In 2012, I found out that I had breast cancer. To avoid recurrence (since both my mother and grandmother had suffered the same), I opted for a double mastectomy, after which I underwent six rounds of chemo and 18 infusions of Herceptin, a fairly new drug on the market which has had dramatic results for those, like myself, who carry the HER2 gene mutation.
Once my status was declared NED, I thought I was done. I thought I could go back to where I had left off and resume raising my five-year-old son and working to advance my career in academia. Then in May of 2016, I started to experience pain in and around my right midsection. I made an appointment to see my general practitioner. I thought I just needed a prescription to see a physical therapist since I’ve dealt with recurring back pain for most of my life. But instead of sending me to a PT, he sent me downstairs to radiology, where I had an ultrasound.
The next day, he called to tell me that he wasn’t only concerned about the results of my ultrasound but that he had talked with my oncologist who agreed that I needed to get both a PET and CT scan as soon as possible.
After both scans, I met with my oncologist. Together we looked at his computer screen to discover that my entire liver was engulfed in cancerous lesions along with a few spots which had spread to my lungs and my bones. My diagnosis was the worst I could have imagined: Stage IV Metastatic Breast Cancer.
After 17 rounds of chemo, my oncologist was happy to pronounce that my prognosis was more than good. In fact, he said that it was better than average since my second PET scan revealed that all the lesions on my liver had totally disappeared. Since, however, a few spots remain on my lungs and in my bones, keeping what cancer still lives within my body at bay is my current objective; therefore, I continue to visit the infusion center at Keck Medical Center where I receive a host of drugs intravenously every three weeks. How long I have remains a mystery. Statistics say I have 26 months. But there is hope. The possibility that I may live long enough to see my nine-year-old son graduate high school or even college isn’t unwarranted.
While I spend a lot of time agonizing about recurrence, my primary concern shifted after the presidential election. I became distraught and haven’t since been able to stop myself from worrying about the future of our country and what my son’s future might look like should race, religion or gender come to determine whether one’s rights will be rescinded.
When the Women’s March was announced, I enthusiastically marked my calendar and cancelled all plans I’d scheduled for January 21st. The idea of gathering with likeminded peers, willing to retaliate against our president’s relentless agenda, was enough to spark a glimmer of hope back into my life. But as the march neared, I started to wonder whether I’d have the stamina to participate. Every now and again, I wake up rejuvenated, feeling much like my old self. But this is not the norm. On most days, I tire after lunch and therefore am forced to lie down and recharge before making dinner or helping my son with his homework.
When I learned that a group of individuals had planned to hold a rally on the steps outside Pasadena’s City Hall, I was overcome with relief since I live within blocks of the vicinity. I still wanted to attend the Los Angeles march but was glad for the opportunity to stand in unison alongside a group of some 700 individuals who felt duty-bound, to retaliate for the sole purpose of protecting the rights that women as well as those from marginalized communities have fought so hard to attain.
After Congresswoman Judy Chu, D-Pasadena, who boycotted Trump’s inauguration, and State Senator Kevin de Leon, D-Los Angeles, invigorated the crowd by reiterating our need to ensure that women retain their reproductive rights, Sherri Bonner, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood in Pasadena and San Gabriel Valley, took the stand.
In less than five minutes, Bonner articulated how immense the breakdown for women’s healthcare would be should Planned Parenthood cease to exist. Not only would more than 800,000 women lose access to basic healthcare, but an increase in cancer deaths, STDs, HIV, and unwanted pregnancies would increase exponentially. And not just among those from depressed communities, which I can attest from first-hand experience.
I’ve never written about my abortion. But when Bonner said that we are only as strong as our stories, I felt it was time. If not for my benefit, then for the benefit of others. Because the reality is, had I been denied an abortion, my life as I know it today would look much different.
It was 1991. I was 21. The minimum wage was $4.25, yet assistants to hair stylists often earned less (and most likely still do). Instead of earning an hourly wage, they were paid a weekly salary, no matter how many hours they put in. My instructors had cautioned me. They’d warned that, despite my aptitude and drive, I would be hard pressed to find a job that paid a negotiable rate, which I quickly realized after earning my cosmetology license.
After working at several salons where it fast became obvious that the possibility for advancement was next to nil, I stumbled upon a job that came with the promise of potential. While the workload required that I put in more than forty-hours a week without benefits, I was assured that I could start working the floor if I showed enough incentive after assisting for a year. Even though Sam, who owned the salon, offered me a measly $160 a week to start, I felt lucky and graciously accepted the position without question.
The tips I incurred helped compensate for my lack of pay. They helped me put gas in my car and enjoy an occasional night out with friends. But they were also determinant upon the time and energy I spent with clients, which is why I made every effort to make them feel pampered. Not only did I serve them fresh coffee, but I rubbed their shoulders, massaged their temples, and spent more than five minutes running my fingers over their scalps while shampooing their hair at the bowl.
