It’s been awhile since I promised to write a blog post (or several) about the process of playing guitar and getting my chops back while recovering from major surgery. I’m sorry it’s taken over a month to get around to it. In my defense I’ll say that I’ve started this post countless times and thrown every previous version out the window. I discovered that language and vocabulary had transformed noticeably, along with everything else. For example, I’ve never in my life used the word “chops” to describe my guitar playing, so I’m mildly shocked that it surfaced at this moment as the right word for the job. I’m pretty sure I’ll never use it again, but what the hell, I might. It’s all up in the air.
The big shock though, that was when I noticed how quickly the term “bilateral mastectomy” became normal. At first I didn’t know how to say it at all, or if I wanted to, because after all it’s not such a tough transition to keep secret if people are used to seeing you in clothing that has apparently been slept in for a night or two anyway.
So I thought about it for a week or so before realizing that I didn’t care if people knew or not. That was also a surprise.
At any rate, there’s extraordinary good news here; the cancer that came back to visit after a fifteen year absence is now apparently gone, with no lymph node involvement and clean margins. That’s what I’m told, anyway. “Clean margins” is another set of words I’ve never used before, along with “bilateral mastectomy,” tra-la. In any case, I don’t need chemo, radiation, or further hormone treatment like the tamoxifen I took for five years. I do, of course, still need to keep current with checkups and take care of myself, but the kicker in this big shift of language is that, apparently, oncologists can very occasionally use the word “cured.”
Interestingly, when I heard I had cancer again, the question “will it kill me this time?” wasn’t the first thing that popped into my mind, or even the fifth. Of course, I knew from the start that I had a highly treatable cancer, the same one I’d had before, so when I was told that what I had was “Ductal Carcinoma In Situ,” I knew I was one of the lucky ones whose cancer cells had almost certainly not spread from their original homes inside the ducts in my breast. After that sank in, my first thoughts were “will this affect my playing? How long before I’ll be able to play, and should I cancel all the gigs I have this month?” Reminding me once again how important music is, aside from making a living from it. It’s every bit as much a visceral part of my being as the breasts I was about to lose. I was only mildly surprised to find that out.
At first I thought it would be easy to find a friend to ask about this, and I thought for a long time about the other women I knew who were serious guitar players who might have had the surgery and could answer some salient questions about it - other players who had cancelled shows or perhaps performed too soon, that sort of thing. I know so many guitarists, after all, being in the music business as long as I have. But I couldn’t think of any. I asked other guitarists, they couldn’t think of any. Nobody accessible to us, at any rate. And if there was a chance that I’d have to wait for weeks to be able to spend an afternoon with a new fingerstyle guitar arrangement, I really needed to know.
I did ask a public question on a social media site dedicated only to women who’ve had mastectomies without reconstruction, I got some very helpful comments there. Not to mention that, of course, I DO know women who play and have had the surgery, but as it isn’t a thing that we talk about in ordinary conversation it was hard to think of their names at the time. When I decided to go public with it, lo and behold, those women and many others came out of the woodwork to help.
It turned out that in this context too, I was one of the lucky ones. I’d had no lymph nodes removed, and their removal would have caused more mobility problems, from what I’ve heard. In my case though – aside from the usual energy loss and the discomfort from the surgery itself – I have no trouble practicing as much as I like. One woman told me that it was more comfortable playing while wearing prosthetics, that makes perfect sense, the nerves and muscles in the chest are sensitive in disturbing ways. In my case though, this is more obvious when my dog decides to jump on me, or when I run into old friends that I haven’t seen in awhile. When friends hug me enthusiastically I can be pretty sure they haven’t heard the news.
So, there’s the answer; I can play just fine. A few new gigs should be going up on the calendar soon. Working on a new recording too, by the way, the dustbowl songs from my play “The Cyclone Line” will all be on one recording soon, and maybe the play will make it to your neck of the woods soon, wherever you are. Fingers crossed. Oh, no fingers crossed, to hell with that. Considering how enormously fortunate I am, the only sensible thing to do is to get back to work.
Lucky me. See you soon, somewhere.