I didn’t really start getting the “now that you’re over 40” speech until I was 41. When I turned 40 I was still getting Herceptin every 3 weeks. After that was over, I had to take a break from medical offices for just a little bit. But then the annual stuff came up–gyno, primary care for allergy meds, and the straw that broke the camel’s back–the optometrist.
I mean, I LIKE the optometrist and all, but for some reason his over 40 speech just sent me over the edge. I’d already had some random discussions with the other docs. But in early 2014 when I went to see if I needed new glasses/contacts, yep, it was announced I needed reading glasses. I’ve been horribly near-sighted since the 4th grade. But I’d noticed that books were creeping to arm’s length from me. Argh! It’s no big deal–at least according to mister eye expert. Just go to the dollar store, get the lowest (+1.00) strength, get a few because I’m bound to lose them anyway. Um what?! Not only am I told I’m getting old enough to need reading glasses, I’m getting so old I’ll start losing things?! Well, yes, it’s true, but that is a chemobrain thing, uh, right? Or is he not even aware of chemobrain (probably) and simply thinking I’m old and losing it? And while I’m at it, is that optometrist dude older than me–because all docs are older than me, just like they’ve always been, right?! OMG, no, some are younger than me, I am now suspecting, and it frightens me.
So I got over myself, bought a few pairs of glasses, moved up to the +1.25 strength because the cute ones are never available in +1.00, put on some librarian-style cardigans and started hitting the early bird dinner specials while peering dramatically over the tops of my new reading glasses.
Psyche! No I certainly did not do that–well, the peering dramatically thing, I do that, I’m doing it now as I type and look up to scowl at various loud, distracting environmental noises.
Humorous anecdotes aside (read this HuffPo piece for laughs and background), aging as a diagnosed-with-cancer-in-my-30s person has sucked. Driving away from the optical center that day I could only grimly think, good thing I’ve had breast cancer already, so I won’t get “the now that you’re over 40 get a mammogram” speech.
I’ve written about age issues before in The Age Divisions, and I’m tackling it again. As I noted in that old post, being in my 40s with cancer is just weird. The average age of a breast cancer patient is 60 something (I’ve seen it put down as 61, 62, and 63, and I’m not interested in getting into a cite-sourcing nitpick session). It seems that since moving to the social media section of CancerLand, Town of Breast, I run into a variety of ages: 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s, etc. These brackets all have their unique challenges. But it seems the 35 to 40 range is some line drawn in the sand. It’s why I dislike the much-loved SCAR Project, because in my view, it seems to portray women under 35 as somehow more tragic for losing their breasts–our youth-worship culture at work there, I guess. And a few other media outlets have focused this same way too; in a laudable effort to bring attention to the fact cancer does strike women younger than average, they seem only interested in the heart string-tugging young women (read 35 or well under) who lose their breasts. On top of that, I do NOT have the same issues as others in my 40 something age bracket, being an unmarried straight woman who does not have, and never wanted, children. I don’t even bother reading articles targeted at the “younger” breast cancer patient anymore; there isn’t anything there for me.
I remember the early days of my treatment, having just lost my hair, just turned 39, and feeling like hell. I was shopping for chemo clothes one day (you know, button up shirts for surgery, easy access to the port, I was always a pullover knit person) and saw a bunch of young women, teens to early 20s, I don’t remember. No, they didn’t look at me funny or anything, but I remember being sad, angry, and yes, envious. Maybe up until then I was living in a sort of arrested development state–still thinking I was young, going out to bars or whatever, still–not invincible, exactly–but I just did not see myself in the settled life. But at that moment I guess I sort of confronted my mortality, and realized I’d entered some strange area of not only being older, but ill. Let me put it this way, a gulf between my old, seeing-myself-as-young view, and the new view of myself, just turned into a chasm that could not be bridged ever again. I was bitter as I observed those girls, wishing for my old days as relatively carefree, with life ahead of me. At that moment, it became about looking at life behind me too.
The odd fallout of the merging of aging and cancer continues today. I just never know if something is normal aging or not. That twinge–was that just a normal “oh my back” thing (see HuffPo piece linked above), or is that mets? I have CRS (can’t remember shit), is that chemobrain or normal aging? Or a byproduct of info overload due to our 21st century life?
Why am I bringing this up now, 2 years after the incident with the optometrist described at the start of this post? I guess because I notice the media chatter about it more now.
What really got me going was a story about some young woman shamed in her high school for not wearing a bra. She took a stand on how young women should not be objectified or denied education just to “keep boys comfortable”. A noble purpose to be sure, but I struggled to empathize. I almost never wear a bra because after cancer and surgery I just can’t stand the constriction, or the cloth touching me, or something. Bras now just bug me, and I used to wear pretty bras all the time. No one gives a shit about my braless state. Why? Well, #1, I wear baggy old concert t-shirts so I doubt people notice and, #2 if they do, I’m an old woman and no one cares–if they even bother to look. It was freeing and sad at the same time. But then, I never turned heads even when young–but the story of being an unpretty cancer patient is a tale for later.
