Cancer Vixen: An Aberration Story

Do you ever get sick of being sick? Well, I’ve been sick for the last two weeks (sinus infection, cold, sore throat, cough, aches and pains, etc.).

No, I don’t have the Swine Flu.

Nevertheless, I’m sick of it. I want my energy now! (Stomp of foot.) I can’t slow down or hold back. I can’t stop and take a nap in the middle of the day! Life goes on and I’m all about moving on. As my southern relatives used to say, “Dad gum it!” And as I frequently say, “This is crap!”

But … every time I complain about all these aches and pains, I feel a little sting of guilt. That’s because I know I shouldn’t complain. After all, I don’t have pulmonary fibrosis, spina bifida, MS, narcolepsy, or cancer. These are just some of the illnesses/conditions we’ve heard about on Aberration Nation. My runny nose is simply a drop in the bucket compared to what others go through every day. Shame on me! And shame on you if you’ve got a nagging cough, too.

When I was a kid, my sweet grandmother, Dorothea, used to say, “Be thankful for your health.” Most of the time, I’d smile and blow it off. I was fit as a fiddle, and healthy as a horse. I could do a cartwheel and the splits at any given moment. I didn’t foresee any major health issues in my future, thank you very much. Ha!

Well, the older I get, the more I realize just how on target my little Granny was.

Now I’m long overdue for my first mammogram, still assuming that when I finally get there, it will come out clean as a whistle. Well, October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and the Cancer Vixen herself, Marisa Acocella Marchetto, has reminded me that life doesn’t always turn out as planned. You can be fit as a fiddle, riding a high horse down main street with crowds cheering you on one minute, and falling off into a puddle of crap the next. It happens to all of us. If not today, perhaps tomorrow or sometime in the next thirty years. We’re not as indestructible as we thought at sixteen.

It happened to Marisa. This is her story. Reading it has convinced me to finally get off my fanny and go for that mammogram so it doesn’t become mine. Maybe I’ll wear high heels in honor of Marisa. I’ll definitely be wearing my lipstick.

At a time when you seemed to be on top of the world, life kicked you in the rear. Tell us what happened?

Just three weeks before I was to get married for the first time at 43 to the love of my life, Silvano Marchetto, just when I was asked by David Remnick, Editor-in-Chief of The New Yorker, just when I found my wedding shoes and bag (hey, my Smother is a shoe designer – I get dressed from the feet up), I was diagnosed with breast cancer. And on top of that, I didn’t have health insurance!

I felt like the Electrolux of the Universe sucked me into a Black Hole.

How did you initially cope, and how did cancer impact your plans?

It was as if the Grim Reaper, that nasty boney Bitch from hell, knocked my door down, getting in my face saying “CANCER YOUR WEDDING! CANCER YOUR CAREER! CANCER YOUR LIFE!

Naturally, I was a bit bummed out by that. Days later, while on GLAMOUR deadline, my editor, Lauren Smith Brody, called me. When I told her the news, her second reaction was “Can you give me four pages on it?”

Next, I went for a walk with my BFF, Bob Morris. When I told him that Glamour wanted me to write about it, he asked me what I was going to call it. I said, “Breast Case Scenario.” “That’s a terrible title, babe,” he said, then looked me up and down. I was naturally a bit bummed to say the least, when he told me I looked like a victim. “Where’s my Vixen?” he asked, and then advised that I get rid of my dirty sneakers, put on my 5-inch heels, and call my piece “CANCER VIXEN.”

So, that’s what I did. And I wore fabulous shoes to chemo and my mantra was “Cancer, I am going to kick your butt, and I’m going to do it in killer 5-inch heels.”

Did your priorities change, and if so, how?

I used to say I was hung up on the “S.S.S.” (the SUPERFICIAL STUPID STUFF). Getting the right bag, the right shoes, etc. I was a total fashion victim. Now I dress to make myself feel better. I think that if you feel good, it strengthens your immune system. The stronger your immune system, the healthier you’ll be and the less likely you’ll have a recurrence.

As a highly successful cartoonist who had written a graphic novel, what inspired you to chronicle your battle with cancer in a new graphic novel, Cancer Vixen?

After Cancer Vixen ran as six pages in Glamour, I felt it was just the tip of the iceberg in terms of what I had to say. Luckily, I was offered a book deal by Knopf.

How did sharing your aberration in Cancer Vixen influence your life and attitude?

When I first went into Breast Surgeon Dr. Christopher Mills’ office, he did a sonogram. When I saw the print-out, I thought it looked like a black hole. Dr Mills had a different take. He said it looked like a pearl. I was conscious enough at that point to realize that I had gone into negative space … and maybe that’s how I viewed life. So … I tried to focus on the pearl. Pearls are symbols of wisdom.

I’m sure there were some horribly low moments. How did you navigate through those times?

I never used the word my in front of cancer. I never wanted to own it. I also felt that when I wrote about everything–EVERYTHING–I was taking the situation off of myself, and putting it on paper. That process was enormously healing. Only later I found out about the phrase “objective journaling,”which is what I was doing back then. For this reason I say, “Get it off your chest girls! Write! Write! Write!”

Was there any particular method, attitude, or person that got you through?

My attitude: Don’t be a Victim, Be A VIXEN. That helped. Writing helped. And never underestimate the effect your loved ones can have on you. I am happy to report that Silvano and I got married three weeks later, just like we said we would.

You know the “Law of Attraction?” Well, I was practicing the “Law of Distraction.” Instead of focusing on the fact that I had cancer, I focused on the fact that my wedding was coming up, and I needed a dress. Instead of focusing on the cancer freak-out, I had a deadline and focused on that. Instead of focusing on the chemo IV in my hand, I looked past that at my spectacular shoes, which made me feel better.

It’s like finding the pearl in a Black Hole.

Now you promote cancer awareness in various ways. Besides writing Cancer Vixen, what was the impetus for continuing your efforts to support the cause?

I have the CANCER VIXEN Fund, and we raise money for uninsured and under insured women so they can get screened for breast cancer. When I was writing Cancer Vixen, I came across this fact: 49% of women who are diagnosed with breast cancer have a greater risk of dying from the disease. Here’s the good fact: if you find breast cancer early, you have a 98% survival rate. So, it’s important to get screened. It’ll save your life.

The Cancer Vixen Mission: NO BREAST LEFT BEHIND!

It seems that the older I get, the more I hear of women being diagnosed with breast cancer. What are the top three things we can do for our friends, neighbors, relatives, etc. who are faced with this terrible situation?

This is Breast Cancer Awareness Month so …

1. Tell your mother, your sister, your aunt, your cousin, your friends to all get mammograms, or if they’re too young–to do a self exam!

2. Diet: Don’t drink milk. It’s full of antibiotics and hormones. Girls are being diagnosed at an earlier age, and some Oncologists feel it’s because of the hormones in Milk … and also, chicken. Eat more veggies and fruits. A plant-based diet is best.

3. Exercise: Extra weight = Extra risk

What can you share with us in terms of the positives that dealing with breast cancer brought to your life? Did you find use for the lemons life had flung your way?

As my mother said, “When God gives you lemons, make Limoncello!” But just don’t drink too much of it … drink less- live more! That’s what I did!

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