Some of Sam’s clients thanked me for my attentiveness, but most just threw a dollar my way out of obligation. Along with the few who appreciated my courtesy, those who tipped the best were among Sam’s male clientele, especially on days when my skirt’s hemline revealed the full length of my thighs or my blouse’s neckline was low enough to expose what little cleavage I had.
As an adolescent, I’d never felt desired. I’d had acne and a big nose, which made me feel ugly in comparison to the girls in school who had neither. I also was awkwardly tall and my lanky limbs made me feel unattractive to the opposite sex.
After junior high, I transferred to an all girls’ Catholic school, where–for the first time–I didn’t encounter any trouble making friends. Even on my first day, I was welcomed by a handful of girls, which was eerily refreshing since I’d become so accustomed to negotiating my way in and around those too cool to acknowledge my presence.
During my junior year, I met Orion, who attended another Catholic school. He took an instant liking to me, which I assumed was because he had no clue how ostracized I’d been by my childhood peers. He was the first boy who saw me for me. In his eyes, I wasn’t unattractive or weird. He knew nothing of my past nor had any negative preconceptions to project onto me.
He was the first boy to ask me out. He asked me to a dance and after we attended it together, we started seeing each other regularly. We talked for hours every night on the phone and he stopped by my house regularly to say “hi” and make out. He got my sarcastic sense of humor and saw all my quirky nuances as endearing, unlike others who’d described me as a klutz.
While our relationship had been innocent, one night when we were on the phone, talking about a whole lot of nothing, he changed the subject without warning and confessed that he really cared about me. I’d known that he liked me. And I liked him. But I didn’t know how to respond. No one had ever told me the same in as many words. So instead of reciprocating the sentiment, I mumbled something insignificant, something about a doodle that I’d been drawing on the wall above my bed with a pencil at the time, something that I can only assume totally invalidated what were difficult words for him to relate.
After he hung up the phone, we never spoke again. I tried calling him several times over the course of a week but eventually gave up after leaving more than five messages. Of course, I felt badly. But I also felt rejected because he never bothered to return any one of my calls. I became depressed, which made me angry. Not only at him but at myself since I’d allowed myself to become vulnerable enough to feel hurt when in fact I’d known better.
After divorcing my father, my mother continued to reveal the torment and grief that she’d experienced during her short-lived marriage to him. Not only did she badmouth his misdeeds to me on a regular basis, but I was forced to listen to her badmouth him on the phone throughout most of my youth. The intensity of her fury was fierce, and it burned like a well-lit fire. It had been exhausting to watch and was anything but attractive, which is why I decided early on to doubt anyone’s intentions, no matter how sincere they seemed.
Like most of his male clients, Sam could be smarmy. He was a flirt, but his game was subtle. If asked, I’d say that most of his clients saw him as charmingly witty. He was handsome, but not enough to be intimidating. Which is why no one ever called him out when he crossed the line, including me, who never objected when he lifted my skirt to “check the color of my underwear.” While degrading, Sam’s attention gave me a sense of confidence that I’d never experienced. Few had shown any sexual interest in me, so I mistook his perversion as praise.
With every compliment I received at the salon, I became increasingly self-assured, at least about the way I looked, which is why I ended up dating a man with whom I had nothing in common except for the fact that we both had attended the same junior high school. He’d been a jock and on student council. He’d also known everyone or rather anyone worth knowing as opposed to me, who’d only had a few friends between 7th and 9th grade. So, when he asked me out, I couldn’t say no although it was clear that we shared zero interests.
While I’d spent the last of my teen years sneaking into underground clubs and working my way backstage to see bands like The Cramps and 45 Grave, he’d been attending Lakers’ games and stadium concerts to watch artists like Phil Collins play to thousands. His favorite band was Rush, which I hated. Yet I never objected when he put on one of their CD’s to help him fall asleep after having sex with me.
A couple of months into our relationship, I started to feel a shift occur within my body. I started to crave starches like white rice, bread, and pasta. I also started to tire much earlier than usual. I was used to staying up well past midnight but couldn’t seem to keep my eyes open past nine. While I started to worry, I didn’t say a word and instead waited until I was three weeks late before asking one of my co-workers to go with me to Thrifty’s Drug Store to buy a pregnancy test.
The morning after I purchased the test, I ripped off the plastic packaging to find a small plastic cup which I used to collect my urine. After I put the cup on my bathroom counter, I took a deep breath and then dipped the accompanying test stick into it as instructed.
I was living at home and while I didn’t want to tell my mother the results of my test, I found myself wandering into her bedroom where I started to cry.
“What’s the matter?” she asked.
I don’t know how I got through work that day, but I showed up and did my best to act as if all was fine. The only person I told was the co-worker who had gone with me to purchase the test. But I asked her to keep the news to herself. I didn’t want anyone, namely Sam, to know. I was afraid of losing my job. So, for next three weeks, I pretended all was well, though it got tougher once the nausea started to kick in.
