Back to the Salon

Women in black plastic smocks, natter about nothing, conversations muffled by the hum of competing blow dryers force them to speak louder. Their accompanying stylists feign interest, painted with stiff smiles, and vacant eyes. Two women in swivel chairs appear to have received a jolt of electricity – heads covered in folded strips of foil, smeared with hair dye. Trashy mags in hand; laser focus on images of plastic surgery gone awry; one titillated by salacious details of a leaked sex video involving a young, want-to-be actress and a married baller.

A nineties boy band hit pumps through camouflaged speakers. Patrons strain their ears to make out the words to the infectious chorus; remembering the catchy lyrics of decades past; one woman deliberates on which band member ended up in rehab.

An animated stylist, the size of a sixth grader, gossips with her chubby middle-aged client, while flat-ironing the woman’s shoulder length clownish red hair, judging her, for using an ‘out of box’ touch up in-between visits. The stylist’s intonation bounces up and down like the want-to-be-actress skillfully rides the baller, which the swivel chair lady will discover later this evening, when she downloads the sex video in the privacy of her bedroom.

A male stylist with glasses, freckles and a nerdy charm, appears out of place. He could easily be clothed in a blue suit and planted in a cubicle in a bank tower. His voice is theatrical and high-pitched, a mismatch for his conservative shell; hand affixed to hip, waxing on about his garden and the neighborhood cat that keeps shitting in his peony bushes. His client is red-faced, giggling, at each catty word he utters.

A woman enters the salon, inquiring if there’s availability for a colour. She appears slightly hesitant, observing the stylists and the organized chaos, while the receptionist studies the schedule on the computer screen. The woman’s sense of urgency permeates the air between her and the receptionist, who offers to adjust the schedule and accommodate her, stating it’s because she has short hair that they can squeeze her in.

The woman is thrilled to be escorted into the center of the room, amongst strangers, who like her seek to be pampered and transformed. Putting on the black smock, she remembers her last colour, at a different salon, in a different life. Her hair flowed down her back, her body still intact. Life was fast; she was immortal. The scenes in between clutter her mind bringing melancholy. She fights tears not wanting to stand out.

Her short cut seems Rapunzel long, as she stares at herself in the mirror, noting the stylist over her shoulders, assessing the same image. The stylist, complements her on her braveness to go so short. The woman pauses contemplating whether to divulge the truth or remain anonymous. She chooses to share. The stylist in turn softens her approach ever so slightly, asking if she wants a glass of water, cucumber or orange infused. Returning with the water, she states that her aunt is a survivor. She has that look, the one of pity mixed with a tinge of discomfort but all blanketed with politeness.

A rich dark brown is selected; a close match to the shade she remembers her long hair was before it fell out clogging her shower drain. While the colour sets, she avoids conversation, aware this appears to be a routine appointment, but for her, it’s another first; a milestone involving chemicals, but chemicals that bring beauty, not steal it away.

A curvy soft-spoken girl with jet-black bangs and volumes of eyeliner, escorts the woman to the sink, ensuring the woman is comfortable with her neck positioned just right on the cushioned lip. The woman closes her eyes and exhales; goose bumps cover her flesh. Beaming, loving being indulged, forgetting her husband and kids don’t know where she is, her phone on silent, ignoring the incessant text messages from her teenagers. She remembers how decadent it is to have someone wash her hair. Hands massage her scalp; the scent of eucalyptus calms her mind, allowing her to melt further into the chair. The stream of water drowns out the cacophony of noise, and washes it all down the drain.

Bottom of a Birdcage

Jon and I settle in the last two available chairs in the long corridor that runs through the heart of the neuroscience department. I am by far the youngest person wearing a hospital gown. Jon and I continue the Scrabble game that we had begun a week earlier on his iPad. I am completely freaked out, stewing about the nurse’s pre-op warnings. She had casually mentioned that I may look blue for a few days, but not to worry, my body would naturally flush out the isotopes. I can’t stop obsessing about the Smurfette-inducing needles that are to be injected into my nipple. The thought makes my toes curl. It takes all my energy not to run for the door. I can do this. I can do this. Will I seriously be blue?

I let out a deep sigh, frustrated that I can’t channel my mind to formulate a Scrabble word. The board is completely closed off. I know the top right-quadrant will never be utilized, as it would require one of us opening the triple word score for the other. Jon gets up to go to the bathroom then joins me again visibly pale. He repeats this pattern two more times while I stare catatonically at the Scrabble board. He must be nervous and his bowels are paying the price.

Jon trying to distract me begins a detailed explanation of how Canada provides, as well as funds, much of the world’s isotopes, which makes screening and imaging possible for millions of people around the globe. I try to listen to him but fail miserably because all I can picture is a huge needle of radioactive guck with my name on it. Jon’s well-educated on this subject, but I don’t want to discuss isotopes.

