I don’t wear much jewelry. I appreciate it and see the beauty in it, but I generally don’t pay it much mind.
There are really only two pieces that I wear. One is a small silver hooped nose ring in my left nostril that is one of many in a long line of small silver hooped nose rings that have been there since I was 17. There was a brief period of time in my early 20’s when I took the nose ring out in an attempt to appear more professional and serious. But that was a short-lived phase and the nose ring has been in its rightful place since.
The second piece is a cooper bracelet that I wear on my right wrist that I got at a Buddhist monastery in Mongolia that is supposed to provide good health and on occasion leaves green marks on my skin.
That’s it. That’s my bling. But recently I’ve added to this collection a beautiful, non-removable choker. You’re familiar with chokers, yes? The thick ribboned fashion nooses that graced the neck of every young girl, Dawson’s Creek star and Delia’s catalog model in the mid 1990’s.
A tight necklace, as it were, to wear a choker necklace is to have a very particular look. Chokers are not meant to be subtle accessories, they tell the world, “Hey world, look at my neck!”
My choker cannot be removed. I don’t get to slip it off at the end of the day and revert back to my choker-less self. My choker constricts my movements and limits my range of motion significantly. My choker was never worn by anyone on Dawson’s Creek.
My choker is a result from something called a bilateral modified radical neck dissection.
What a mouthful!
The fourth surgery that I’ve had in the span of 410 days (for all you scientists out there, the ratio of surgeries to days is approximately one fuck ton), this was by far the biggest of the 4 surgeries. An incision that starts behind one ear and spans all the way across my neck to the other ear, the surgery was 7 hours long and intense.
Somewhat of a long time coming, the surgery itself was not totally unexpected, but the complexity of the procedure was not fully known. Towards the end of 2017, some 6 months or so after the diagnosis and surgery and radiation and medication and scans and blood tests and whatnot, it seemed that things were looking up. I got a new doctor who is wonderful, new medication, started feeling better. My internal dialogue became more positive and I told myself that I was in the clear. I was excited about the new semester of grad school, I dipped my toes back into the world of improv, I’d gotten an internship–look at me, jumping into life!
But the universe put up its meaty hand and said, not so fast Vitkin..
At the beginning of 2018, I had some tests and scans and there was some ‘concerning’ things that were spotted. My doctor called to tell me the news and said the next step was a follow up scan in a few months to see if the things that were spotted had grown or changed in any way. Cancer is like the airport in that there’s a lot of waiting. You rush to stand in line. (It’s a terrible analogy, I know, but it’s the one I’m working with at the moment, so deal with it)
Whatever the follow up scan showed would dictate the course of treatment, but my doctor told me that another surgery was more than likely in my future, but for now not to worry about anything and we would figure everything out in a few months at the end of the spring semester.
That phone call knocked me out. I did not know what to do with that information.
I had written a blog post about the diagnosis when it first happened and an acquaintance of mine had commented on it. She had been diagnosed with thyroid cancer years earlier, had needed surgery and was now fine. She told me to reach out if I had any questions and said we could now commiserate together about being fake cancer survivors. And that really stuck with me, being a fake cancer survivor. Because it’s the “good cancer” that I have. I cannot tell you how many people have said to me, “Well, if you’re gonna get cancer this is the best kind of cancer to get”
Oh good! Lucky me to have been blessed with this malignant miracle. It’s no big deal, this thing I’ve been told I have. Barely cancer. This made me feel incredibly guilty about feeling scared and overwhelmed by the diagnosis. What right did I have to feel bad when there were others out there who had ‘real cancer’.
Initially my cancer was presented to me as a no big deal, I’d just need a little surgery, maybe a little radiation and then that’s it, no big deal. And that’s how I presented it to myself and to other people, like it was no big deal. But now with this new development of concerning things that were seen on scans, especially so soon after surgery and a VERY BIG dose of radiation, my cancer was now a big deal.
For the most part I continued doing the things I had to do, school and internship, but I more or less retreated and didn’t engage much beyond that. I don’t want to be dramatic and say that I lost a sense of myself, but I surely did lose something. I stopped with the improv and the writing, I really only saw my classmates and didn’t communicate much with friends. I told few people about what was happening, which was probably not the best move. The timing of this had coincided with the anniversary of a friend’s death, which is always hard to deal with, but this year I was contemplating my own mortality, something that I had not really done with the initial cancer diagnosis. Before it was no big deal, so when it seemingly became more than that I think I felt all those things that I hadn’t really allowed myself to feel before.
And oy vey, the time to have yourself a little existential breakdown is not during the first year of graduate school! That shit is stressful enough without throwing another cancer log on that fire.
The waiting is the hardest part. To know, but not know is the worst. I knew it wasn’t good and something needed to be done, but I didn’t know what that something was going to be. I enjoy efficiency, if something needs to be done let’s just do it. If there is problem we fix it and then we move on. But there was no moving on here. There was 4 months of waiting and wondering. And ya girl here has a very vivid imagination and is an excellent wonderer. Sometimes to the detriment of my psyche.
Ultimately, I survived the semester and even got myself a 4.0. A’s all around! Logically I know that grades and gpa mean nothing in the real world. But because I am a Lisa Simpson and will always be a Lisa Simpson, I was jazzed with this little academic development.
The week after spring semester ended I had blood tests and scans and lo and behold, it wasn’t good. The concerning things had grown more concerning and they needed to go. Two weeks later I underwent the bilateral modified radical neck dissection that gifted me this striking man-made choker.
Recovery has been pretty rough. I received my first ever sponge bath in the hospital from an older Romanian woman named Delia who spoke in a thick accent and asked me if I wanted my genitals washed.
Instead of stitches or staples, my neck incision was glued shut with purple medical glue. In addition to this colorful new accessory I left the hospital with two, foot long drainage tubes sticking out of my chest, which was less than ideal. The inconvenience of having tubes sticking out of one’s person cannot be expressed enough. Beyond the tubes and the fair amount of pain that comes after having one’s neck dissected for 7-hours, some of my shoulder muscles suffered damage, and lifting and reaching and moving has been difficult. My mom had to help me bathe and dress for the first week or so, which is an experience one does not necessarily except to have as an adult.
At this point it’s been about 3 weeks since the procedure. Which just happens to coincide with the one year anniversary of my cancer diagnosis. And what a year it’s been!
Recovery is still very much a work in progress. I’ve started physical therapy and it’s gonna be a minute before I get to where I need to be. Slowly but surely healing will happen, time will pass, muscles will mend and nerves will regenerate. And hopefully this will be the final dissection my neck will undergo. Although the scenario is not ideal, knowing and doing is better than not. What needed to be done was done and we can now move on from here.
This choker that I now wear will serve as a reminder of what’s behind me and what’s ahead. A new piece of jewelry added to my repertoire that I will one day appreciate and see the beauty in.