There is a talisman that hangs around my neck. I wear it every single day and depending on what I am wearing it is either on display or tucked deep inside my shirt. It is a gold bar that hangs on a chain and is nestled securely between my counterfeit tits. On one side of the bar sits a little charm of a gold flower set in an intricate silver disc that was made in Italy (half of my lineage). On the other side rests another charm that is a small silver four-leaf clover made in Ireland (the other half of my lineage). Stamped into the metal of each side of the bar itself is a word; brave, strong, fierce, tough. All are the adjectives I use to remind myself how far I've come. All are words that protect me and bolster my confidence.
The word brave always faces outward like a shield. The word strong rests against my heart. Fierce faces my reconstructed right breast, the one that tried to kill me, the one that I annihilated. Tough faces my reconstructed left breast, the one I took off 'just in case.'
Each time I find myself in an uncomfortable situation I reach for it and gently slide my fingers around the smooth gold chain brushing up against the even smoother rosy tinted skin of my scar that lies just beneath where once ... ugh ... twice ... a port resided, laying in wait to introduce the poison into my veins that would hopefully kill any and all rogue cells that may have strayed once all the surgical procedures were complete.
I didn't always have this talisman. When I was first diagnosed I didn't think I needed anything but my good humor and a tube of lip gloss to get me over the bridge from patient to survivor. Then, two years out, I began my tattoo collection. What could be a better talisman that etching something permanent and meaningful into my skin with the very blackest of ink? I was comfortable and at ease with the emotionally protective marks that, though often hidden by my clothes, I knew were there. A reminder of how far I'd come.
When my fifth cancerversary arrived and my book was selling I figured - 'hey, it's all good.' I'm helping other women by sharing my story and my doctors had begun cautiously using the word 'cured' when I got smacked down again. As I did the first time, I plowed through multiple surgeries and treatments like an endurance athlete. I collected funny tee shirts as gifts from friends and family with sayings such as, 'Stop The War In My Rack' and 'Hell Yes They're Fake, The Real Ones Tried To Kill Me.' I wore the ubiquitous pink rubber band bracelet on my wrist and sent out all of my correspondence on note cards that were styled with a drawing of a sexy pinup girl wearing a hot pink push-up bra, garters, and the saying, 'Fighting Cancer and Still Fabulous' printed beneath her long fishnet stockinged legs. That was all during and I'm good during, I feel proactive, I feel like a fighter ... it was the ever after I was struggling with, survivorship is hard, damn hard though we all know it beats the alternative.
Scanxiety, phlebotomist freak-outs, any and every doctor appointment I had for the first year after chemo (and there were plenty) left me sitting and rubbing my port scar in waiting rooms, exam rooms, labs, and hospitals. I did this so subconsciously that often, when the nurse or technician that saw me before the doctor even entered the room they almost always asked, "Why is your chest red?" or "Is your port area inflamed?" I never realized I was doing it and apparently, I was doing it all the time. Was it a silent way to soothe myself or was it a manifestation of fear that the tests would come back showing results that would mean I would need to have another port put in again? As doctor appointments and follow-ups lessened I found that I would rub my port scar when I was having a stressful day at work, a tough commute, or an uncomfortable conversation. I would walk into my office or into a conference room and immediately someone would spot the red stain spreading out on my skin just beneath my collarbone.
I wasn't looking for a talisman, I just happened upon it. I was up late one night trolling Etsy for a silver ring I saw that had the word BRAVE stamped into the slim smooth band. I liked it. It was cool and simple. When I got to the jewelry designer's page I spotted the bar necklaces. They were intended as a mother's necklace, the idea behind it being you could have your child's name and or birth date stamped into the metal. You could even add a birthstone charm as well. The wheels started turning and I thought, 'hmmmmm, I could have a necklace made that says brave instead of the ring.' Then I thought about the three remaining sides and I emailed the artist. She got back to me right away, her name was Jennifer too. I placed the order.
When it arrived I knew I wanted to wear it at a longer length than the artist intended. I also knew I had two charms I wanted to add to it. I rummaged through my jewelry box and found a long gold link chain that belonged to my beloved Meema Pearl and two charms I had safely stored in a small velvet drawstring pouch. The bar and charms slid on perfectly as if they were meant to be together. I clasped it behind my neck and for the first time in a long time I felt warm (and not in a hot flashy kind of way) and safe.
It wasn't my intent to wear it every day - it was just something that happened over time. It wasn't long before I realized, each and every morning once I was dressed, I was grabbing it and looping it over my head as I left the house. It had become my talisman and the only time I do not wear it is on the beach because, to quote a Jersey shore legend, "down the shore everything's alright." The beach is the one place I can go where I do not feel anxious or stressed...and besides, if I lost it in the sand or in the ocean I'd be catatonic.
I noticed that when sitting on the train during a delay or while watching a frighteningly agitated passenger being subdued I would touch the part of the chain that rested over my port scar. On a day when New York City, where I work, is on high alert, I press it with my palm to my chest as I hurry through the atrium of Penn Station toward the escalators and across the street and securely into my office. When I'm at work and I feel stressed about a particular meeting or project I just reach for it and gently brush my fingers against the chain reassuring myself that if I got through cancer I can get through anything, and when I'm sitting in my oncologists office, nervously anticipating the voodoo doll treatment, I slide my thumb up and down the smooth bar repeatedly, feeling the indentation of the letters making up the adjectives reminding me that I am indeed brave, strong, fierce, and tough.