Tired of plotting, I throw down the word ziti. I need to get rid of my z or it will work against me if Jon goes out. Ziti is a type of pasta that looks like a tube, which you can poke your finger through if you were so inclined. I divert my attention to Jon, massaging his shoulder while he groans with pleasure, like a kitten purring. I notice we now have everyone’s attention as his eyes roll back in his head with pleasure. Tomorrow is Jon’s birthday. He will turn fifty. I have clearly blown any chance of throwing him a memorable celebration, after all I will be drugged, apparently blue, and in bed minus a tit.

A nurse appears and asks us to follow her down another hall. She apologizes for the makeshift workspace that will be used for my procedure, explaining that the examination rooms are at capacity. We stop at the end of the passage, where a hospital bed is pressed up against the wall. Exposed shelves laden with supplies line the far side of the space that could easily double as a janitorial closet. She pulls a curtain around the end of the bed, creating the illusion of privacy. I’m too nervous to be annoyed with the subpar setting. Jon kisses me, wishes me luck and leaves. He can’t stomach what’s about to happen. I lie on my back, fixated on the ceiling. I breathe deeply but it fails to calm my nerves and tears fill my eyes. I shut them, hoping to prevent myself from falling apart. A rogue tear escapes and rolls down my cheek, which I immediately wipe away. I need to have these injections. It’s the only way we’ll know if cancer has spread. I have to be still. I can do this! I repeat the mantra in my mind, starting to regain control of my fleeting thoughts. I’m no longer a flight risk.

The doctor appears, mumbles an apology and informs me he won’t be freezing my nipple; he doesn’t see the point because the freezing itself is painful. Shit! He promises to be incredibly fast with the three injections, and then closes with, “It will hurt.” No shit!

My entire body is rigid as thick sludge jams into my nipple, the pain is excruciating. My face clenches, I wince and hold my breath. Jesus, Mother, Shit, Fuck! Then the doctor pulls the needle out. Before I can catch my breath, BAM, in goes the second needle. Sweet Jesus! Then BAM, in goes the final needle and finally it’s over! I let out a deep sigh of relief, tears flowing down my face. What a tortuous send-off to my right breast. Jon reappears, coffee in hand, he looks as miserable as I feel.

We sit, waiting for the isotopes to travel from my nipple to the sentinel node, the first node through which cancer would travel from my breast into my lymphatic system; the one single thing we are praying hasn’t occurred. I am terrified that cancer may already be in other parts of my body. I’m escorted into the imaging room and manipulated into an uncomfortable position sprawled on the expansive machine, with my right arm straight up by my ear, and my upper torso titled slightly to the left. Lying half on my back and partially on my side, I’m told the whole imaging process will take about twenty minutes. I’m already uncomfortable, so the idea of holding this position for that length of time seems unfathomable.

The technician points to the screen above me, at a small white dot, which she informs me is my sentinel node. I look at it, fixated, overwhelmed with a surge of conflicting emotions, speechless. There it is! The technician seems pleased that she has the required imaging for my surgery. She explains the sentinel node doesn’t always show up on the screen, forcing the surgeon to find it blindly in the operating room. Considering the hell I just endured to secure this imaging, I’m thankful that she found it. I remain transfixed on the little white dot. It’s that dot that will determine how intense and how long my cancer treatment will be. If my pathology comes back positive, meaning cancer cells are present in the sentinel node then I may need another surgery. The thought of having to go back under the knife makes me panic. I feel like I can’t breathe, my arm is starting to cramp from the odd positioning and my breast is extremely tender from the injections in addition to my recent biopsy. I struggle to keep it together. I know I’m on the edge of a full-blown ugly cry, the kind I can’t catch my breath from. I focus on filling my stomach, then my chest with air, moving from shallow to deep exhalations. I know I should be thrilled the technician found what she needed, but instead I feel vulnerable and scared.

I stretch my cramping arm and compose myself before walking back into the corridor. Jon takes one look at me and informs me my skin is green. Scratch Smurfette, I now visualize myself as a soon to be one-breasted leprechaun. Nuclear waste spreads through my body. I am green, next stop mastectomy…all of this, and I’m hungry. I haven’t eaten in twelve hours, my mouth tastes like the bottom of a birdcage and all I want is a toasted sesame bagel and a tall glass of ice water.


Chapter One: A Peacock Without It’s Feathers

Oakville 2013

I stand in the shower gazing at the softness of my curves, noticing the subtle changes in my body, aware I need to hit the gym later, but know already that won’t happen. The demands of life don’t allow for much downtime. Kids’ lunches, groceries, dinner, cleanup, math homework, drives, client meetings and a report to write. Tomorrow will be a similar version of today, and then it repeats from there. I need a wife. I run my hands across my breasts, a routine driven by necessity, not pleasure. Harmless fibroids I was told, but tender to the touch. How many years has it been? Two? Maybe three? I wasn’t forty yet. The warm water washes over me, providing a short reprieve from the looming list of tasks ahead. I knead the uneven texture of my breast hearing the surgeons warning, “Kristen you need to be diligent about doing regular self-examinations because it will be hard to detect a tumor in either of your dense breasts.” Breasts –seems like such a formal word like something grandma would say. Tits, my go-to for several decades, now almost seems too crass. Boobs –sounds seemingly silly, but I think best describes them. Regardless of the name, I wish mine were bigger, perkier and devoid of painful fibroids.