What else has got me meditating on aging more of late? Just this week, Rose McGowan hotly defended Renee Zellweger’s aging appearance in a film trailer, because an actress is not allowed to age. I’m sure everyone has seen Amy Shumer’s “Last Fuckable Day”. Remember that Diane Keaton/Jack Nicholson movie “Something’s Gotta Give”? Came out the same time as a “Lord of the Rings” movie? Which was the bigger fantasy film? Hint: not the one with hobbits, wizards, and a ring of power. It’s not just onscreen either. As a former Tom Hiddleston fan, I’ve watched the recent Hiddleswift mess with some disgust. I’m annoyed not just by the slut-shaming of Swift and weird threats to Hiddleston (booing him at ComicCon), but by the naive defenders of Hiddleston as well. Reading all the hand-wring snippets and analysis of it, some pointed out the anger was about a perceived classic-type actor not getting a “serious” artist girlfriend (like another stage actor or documentary film maker), but instead doing the cliched date-a-pop-princess route. Maybe, but in my view it is an even more basic cliched behavior: he went for the nubile glam-blonde nearly a decade younger in age (no offense to Swift, despite my dislike for her music, I respect her business sense, she sells her product/brand and has the dollar bills, good for her, wish I’d been so talented/rich). While some of his more shrill fans, reacting to critiques of their age difference, pointed to the male-celebs-usually-marry/date-women-a-decade-younger-so-stop-hating-on-him defense, it actually exasperated me more (hmmm, what a flawed argument they made). Yes, seems the dynamic, at least in her “squad”, is male-partner-is-decade-older. Big deal, Hollywood celeb culture is merely mirroring centuries of alleged normalcy: young, child-bearing age women married to an older man who’s finally settling down. Sure, normal (as in non-celebs) women are marrying/having children later, but not by much, and maybe celebs are just a bit behind. Because, hey, we have a sell-by date don’t we, or at least our ovaries do?
Ah, the sell-by date, of course that brings me to menopause. When I was first diagnosed, I was assured by the oncology team and gynecologist that I could stay on birth control pills for dysmenorrhea–ugh, didn’t want that on top of chemo side effects–as my cancer was E/P negative. But after treatment ended, I was lightly pressured by the oncology doctors to stop taking them–to reduce risk of a new, different estrogen-related cancer. My gynecologist didn’t think it was such a good idea; but I quit anyway. I had some minor discomfort, indeed some hot flashes, but it seems to be over now. I’m not sure when my gynecologist would’ve had the “now that your over x age” conversation with me on ceasing the pills; I had to look up the fact the average for menopause is 48 to 50 years of age. I’m fairly certain I’m in the post-menopause stage, and I’m not yet 45. So is this another consequence of my cancer, early menopause? Not that I ever wanted kids, but there is something very…FINAL…about being, just, done.
My transition during menopause was smooth, and I am not even one bit guilty about that. I’m taking the dysmenorrhea-and-cancer shit show as my get-out-of-menopause-horror-free card. Can’t say I love the weight gain much, which started in earnest not long after my final period, well over a year ago. Growing up I was super-skinny. Too bad I was unpretty to go with that good fortune. I didn’t think it was great at the time–people loved to grasp my wrist, finger meeting thumb, to yell, “you’re so skinny, put some meat on those bones.” I could eat anything, and it just never stuck. Oh, if there were one childhood attribute I could’ve kept into aging, it would be that. Having to make calorie/sugar/fat content conscious choices now is something I’m still learning.
Of course, not that it matters; I’m old, I’m unpretty, no one is looking. Still, it’d be nice to be comfortable in my clothes, to wear whatever I want.
Can the issues of age divisions in breast cancer, aging, and the sexualization of the disease be separated? I think not. Remember that time silly Miley Cyrus told Matt Lauer that she “heard” people stop having sex/being sexual at age 40? (Still rolling my eyes over that one.) I’m sure there are many examples of young people showing off their cluelessness about aging and sexuality, but that’s such a stellar example. A similar incident happened in CancerLand, Town of Breast, some time after the Miley-Matt show that immediately reminded me of it. Some British personality had a BRCA+ prompted prophylactic mastectomy. She threw herself a “goodbye boobs” party which induced some groans on social media; I’m sure I was groaning too. Sure everyone has the right to “do” cancer as they wish (maybe), but when celebs do things like that, it tends to reinforce the irritating idea that breast cancer is a pink sexy times party. A minor fracas in reactions broke out and I had the misfortune to read bits from some young breast cancer patients that implied maybe breast cancer patients in their 50s and 60s had forgotten what it’s like to be young, could not possibly imagine what cancer is like while in one’s 20s or 30s, and were in need of the reminder that women are sexual beings. I’m not sure what annoyed me more; the naive idea that older women are no longer sexual as they age, or the fact that once again, those in their 40s were forgotten. I mean, was I really thinking that at least breast cancer patients in their 50s in 60s were noticed in this analysis, even if it was in such a stupid derogatory way? And all of the sniping lost the larger point: no one can imagine what cancer is like for anyone else for a million reasons, age being the least pertinent, because we are all individuals, duh. My sense of alienation in CancerLand grew 3 sizes around then.
One of the Dumb Shit Said to Cancer Patients quips I hated early on were the unwitting lines from seniors looking at me as some young whippersnapper: “don’t get old, it sucks.” I would give a withering look and coldly say something along the lines of getting old being a privilege I hoped to have in spite of having cancer–unfair since they did not know I had cancer, but that was my angry-at-the-world state of mind then. Yeah, that was a conversation stopper. Now that I’m past the white-hot-just-out-of-treatment stage, I get the larger meaning: growing old ain’t for the weak of heart (figuratively and literally). Aging among my peers in real life is weird because, yes, the non-motherhood status, and oh yeah, all that cancer. It is weird in CancerLand because the few friends I’ve made here are all over the map in terms of age, type of cancer, stage, and yes, parental status again. I just cannot seem to figure out where I fit.
This overly long post is a bit of a ramble, and I know it is because I am still unsettled on this issue, and likely will be for a long while. I cannot reach conclusions here.
Just muddling along, as I so often do here in CancerLand. I doubt I will ever figure it all out, but I keep trying. This issue ain’t over for me.