A few days after I took the test, I drove to Planned Parenthood. There was no questioning my decision. I wanted an abortion, which had been a huge relief to my boyfriend who hadn’t broached the topic since I’d broken the news. I’d called him on the phone the same day that I found out. But not until I got home from work, well after dinnertime, when I was in bed, in my pajamas.
When he picked up my call, I sat patiently while he told me about his day. I waited while he told me about the frustrations he’d endured at work, how much he hated his job, the annoyances that came with driving across town, and how much he resented his boss. That’s when I interrupted him midsentence though I was scared to hear his reaction since he was obviously in a bad mood.
“I took a test this morning.”
“What kind of a test?”
“A pregnancy test.”
When I told the nurse at Planned Parented that I wanted to schedule my abortion as soon as possible, she told me that I had to wait. She explained: “Pregnancies shorter than six weeks can’t be detected by an ultrasound, which, depending on the embryo’s position, helps doctors foresee any complications so that we can ensure the safety and well-being of our patients.”
The procedure cost $240. I asked my boyfriend to split the cost, so he gave me a check the day before my appointment. He asked if I wanted him to take me, but I said no. It seemed easier go with a friend, someone whose presence would make the whole ordeal feel much more trivial than I was willing to admit.
When the attending called my name, she directed me towards an aisle of changing stations where she handed me a gown. After changing into it, I put my belongings in a locker which I secured with a key, attached to an orange coiled bracelet, that I pushed over my hand and let dangle around my wrist.
Unsure where to go next, I waited for another nurse to appear. When she did, she said, “Follow me,” while pushing open the door to a waiting area where a circle of women wearing gowns like the one I had on were seated on brown folding chairs. I took the one seat that was available and proceeded to wait for my name to be called when a girl who looked no older than fourteen started to cry hysterically.
While I’d managed to maintain numb up until that point, I was jarred by the appearance of one woman who was either nearing or in her third trimester. From what I overheard, she’d meant to terminate her pregnancy earlier but, for some reason, had waited. My first instinct was to judge her. But the fact was, I didn’t know anything about her situation. And in all fairness, it was none of my business. Just as my decision to terminate my pregnancy was none of hers nor anyone else’s. We were all there for different reasons though I suspect most, like me, lacked the means, support, and emotional wellbeing that it takes to raise a child.
When my name was finally called, I was greeted by two men in what looked like an ordinary doctor’s office. They told me that one would administer the anesthesia while the other would conduct the procedure. Then they asked if I had any questions. Easing myself up and onto the exam table, I shook my head, no, before lying back and positioning my feet in the stirrups after which I felt the prick of a needle push into the interior of my right forearm.
Thirty minutes later, maybe less, I woke up in post-op on what felt like a conveyor belt of groggy women, lined up on a row of gurneys. “Pull up your undies,” announced the same woman who had guided me to the aisle of changing stations. I immediately became self-conscious and scrambled in my semi-conscious state to find a pair of white paper panties lined with an inch-thick pad that had been draped around my ankles.
I’m not proud that I neglected to use birth control and therefore had to have an abortion as a consequence, but the experience made me well aware that I’d been looking for validation in all the wrong places. When I returned to work, I tried to pick up where I’d left off. I tried to continue to entertain Sam’s flirtatious advances along with those from his clients, but it became increasingly difficult once I recognized how much their sexual innuendos were negatively impacting my self-worth.
That’s when I decided to make some serious changes. It was more than apparent that I needed to learn how to take care of myself, especially if I ever wanted to participate in a meaningful relationship.
To this day, I still have trouble communicating my feelings with those whom I love. But once I started putting my needs before others’, I started to develop the strength to aim higher. For one, I enrolled in college, although the idea had terrified me. I’d never believed that I was smart enough to earn a degree, but I ended up earning two before teaching English at the very same community college where I took my first class.
I also got married and had a son, a son that my husband and I are able to provide the financial means and emotional support that he needs to thrive. Given, it’s been difficult. Raising a child without battling cancer is hard enough. But I am determined to raise him to the best of my ability, which includes teaching him how important it is that we treat each other equally.
He’s fortunate. He’s grown up in a world where one’s skin color, sexual orientation, religion, race, or gender haven’t influenced who he has chosen to befriend, which is why I am so opposed to our current administration’s desire to return to what was once “a better time,” when all but the wealthy white man was subjected to discrimination.
If Trump and his Cabinet manage to outlaw abortion, not only will they infringe upon the seminal ruling of Roe v. Wade, but they will reignite the antiquated assumption that men are the stronger sex and more adept at decision making. While I’ve endured my share of hardships, those who came before me endured more, and then some. They fought for their children and the generations to follow, which I’m just as committed to doing. So, as long as I am able and in what little time I have left, I will continue to speak my truth in an attempt to ensure that my son grows up in a world where the denial of any one person’s equal rights remains non-existent.