I quickly massage my chest, aware that I need to get on with my day. My nipple, elongated from years of nursing babies, stands erect as my fingers manipulate the sensitive area until they are met with something foreign. My eyes dart immediately to where my fingers press on the top corner of my breast. I push harder on the irregular lump. What the hell is this? This wasn’t here before…it’s new! And why doesn’t it hurt when I press on it? I think back to the profound sense of relief I had when the surgeon assured us that nothing was seriously wrong with me. I had dodged a huge bullet. What if this time is different?


I glance around the drab waiting room feeling sorry for the young receptionist behind the sliding-glass window. The decor is tired, likely the same shade of industrial blue since the early 1990s. Chipped paint and exposed drywall create a line where metal-framed chairs brush up against the dirty perimeter. The fluorescent light flickers above adding to the overall dreariness. Tattered magazines cover the coffee table. I’m annoyed, realizing I have left my book in the car, but decide against grabbing a germ-laden magazine. I am scheduled for an ultrasound and repeat mammogram, after five long weeks since finding my mystery lump.

I notice the two other people in the room. An elderly lady attempting to navigate her walker in the cramped space and a man who I imagine is her son, clueless to his mother’s immediate needs. She reminds me of my Nana in her later years, not in her appearance, but by the way she carries herself. I can tell she’s feisty.

Nana always approached life with attitude, confidence and, for as long as I can remember, with her large breasts thrust out, leading her, like a peacock strutting with its feathers on full display. Her walk distinctive, which I’m told I’ve inherited. She was stylish and a head-turner. Blonde, buxom, a career woman wearing high heels driving a yellow Camaro, I thought she was the epitome of cool. I know she loved me, even though she didn’t show it in a typical grandmotherly kind of way. My thoughts flutter like a monarch butterfly floating by the lake.


I sit on the turquoise couch at the cottage. Across from me is Nana perched on her red walker, cigarette poised high like she’s Cruella de Vil from 101 Dalmatians. The walker is temporary. She’s recovering from recent hip surgery. Nana stares out the window at Georgian Bay in silence, creating a dramatic pause in her storytelling. My mother is in the glider beside me, a coffee in her hand, her glasses dangling in her deep cleavage from lime glass beads strung around her neck. Zoe lies on the floor colouring, her right bum cheek partially hanging out of her polka-dot bikini. She’s eating a Rice Krispies square my Nana made. The cottage is permanently stocked with sweets and caffeine. Eden sits patiently beside me, her big brown eyes taking in every inch of the room. We are Super Nana’s captive audience. My girls started calling my Nana “Super Nana” to delineate between my mother (their Nana) and my grandmother. Of course, Super Nana loves the title her great-granddaughters bestowed on her. Who wouldn’t?

I notice Eden sniffing the colourful crocheted afghan that lies between us. I’m preoccupied, knowing that any minute the girls will grow restless and want to escape to the beach. I cringe, sensing Eden is about to announce what she thinks of the smoky aroma that permeates everything in the cottage, especially the pungent blanket. She scrunches her nose in disgust, but thankfully holds her tongue. It bothers me that Nana smokes in the cottage when the girls are with her, when she’s fully aware that I have a no-smoking rule at my house in the city. My daughters’ lungs filling with secondhand smoke the same way mine were filled as a child. We are listening to Super Nana complain about her last mammogram. I wonder what the girls think a mammogram actually is? I pass Eden some paper and crayons, hoping she’ll join her sister on the floor and be less engaged in our adult conversation. Eden is an observer, a sponge really, and I sense that she’ll stay put on the couch, not wanting to miss a thing. I was the same at her age.

“The woman was so cruel! She never once warned me that she was starting. She just grabbed my breast and squished it on the plate! You can imagine how that felt… Look!” Nana stands up and flicks her saggy boob up in the air to illustrate her point. “I don’t have anything left!” she adds dramatically.

Eden’s eyes widen, intent on Super Nana’s theatrics, dialed in to see what she’ll do next.

“It really hurt!” Nana whines and then stops to take another drag from her cigarette. We patiently wait for the story to continue.

“I told her she was hurting me. But that didn’t stop her…she kept grabbing me until my boob looked like a pancake. It was awful!” I feel bad for Nana but am fully aware that this is her version of the ill-fated mammogram. The technician would likely have a drastically different tale considering that Nana has a knack for finding the errors of people’s ways.

“Until my reduction I complained for years about back pain from the weight of my breasts and it’s wonderful that I don’t experience that pain anymore. But that plastic surgeon, well, he….” Nana shakes her head, deep in thought and butts her cigarette out in what looks like a pool cue, a trinket she’s likely acquired from the Home Shopping Network. This before the network put her on the “Do Not Sell To” list, a protective measure on their part to address the frequency of Nana’s returned merchandise, purchased on impulse. Nana took great pride in getting a deal or, in her words, “a bar-goon.

