status. (I had forgotten!!)

    PS I have learned so much about how to better help others (and how to ask and receive help myself) after going through this whole BC experience. I'll be writing more about this topic again soon!

  8. Renn,

    Thank you for discussing the all-too-painful checkouts. I had many friends whose outpouring of support and love anchored me, but I was surprised by the people who checked out of my life -- for good.

    At the time, the feeling of rejection was more painful than the cancer diagnosis itself.

    Renn, this is an excellent post that resonated deeply within me. Thank you, thank you, and thank you for posting it.

  9. Renn, I love this post. I know exactly what you mean about all of it. There is a certain amount of hiding that goes on isn't there? I'm slowly coming out and hiding less. It's a process. Sadly some people do check out and that comes at various levels of check out too, if that makes sense. Some in my own family checked out. Anyway, this is an excellent post. Thanks for writing it. Your blog is great! Thanks for having me on your blog roll too. I'll be adding yours too, but I'm slow...

  10. Beth: Glad and also sad that it resonated. (Glad you stopped by, sad that you personally know the "checkouts.") The feeling of rejection is painful — and shocking, in a spin-me-on-my-head-and-tell-me-this-isn't-really-happening kind of way.

    Nancy: Oh, the checkout levels vary for sure. I totally get it! And thank you! ;-)

  11. Renn, your honesty here brought tears to my eyes. I can always use a reminder of the kind of friend I desire to be! Praying for you. Yes, really, I am. Wishing you the best most peaceful day possible!

  12. I have found very quickly that peoples lives go on.
    Check outs?????
    I'm laughing thru the tears here.
    My son..(yes the one who shaved his head a week or so ago for me) has totally checked out. I go days and days and he doesnt even call to see how I'm feeling.
    It's so disappointing that he would shave his head (with the note , you can post this on your blog) only to go almost a week and not even take the time to make a 5 minute call.
    He didnt even know until my mother called him two days later that they put the port in for chemo this Thursday.
    She put the quilt trip on him ..( told her DO NOT do that again.
    If he dont call , he dont. It's not the same if he feels pushed to do it.
    So he's on my blog...bald head and all...but I never hear from him :( far have been so caring and loving.
    I'm waiting to see what happens as more and more happens.

  13. Renn - I can totally relate to the complete check outs! Some of the most surprising one's were from my own family members. I realize cancer is scary...but it's even more scary for the person who has it so we need some support...even a simple "I don't know what to say but I am thinking about you" vs. the complete check out. Well written girl!

  14. Debbi:I'm so sorry about your son! Give him time to come around. You said it best: "People's lives go on." So true. The world keeps on spinning and we end up spinning.

    MDG: Thanks, BB! No one can fully understand how isolating it feels to be frozen out unless you've been there. The "I'm thinking of you" comments are the sweetest, simplest and the best. That's really all we want to know... that someone is thinking of us!

    (Silence = feeling ignored. Period. No matter what someone is going through!)

  15. (Silence = feeling ignored. Period. No matter what someone is going through!)

    So right Renn...I know he loves me to pieces..but it still hurts


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