After the Tears

From left, Cynthia Fleming, Annie Paulson and Jessica Pavelka try on wigs at a three-day conference in Arlington for young breast cancer survivors.
From left, Cynthia Fleming, Annie Paulson and Jessica Pavelka try on wigs at a three-day conference in Arlington for young breast cancer survivors. (Photos By Melina Mara -- The Washington Post)
By Emily Wax
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 28, 2007

The man in the white lab coat at Georgetown Hospital's Lombardi Cancer Center took one look at my bellybutton ring and sighed.

"You can't have your CT scan with that in there," he said.

The demand for the piercing's removal last summer was just another way cancer was trying to pry away at my 32-year-old life. But the silver hoop wouldn't budge.

That's how my husband and I ended up racing in a cab to an M Street tattoo parlor hours before I was scheduled for the test that would tell me if the breast cancer had spread. And if I would have a better chance of undergoing surgery, chemotherapy and radiation and surviving, or slogging through the treatments and possibly dying.

The parlor's electronica music spinning from a laptop seemed way too loud. The hipsters in skinny jeans and puffy boots eyeing the latest Chinese symbol tattoos seemed blissfully carefree. Amid the tattoo-splattered walls, I turned as ashen and as soaked in sweat as I would during the height of chemo as I sat down on a cold metal table. "Sweet!" purred a tattooed Burly Man, a cliche with wrench: "This trend is so over."

Me: "You have no idea."

This is the bizarre world of being young and having cancer diagnosed, when at the peak of your beauty, confidence and fertility the rhythms of your life are propelled into what we believe are the problems of the old. Total hair loss, bone pain, stomach issues, and chemo-induced menopause leave you as un-hip among your friends as, well, a cancer patient.

It's hard enough being a young woman -- with the pressures to be beautiful and shiny-haired. Try it after chemo -- bald and without eyebrows or even eyelashes.

Luckily, the cancer had not spread. But my life felt shattered. I was a Washington Post foreign correspondent living in East Africa and about to take a job as bureau chief in India. My husband and I got the diagnosis while on home leave.

In harrowing shock that day we waded through the bar of the uber-hip Hotel Helix, where we'd been staying, with its tribal fur bedspreads, neon green walls and neon pink cocktails.

Eventually, fortunately, with the help of some powerful young women who became my "cancer friends," I soon realized that being young and having cancer had so many absurd contrasts that some pockets of laughter seemed as inevitable as chemotherapy.

Over the weekend, 850 of my fellow young cancer survivors from support groups around the world gathered for the three-day Young Survival Coalition and Living Beyond Breast Cancer conference at the Hyatt Regency Crystal City in Arlington. It's as close as you can get to having cancer and still partying.

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