“The surgeon didn’t listen. I mean I went from having a big bust to these.” She looks down at her chest with disdain and flicks her boob once again. “He just took way too much off and now my stomach is bigger than my chest.” Nana places her hand on her stomach and pushes her belly out pronounced like she’s nine months pregnant. Eden giggles beside me.

“Oh, Nana, that’s not true. You are beautiful,” I say. I do think she’s beautiful, but after her breast reduction, something was missing. After all, it’s natural for a voluptuous woman to have big curves. All the women in my family were curvy; either full breasts, broad hips or large bums. Nana no longer led with her upper curves. The peacock had lost her feathers.

“I wish I could chop mine off.” My mother joins in, sipping her coffee. Eden laughs again, now studying my mother in disbelief.

Zoe stops colouring her rainbow. “Nana will I get your big boobs when I’m older?” she says, looking horrified at the thought, now fixated on my mother’s chest.

“Why don’t you want big boobs?” I interject, shocked that my flesh and blood would not share my obsession with having cleavage. Zoe shrugs her shoulders, unsure of what to say. “Do you want small boobs like me, sweetie?” I ask. She nods her head, crawling onto my mother’s lap. Zoe has an inner circle of people who she loves fiercely: Nick (her father), Nana and Papa (my mother and Kerry my stepfather), Aunty Karyn (my sister) and me. But she especially adores my mother.

“Nana’s boobs are fat and jiggly!” Zoe points at my mother’s chest with her sticky marshmallow fingers. We all laugh.

“Yes, Zoe, you’re right, they are fat and jiggly.” She grabs a napkin and attempts to wipe Zoe’s gooey hands.

“I wish a doctor could make mine smaller like Super Nana’s, but my skin overheals. It’s called keloid skin, so my scars would end up bumpy.”

“Yuck!” Eden pipes in, grabbing a square from the plate on the coffee table. I highly doubt after this conversation that my daughters will ever share my desire for large breasts.


I realize I am alone in the waiting room. I was told when I checked in that I was the last appointment of the week. I glance down at my phone, which reads 4:15. I wish I had taken Jon up on his offer to come with me. I downplayed my worry with him this morning, insisted he not miss work and convinced him I could handle the mammogram on my own.

I hear my name bringing me back from my thoughts. A petite technician stands at the entrance to the waiting area calling out to the empty room. “Kristen?” she queries. Clearly, it’s me. There’s no one else here. I follow her down the hall into a cramped room at the end of the narrow corridor. I disrobe and stand topless, not knowing what to do with my hands, the entire time watching the technician prepare the impressive mammogram machine between us.

“I have to warn you I have cold hands,” she says apologetically, and then pulls my right boob down onto the plate. I imagine what Nana would say if she was here with me. I feel like a cow being milked from my deflated teat. Thankfully she takes the X-ray quickly, as I can’t endure another second of the pinching. We repeat the process on the other side. I’m sure it’s the fibroids that cause me so much discomfort but it’s the one single lump that monopolizes my thoughts.

I am then escorted to the ultrasound room where I lie down in a dark room, studying the water-stained ceiling, while a different technician prepares me for my ultrasound.

“I’m going to put gel on your chest, which will be a bit cool at first,” the perky technician explains. The gel cools my skin, causing goose bumps to crawl up my arms and I shiver.

“Now I’m…” She pauses to yawn and grabs a long, white, plastic wand that looks like a giant dildo. “Sorry I’m yawning,” she says, “I just flew back from seeing my boyfriend in Australia.” She smiles. “I’m going to use this X-ray wand, which will allow me to capture images on the screen in front of me. These will later be reviewed by the radiologist.” She yawns again.

As she begins, I politely ask her how she met her Aussie. While she gushes about her love story, I scan her face for signs of concern as she reads my images on the screen in front of her. She stops talking. The room falls silent for twenty seconds. Oh God, why is she quiet? I can barely breathe with anticipation of her next words.

“Do you have any children?” she asks. Is she asking me this because she sees something bad and wants to understand my family dynamics or is she simply making idle chitchat because she sees a harmless cyst? Shit, this is driving me crazy!

“Yes, we do. We have four kids between the two of us. My husband Jon, and I married four years ago and blended our two families. My stepson, Josh, goes to Queen’s, my stepdaughter, Tasha, is in high school, and my girls, Eden and Zoe are turning twelve and ten.”

The technician seems impressed. “Wow, you must be busy!” I thank God for the lack of sympathy registering on her face.

“Yes, our house is incredibly busy…and loud.”

She passes me paper towel to clean up my gelled chest and explains that the results will be sent to my doctor in three-to-five business days. I dress, thank her and leave. I check my phone as I get to my car. Jon has called three times, wanting to make sure I’m okay. I stop for a brief second and wonder in fact if I am okay? I better be. I suddenly feel the need to talk to my mother. I want to prepare her for what may be coming. I hate to worry her, though, if this turns out to be just another cyst.


