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
Women threw off their scratchy wigs. They danced bald -- some with henna-tattooed or makeup-dusted bronzed scalps -- at the Saturday night dinner. There were hotel room parties where women disrobed to compare reconstructed breasts. Sometimes, they got together to shave heads, to control chemo's patchy hair loss.
There were workshops such as "How to Get Your Groove Back: Dating After Breast Cancer," and a late-night pajama party where women browsed through massage oils, vibrators and striptease games, to help when chemo and breast surgery deflate confidence and libidos. (Pure Romance, the Tupperware-like party planners of sex toys, hosted the party.)
There were informal cocktail hours for husbands and boyfriends and an online support group called Dudes for Boobs who bonded over what my husband has told me again and again: "Survival Is Sexy." There were also sessions for lesbian and bisexual partners. Grunge rock and indie folk cancer survivors distributed their CD, "I'm Too Young for This!"
Call it Cancerpalooza, where Generation X meets breast cancer.
Years ago, breast cancer was such a taboo that the older generations were often told to have a happy, smiley attitude, never, ever take off their big wigs -- especially around their husbands -- and wear a bulky prosthetic bra.
It was as if their womanhood had betrayed them and even mass marketing enforced the message that without breasts they were somehow in need of infantilizing fluffy stuffed animals -- in pink, of course -- to make the pain go away.
But pink teddy bears didn't go over as well last weekend. So many of the young cancer survivors seemed to feel more comforted being in a state of rage, then using that anger to create a new identity.
There were "Cancer Can Kiss My Ass" and "Bald Is Beautiful" T-shirts. Leopard print, and black and bright blue LymphaDiva arm compression sleeves, invented by a 23-year-old graphic designer and cancer survivor Robin Miller. She was frustrated by the drab wraps like Ace bandages that some survivors need to wear for the rest of their lives because of a post-surgery condition called lymphedema.
And there was my personal favorite: Real Breast Cancer Barbie.
"I was so angry when I heard that Mattel had made a Pink Ribbon Barbie. The only thing cancer about her was a pink ribbon," said Linnea Johnston, who was 33 when she found her lump. "I mean she had bouffant curls! So I took a Barbie, plucked out all her hair, put her on a bright red chemo drip, put a fake MediPort in her chest, and of course put in drains for after surgery."
Cancer Barbie's accessories: a bright pink toilet with a fat pink ribbon on the seat cover.
Nearby, Alisa Savoretti, a former Las Vegas showgirl who didn't have insurance after her diagnosis at 38, was raising funds for breast reconstruction for other uninsured women. She was rallying women to pressure Playboy, Hooters and Victoria's Secret -- the axis of evil or triple profiteers of breasts.
"Any organization that profits from breasts should partner with people who need them," called out the husky-voiced Savoretti, who formed a nonprofit group called My Hope Chest.
Only 3 percent of breast cancer patients are under the age of 40. Of course, that number certainly feels larger if you happen to find yourself as one of those 250,000 women in the United States living with breast cancer.
Treatment can be as disturbing and isolating as the diagnosis since the cancer ward is often filled with much older women, including grandmothers who talk about how relieved they are that at least they got a chance to see their grandchildren born. Young patients desperately crave help with fertility issues, dating, stalled careers and where to, say, buy the best eyelashes.
"One second you're a young, healthy, energetic, sexy woman ready for late nights out with friends, marriage, and maybe children," said Amy Ebeid, an Alexandria resident who received her diagnosis at 28, 10 weeks after her wedding. "The next second, you're bald, boobless, and having hot flashes that could set a small country on fire. Your biggest achievement of the day is that you were able to stay awake until 10 p.m."
I met Amy and many fantastic young women like her at a support group at Georgetown Hospital, where the group offers tips on the best anti-nausea and constipation pills, how to deal with the pain of being unable to have children when so many of your peers are pregnant, and tips on the best sales for when you need retail therapy.
I felt good when I saw so many warm friendships like mine mirrored at the conference. One of the most frequently overheard coos was, "I love your NEW hair," as the women touched the baby-fine growth. While the conference had workshops on radiation therapy and chemotherapy, the most popular seminar in this crowd was on sex therapy, called "Reawakening Venus: Reclaiming and Embracing Your Sexual Self."
At points the laughter was so enthusiastic that the nearby "Understanding Pain Management" and "Genetic Testing" audiences couldn't hear their lecturers.
During the session, a young woman with pretty brown curls and metastasized cancer in her spinal cord struggled up to the microphone and said, "My walker is not terribly sexy."
Though she was recently married, the cancer had made it impossible for her to have sex. "I feel so bad for my husband," she said, as several other women started to weep.
The Bethesda sex therapist running the seminar suggested kissing, exploring how lips are the most sensitive part of the body.
The young woman with the walker looked frustrated. Some in the audience looked happy that someone was trying to address the problem. And others just glared at the therapist.
On my way to the conference on Saturday, I got a call from Amy telling me that some women were going to be topless.
Photographer Christine Benjamin, also a breast cancer survivor, is doing a book called "I of the Beholder." It will include nude portraits of young women in various stages of breast reconstruction.
There was a photo shoot in her hotel room with about eight women.
At first, it sounded like a somber event. But when I arrived at the room, armed with my reporter's notebook, the young women were laughing hard as they undressed.
They joked about Britney Spears shaving her head. She was undermining the movement for women, like men, to be accepted bald!
"Girlfriend's not only giving a bad name to cancer patients, but also has some cheap, synthetic-looking wigs," said Beth Silverman, from New York, who received her diagnosis at 26. Now 29, she has recently started a Web site explaining breast reconstruction.
She tore off her shirt and modeled her svelte body with pride.
"Your stomach is so flat, you bitch," another woman joked with Silverman, who had a kind of reconstruction that uses a tummy tuck to create new breasts.
As I watched them, it occurred to me how beautiful and sexy they looked, even with the scars, even with tattoos of fake nipples. And it occurred to me, that for the same reasons that getting cancer at a young age may seem more tragic, it also can make the funny moments funnier. Humor is its own medicine, I suppose. Life doesn't segregate pain from laughter.
So after the surgery, after the chemotherapy and radiation -- my last one was yesterday-- and just two months before my husband and I are about to leave to take up the posting in India, it was in that room with those women that I felt really happy. I am still alive and I am still young.
I laughed along with these women, long and hard. As the camera's flash popped they mimed "Saturday Night Fever's" disco posture. They did jazz hands. They hugged.
Then some realized they were laughing too much, like breast cancer should have a pose.
"Come on girls, it's breast cancer," one woman panted through her laughter. "Look serious."