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Laughing Through the Pain

You know things have taken a strange turn when your biggest fear is that tropical fruit, not cancer, might kill you at any moment.

The chance of breast cancer taking my life after having a bilateral mastectomy is only 2-3%, although that hasn’t stopped me from silently fixating on that number since my surgery in February.

As it turns out, I have bigger fish to fry. Or, rather, lychee.

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In the 10 weeks following my surgery, I have been feeling decidedly zombie-like. Immediately after, I was significantly down and out, although thanks to the wonders of Percocet, Valium and other assorted narcotics, I don’t remember much of it (or anything). As to whether I had any highs after surgery, I will neither admit nor deny it. Mostly because, like Oliver North, I also cannot recall.

My birthday was at the end of April, and it was the one thing to which I was looking forward in my semi-catatonic, drugged, depressed, post-surgery state. Not to getting older (that stopped at around age 22), but to having a weekend that revolved around something decidedly less morbid than the tone that was set for this year when I was diagnosed with breast cancer on Jan. 6. If there were ever a year to celebrate the occasion of my birth, it seemed appropriate that it would be the one when I first seriously contemplated my death.

It was with great zeal that I anticipated the night before my birthday, which is when my friends Alyssa and Jenny took me out on the town. We starting at a lounge for drinks and ended up in the emergency room. Yes, the breast cancer probably won’t kill me. But my food allergies? There seems to be a better-than-decent chance.

For the seventh time in three years, I had an allergic reaction to something I consumed. This time it was to a lychee martini. It was the first lychee I’d ever had, but as soon as my glass was empty, I felt the dreaded, familiar wheeze in my chest when I started wondering if mangoes or tree nuts (my other kryptonites) had somehow made their way into the drink. They hadn’t, but apparently lychees and mangos are distant cousins. Who knew.

“My kid died, she just had cancer and now we’re in the ER so she doesn’t croak on the night before her birthday."

I didn’t say anything at first, as I was too busy feeling my heart break from the evening I knew would be ending just one cocktail in. I snuck a Benadryl out of the purse I carry solely to have my EpiPen handy, and hoped for the best. When things were progressing in the wrong direction, though, I fessed up and we drove to the hospital.

“The last time I was here was when Max had his febrile seizure,” Alyssa said as we entered the ER. A month after that happened, at just 17 months old, Max passed away from a condition called Sudden Unexplained Death in Childhood (SUDC). We burst out laughing. Not because it was funny. But because, seriously?

A little while later, when the ER doctor lifted up my gown to see if the allergic rash on my chest and abdomen was dissipating after I’d been shot up with epinephrine and other assorted steroids and antihistamines, he looked alarmed.

“Oh, I had my breasts removed in February,” I explained when I gathered his concern was no longer that a lychee was attempting to hasten my demise. I still startle at the sight of my temporary breasts, so I imagine he did, too.

“No, I’m talking about these,” he said, pointing to the four conspicuous scars on my abdomen where a dermatologist recently removed some suspicious moles.

Ah, yes. Have I mentioned yet that skin cancer is now on the forefront of my radar, too?

A nurse then popped by and told me to fill out a two-page, single-spaced questionnaire so the doctor could attempt to ascertain anything else from which I might have been suffering—you know, besides total and utter defeat. Alyssa took the clipboard and got to work since my writing hand was indisposed from the IV drip.

“Are you experiencing any nausea? Headaches? Penile secretions?” she read from the list.

As we giggled louder and louder at the questions, the nurse returned.

“How much longer will you need to observe me?” I asked her.

She sighed. “I feel bad because I know you want to get back to celebrating, but we just got busy in here and I’m afraid you’ll have to be patient and understanding until we’re ready to discharge you,” she said.

“Look,” Alyssa said. “My kid died, she just had cancer and now we’re in the ER so she doesn’t croak on the night before her birthday. If anyone knows anything about patience and understanding, it’s us. We’ll be fine. Thanks.”

The nurse’s jaw dropped. We started laughing again.

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As Alyssa, Jenny and I left the ER at around 10 that night and they took me to the supermarket to get some over-the-counter remedies to help fight off a secondary attack before depositing me back home, we couldn’t seem to stop laughing. Which, I suppose, in some ways, ended up being a kind of birthday gift in and of itself.

After all, if I can’t laugh at this point for exactly how much I need to appreciate what’s in my glass—half-empty or full (as long as it’s not with lychees)—who can?

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