My mom and I sit side by side in our beach chairs soaking up the sun. It’s the Victoria Day weekend, the official start to cottage season. We’ve just left my cousin’s baby shower, where we spent the afternoon with a dozen relatives laughing and reminiscing about growing up each summer in Balm Beach on Georgian Bay. The busyness of the afternoon allows me to forget my worry for extended blips of time. Jon and my stepkids are in Oakville since eight of us in Mom and Kerry’s house make for a cramped night, so we decided to divide and conquer. The girls are posing at the shoreline on a mission to capture the perfect photo to post to a thousand of their closest friends. They never seem to tire of this process. I look down at my red bikini top, thinking about the mass that lies just below my skin. I’m stewing…I don’t know how to casually broach the topic with my mother.

“So…I had a mammogram and ultrasound yesterday.” I say, trying to sound light, my eyes fixated on my book that’s remained on the same page for over an hour.

“Oh, sweetie, that’s never fun. Are your fibroids bothering you?” my mother asks while watching Zoe’s long legs flail about in the water as she does cartwheels.

“I noticed a new lump about a month ago, so I saw my doctor and she suggested we check it out just to be safe. I should get the results end of next week.” I nonchalantly glance toward my mother, avoiding direct eye contact.

“Well, let me know, so I don’t worry. That reminds me, I need to book a mammogram, as well. It’s just a routine check. I’ve been so busy with work, though, I totally forgot.”

My mom is as absentminded as was Mim, my great-grandmother. Mim would frequently tear up the cottage, looking for her reading glasses, which she would later find perched on her head or tucked in her EE-cup bra. She always had a piece of tissue peeking out the front of her blouse, her bra acting as convenient storage for things she may need throughout the day, like her nitro pills or glasses. Her memory loss became more pronounced in her eighties, but she managed to live independently in her final years, a few blocks from our house in Kitchener.

When visiting Mim, it wasn’t uncommon to find her phone in the fridge and the milk left on the counter in its place. Before the Ministry of Transportation refused to renew her driver’s license, driving with her was like an extreme sport.

She could barely see over the steering wheel. She sat on a phone book with her big Jackie O glasses covering half her face, her blond wig a little off-kilter, her floral puffy blouse poorly camouflaging her enormous pointy boobs, and her oversize white purse sandwiched beside her, one handle sticking straight up, the other bent between the seat belts. My sister and cousins sprawled in the backseat with room to spare in the giant blue Oldsmobile. I was always stuck in the front terrified for my life as Mim barely missed tree after tree along the narrow beach road, the side view mirror just millimeters from being smashed to smithereens.

Grace, Mim’s given name, was a compassionate, loving woman, who without her wig resembled the Queen Mum. She didn’t have a medical reason to wear wigs; she chose to wear them for aesthetics. Willowdene Grace was the name she gave her daughter (my Nana) and four generations later I named my daughters Eden Grace and Zoe Willow after these two wonderful but dramatically different women.

“I’m sure the results will show another cyst,” I respond to my mother, trying to sound confident. Eden approaches us with her pink camera in her hand. “Don’t forget to book your mammogram, Mom, it’s important.” I say glancing toward my mother.

“Nana, can you take our picture please?” Eden is in front of our chairs, blocking our sun. She’s like a dog with a bone when she wants something and is smart enough to ask my mother not me. I study her long toned legs, tiny waist and perky chest. She looks like a teenager not a twelve-year-old. Her bikini looks completely different on her today than it did a year ago. It’s hard to forget the sweet four-year-old Eden, bandana on her head, a rogue curl falling on her forehead, a shovel in her hand, squatting in her purple floral bikini, building a sand castle. Where does the time go?

“Eden, leave Nana alone please, she just sat down to read,” Eden glares at me. Zoe continues to bounce around the beach behind her sister, in perpetual motion, singing the entire time.

“That’s all right. I don’t mind, but you’re going to have to show me how to work your camera. You know me and technology, I’m useless.” My mother takes a few moments to push her body out of the chair, her breasts hang forward first, followed by her scarred knees (from many surgeries) that manage to push her body to a somewhat erect position. As she snaps pictures of the girls I notice that her back remains hunched from the weight of her breasts pulling on the front of her body. Her bobbed hair is gray, no longer espresso brown. Her face lights up as she watches her granddaughters’ splash in the water. She divides her attention equally, making both girls feel special. In that moment she reminds me so much of Mim; it’s like watching her ghost.


Nine o’clock Tuesday morning, my phone rings, the display reads “Sheddon Medical Clinic.” My stomach turns. “Oh, this is not good!” I say out loud to myself.

“Hi Kristen, it’s Dr. Cooper, I have the results from your tests and wanted to connect with you.”

“That was a really quick turnaround!” I say my heart racing, “I just had the tests Friday… I imagine this can’t be good news.”

“Well, Kristen, we don’t know that yet. I would like the radiologist to review your film and then determine if you require a needle biopsy. Please call the lab and ask them to transfer the film over to the hospital today if possible. If they’re unable to do that, then I suggest you pick it up and deliver it yourself.” I feel sick.

“Okay… I can do that…no problem.” Waitshe said, needle. I hate needles! “What exactly is involved with a needle biopsy?”

“The radiologist views the breast using ultrasound and then extracts several samples.” Shit.

“Thank you for the call. I appreciate it.” I hang up and remain silent for a few minutes in a catatonic state. My computer still on my lap, my briefcase open, papers scattered haphazardly around me. The list of urgent matters evaporates. My God, what if I have cancer?

The next week is hell. I wait and wait for the phone to ring, unable to escape the negative thoughts monopolizing my brain. I finally break down and call the hospital to find out what the delay is. I’m told the radiologist hasn’t reviewed my film. I want to scream, “I might have breast cancer, lady. You’re telling me someone can’t take two minutes and look at my bloody images!” Instead, I fight back tears and politely hang up. I’m so anxious and preoccupied that it’s hard to concentrate on work or what Jon and the kids say to me. I’m on autopilot, marinating in worry; a smiling bobble head, acting engaged, though I’m consumed with dread.

I finally receive a call from the hospital a full week after the department received the images. I’m told I have a June 3 appointment, where I’ll undergo an ultrasound-guided needle biopsy.


“Do you need a moment before I take the next sample?” the radiologist asks. I lay on the table with the biopsy underway, worries blasting through my brain like a bad movie trailer. I feel light-headed. The blood is draining from my face. “Yes, please,” I respond. Jon had insisted on coming to the hospital, but he was scheduled to be in Ottawa and I made him promise not to change his flights. He wouldn’t agree until I swore I would bring someone with me to my appointment. I asked Heidi, my sister-in-law, since three of her closest friends were breast cancer survivors, so this was not her first rodeo. Heidi was born to care for people, a stay-at-home mom, patient, loving and always available to help others. She has an easy approach to life, which I admire. I think being married to twin brothers provides us with a deep understanding and closeness with one another. After the samples are collected, I get dressed still feeling woozy and meet Heidi in the waiting area. Greeted by her sympathetic expression, I break down and cry. I have bottled all my emotions for over a month, the worry, the fear, and I let it go.

“I’m so scared!”

“Oh, Kristen, everything will be okay.” Heidi reaches for my hand.



The Annual

Written April 22, 2016

My husband’s chatter interrupts the silence on the drive to Juravinski Cancer Centre. He’s trying to draw me out. I’m ruminating, looping through memories. The usual build up to my annual appointment with the oncologist. April twentieth has been tucked away in my sub-conscious, like china hidden in an antique hutch. Today a change in medication may finally be possible. Three years post menopausal. It’s what I’ve been waiting for. Now I may be eligible to try a different class of drugs. A blood test will determine whether I have hit that necessary milestone or if it’s the Tamoxifen merely masking menopause.

What if I have to stay on Tamoxifen? That tiny white pill that I take each morning. A constant reminder, that chemistry is keeping cancer from settling back into familiar territory, growing tumors fueled by the estrogen in my body. I’m incredulous fighting back tears. What is wrong with me? I should be happy. Another annual is here. I am alive. I have my life, my family. But I’m screaming in my head, unable to respond to my husband’s chitchat. I’m too young to be in the throes of this shit. Hot flashes all bloody day –relentless at night. I don’t remember what it feels like to have uninterrupted sleep. To drift into blissful slumber, wrapped in a feather duvet. Instead night after night nausea grips, pores open, perspiration dampens every inch of my body. Suffocating waves of internal heat dominate everything, my thoughts my emotions. I need to escape. Then it abates. I have lost control of my body.

I feel the layer of flesh squishing out the top of my jeans hidden under my shirt. I refuse to stop wearing these tight pants. Pure defiance. I want to be reminded that I once fit in them. Is this masochistic? The rise of my jeans digs into me I imagine dimpling my stomach flesh. Every stitch and seam is imprinted in my swollen body. I could remove the pants leaving an invisible outline complete with a round button on the square of my belly. Tamoxifen bloats my body the same way pregnancy did.

Willowy memories of the old me tease and taunt. Long flowing hair, limber muscles, young and vibrant. I was immortal. The endless energy I once possessed now exhausts me. I miss her. I’m not ready to accept this aged version of me.

Uncomfortable  memories take hold. Poison coursing through my veins, hairless, terrified of not having the future I assumed I would. Finding the beauty in silence and stillness, savouring mortality in the ‘in between moments.’ The moments I once dismissed, irritated they didn’t bring productivity or purpose. Wallowing over my femininity – vanity -menopause swallowing me up. Feeling like I’m breathing underwater I push treatment and menopause out of the memory loop. I don’t want to dwell here any longer.

Is Tamoxifen my protector or arch enemy? Millions of women take it. Efficacious. Safe. Why can’t it be easy? It blocks estrogen from forming tumors. It’s brilliant. It’s a wonder drug. I should be content. I think of the three tumors that were cut from my breast leaving me unbalanced, and changed.

I turn my head when the nurse draws blood from my vein. I feel melancholy in every atom of my body. The loop keeps streaming but faster. I am a patient. I am sick. I am weak. I am vulnerable. Afraid. Tears fill my eyes. I know logically I am fine. This is a routine check. My hair is growing out. Energy is returning. I am fighting the aches and pains, working out five times a week trying to kick-start my slowing metabolism.

The oncologist inspects me. I already know what she’s going to say. I read it in her face –empathy, she asks if I’m tolerating Tamoxifen. I cringe knowing what will follow. She shares that a recent paper has been published and for younger patients like me there is more risk switching to another class of drugs at three years than staying on Tamoxifen.

Utterly defeated. I stop listening and begin countdown to December 2018 when I will go through this exact loop once again.

No Rhyme or Reason

A surge of nausea crashes through my belly, seizing my organs, constricting my muscles, shortening my breath. I am stunned. Paralyzed. Unyielding, heart racing, my eyes struggle to make sense of the perfunctory words on my computer screen.

She is dead. Breast Cancer. Gone.

What happened? She was fine last I had heard.

The remnants of the email blur into small print –boilerplate logistical details, funeral, donations and the family she left behind. Two kids, a husband…an entire life left unlived.

I never met her. I didn’t know anything about her, other than she was a mother, and the wife of an acquaintance. He shared that she was healing and was doing well last time we spoke. When was that? May –a mere eight months ago. Could this happen to me? My mind flashes ahead eight months. March break with the kids, summer vacation, grade eight grad then bam it’s over, no thanksgiving, no Christmas. It’s too difficult to grasp. It’s overwhelming. My eyes fill with tears. I fight them stubbornly, an attempt to keep the floodgates of worry and fear sealed shut. I refuse to let doubt penetrate my body.

Did she do everything she was supposed to? Was she compliant? He said she had chemotherapy, radiation, and a double mastectomy. He mentioned a support group but there was nothing dire. We all donated to her walk –the same walk I did a year later –raising money for women’s cancers. Hopeful, active, with our futures ahead, united but apart.

Now she is dead.

I don’t know why I am so shaken by this news. But I am.

You are told the statistics. You read them. You hear them. Tweets, Posts, conversations; everyone shares their cancer stories, their staging, their odds. You meet women like you -survivors–proud and forever changed, but breathing, loving, enduring and hoping.

Why is she gone?

One day, later on, when the end of my life is announced, I pray the words don’t bring another woman to her knees, like this has done to me.

Baby Fuzz Coiffed Afro

Jet-black baby fuzz frames her jaundiced face.

She suckles at my breast, full of grace.


Corkscrew curls bounce with each wobbly step,

Butterfly kisses, hide and seek,


I see you.


Soft ringlets escape her plastic barrettes

Princess pixies, fairy delights

Her hand in mine, fending off monster frights.


A ballerina bun coifed and controlled.

Pearl earrings fixed on elfish ears, earnest poised perfection.

Plié Jeté Demi-plié.


A mane of crowning glory unleashed, concealing straying eyes.

Hopping hormones rage. Friends, fashion fights.

Split ends don each straightened strand.

Bitch, ho, gangster beats repeat.

Her world is half here half there.

She yearns for acceptance, a tweet a pic a post a like.

Burnt, scorched, charred thatch breaks.

She flails lashing out, finding herself


Freedom abound, decisions made, taken away.

Dyed clipped, recalculated.

Flattened, brushed, tamed.

She smiles wanting to know.


Supple wavy strands blow.

Independence reclaimed.

Expansion, eloquent prose.

Adult ways, money, travel health and woes.

Gorgeous tresses amass, an impressive Afro.

Her heart and mind fill with wonder and love.

His touch leaves her wanting more.

Unwavering tresses, random directions flow.

Her belly grows full, her breasts laden with milk.


A shock of licorice black bristle crowns,

a darling girl cries out.

I hold my baby’s newborn joy.

Ebony and ivory

Textures shades.

Keep it Up!

I lay content in shavasana filled with relief that the tone and sculpt class has come to a close. I focus on deep breathing, trying to ignore my already taut muscles. Tomorrow will be filled with the exploration of new aches and pains. I visualize my breathe filling my stomach, then my rib cage and then forcing my upper chest to lift like an expanding balloon. I send healing energy to my shoulders and chest. My eyes are closed, my body in the same position to complete a perfect snow angel. I let everything go, the morning work frustrations, the deluge of text messages from my teens, and worry about an upcoming doctor appointment. I let it all slip from my sweaty limbs like a melting Popsicle onto the mat. In out, inhale, exhale.

Determined to do full plank push-ups to keep up with the class I ignored the earlier warning of Kimberley, the instructor to take it easy since it was my first time in this class. Kimberley greeted me my first time at Igita telling me I was brave to cut my hair so short. Without skipping a heartbeat I responded that it was actually growing back. She smiled and nodded fully understanding the underlying meaning of the exchange.

Namaste, us yogis recite and clap. Class is done. I gather my weights and blocks and move towards the rack for return.

“Well done. You did it.” I realize Kimberley is addressing me.

I hear myself respond that I did better than I thought I would. “My strength is slowly coming back.” I add locking eyes with her unsure if this is too intimate a detail to be vocalized amongst a room of moving bodies.

“I can see. Keep it Up!” she says genuinely.

I’m overcome with emotion. Kimberley’s warmth and energy show me she’s proud of my progression, she has watched me silently, assessing my struggle. My vulnerability hits me like a tsunami. My eyes fill with tears as I make my way up the stairs. My physical strength is returning, slowly, but I still feel weak inside. It has been nearly two years since my last chemotherapy session, and just over one year since my final breast reconstruction surgery…the dates are there on my calendar, all the way back, behind me…all over, yet it’s with me every breath I take. In out, inhale, exhale.




Hip-Hop Ho

On any given day the stylized, rhythmic sound of hip-hop can be heard blaring from at least one room in our suburban house in sleepy Oakville. My teenage kids lose themselves in the booming base, titillated by the lyrics, nodding their heads oblivious of the privileged lives they live. Be it Fetty Wap’s, Trap Queen, or Fredo Santana’s My Squad, or old school beats by Snoop Dog or Notorious B.I.G., the infectious music is hard not to like, –but as a mother I struggle with the misogynistic language that is inherently woven in.

As someone who despises the word ‘bitch’ I am in a constant state of conflict when it comes to my love, and now my daughter’s infatuation of all things hip-hop. Growing up I listened to Earth Wind and Fire, Michael Jackson and Motown, in part because that is what my parents listened to. I learned from a young age that music can sing to one’s soul, and can capture the essence of who you are.

In the early nineties when rap was becoming increasingly politicized with Public Enemy’s Fight the Power and Ice-T’s Cop Killer, the songs struck a chord with so many, but not with me. What did I know about justified rage and racism? I did however identify with the female empowered and highly sexualized lyrics of Salt-N-Pepa. I couldn’t get enough of them…Mary J. Blige, Missy Elliott, I admired their powerful, raw sound.

Two decades later I have introduced my daughters to these artists, stressing the importance of appreciating female rappers in this male dominated and often anti-female, world of hip-hop. Being bi-racial and light skinned, I want my girls to embrace their blackness and own their femininity, not be labeled a ‘black bitch ho’ by any artist, regardless of how captivating the beat may be.

The importance of rap in music culture can’t be disputed. Biographical movies like Straight Outta of Compton about N.W.A., top box office sales and have introduced the masses to the origins of west coast gangster rap. Yet, it took a social media storm for Dr. Dre, to publicly apologize for his alleged physical mistreatment of women. (The movie conveniently left out this controversial truth about Dre.)

If rap is suppose to represent every day life, I am hopeful that sooner rather than later, the in- your-face misogynistic element of hip-hop will finally be muted. But until that happens, in our not so quiet house, hip-hop will continue to play loud and often, despite my distaste for all references to bitches and ho’s.



A Childhood Spent in Balm Beach

Nana once told me that Georgian Bay rocks emit a smell that our family members are subconsciously drawn to. The idea of being lured unknowingly to the beach still resonates with me. Nana also claimed that it never rained in Balm Beach, and that we had the best sunsets in the world. If you were smart you didn’t take her on, regardless of how misguided her comments may have been. I have traveled to many beaches around the world, and Georgian Bay with its sandy beach and fresh water, coupled with a lifetime of memories, tops my list. If it isn’t the smell that lures me, then it must be hardwired in my DNA to love Balm Beach.

The summers of my childhood were split between my two grandmothers’ cottages, each a kilometer apart. July was spent with Grandma Knott, at the Knott’s Cottage in Balm Beach, and August at the two beachfront cottages, with Nana and Mim in Cawaja Beach. I always felt sorry for kids stuck in “the city” all summer. I couldn’t figure out what on earth they did without a dozen cousins to play with at the beach.

From Victoria Day long weekend to Labor Day Monday we lived in our bathing suits, barefoot, and unfortunately we rarely wore sunscreen. These were the years of baking our skin with baby oil, frying our hair with Sun-In Spray, aka peroxide, and occasionally donning zinc on a sun-kissed nose. My sister, with her pale complexion, never stood a chance of winning our annual tanning contest. Our motley crew ran loose like a pack of wild dogs, soaking up the sun, swimming in the lake and avoiding our parents.

Canada Day Exhibitionist

I have become a bit of an exhibitionist as of late. Just yesterday I found myself yanking up my top, unclipping my bra and unveiling my chest to a woman I had just met. This display of nudity however seemed natural to me. You show me yours and I’ll show you mine played through my head. Ana Maria (the sister of a colleague) had just revealed her freshly inked areola tattoos. It was our first time meeting one another. We had never spoken nor connected, yet I instantly felt a bond with her.

I studied her carefully as we swapped stories about surgery, medications, hot flashes and weight gain. I noticed everything about her, the fine hair on her head, her eyebrows fully in tact, and the glow of her skin. She was a ball of fire, passionate and full of energy despite her recent flight. I didn’t tell her that I had thought about her many times over the last year wishing her good health, wanting her to come through her treatment unscathed and cancer free. I was her silent cheerleader imagining her fear, worry and pain, thousands of miles from where she was in Miami. It didn’t matter that she was Cuban American and I was Canadian, we were apart of the same sisterhood. Breast cancer after all is global it knows no borders and speaks every language.

Today as I celebrate Canada Day I am grateful that Ana Maria and I are both healthy and I am happy that we had our show and tell session earlier this week.