Farewell, Little Piece of Me!

I’m undergoing biopsies as part of the clinical trial for the breast cancer vaccine. Here’s how the vaccination works: After “immunomodulatory doses of cyclophosphamide and doxorubcin,” I get twelve shots—four on each thigh and four on my right forearm. (Owing to the post-mastectomy risk of lymphedema, I am forevermore disallowed from having any “procedures” including blood pressure cuffs, blood draws, and anything involving a needle to my left arm.) The purpose of the injections is to introduce my body to several lines of breast cancer cells so that my body can recognize the cancer as “other.” The problem with cancer is that it’s made of you; your body doesn’t recognize it as invasive, and it grows, therefore, unchecked. Measuring my skin’s reaction to the injections and taking biopsies contributes to the knowledge of how the vaccine is working (since this is, after all, experimental).

Once my body has had a few days to respond to the injections (I’m one of the lucky ones who is only cast down with the charitably-named “flu-like” symptoms for a generous 24 hours. Other test subjects don’t get off so easily: I’ve heard of head-to-toe boils and scalp welts), the research nurse uses a ballpoint pen to mark the radii of the resulting erythemas (Think of a three-inch wide mosquito bite. With a lot of bruising and a hard center. Which is simultaneously itchy and hotly painful.) and a measuring tape to see which one is biggest. She records the size of each. Being Boss Erthythema isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, however. It means that you are a marked spot. Marked for a skin-punch biopsy.

The skin-punch biopsy doesn’t sound all that bad and, relatively speaking, isn’t all that bad, but it’s still kinda bad. It involves a few shots of local anesthetic and then a thing like a hole-punch, which punches out about a pencil-eraser-sized plug of you. The first time the nurses did it, one asked me if I wanted to see it and I said yes. I also said yes when the original biopsies were performed on my now (and still) missing breast (That procedure involved me face down on a special torture table with my breast hanging out of a hole, not nearly enough painkillers, and a “needle” which made a loud “ka-chunk” sound very much like a staple gun. The result was a little petri dish filled with six cancerous snakes of me. I was too shocked (since I had had my first mammogram just that morning) to think anything other than, “Wow, they’re so tubular in the literal sense.”)

The tiny me-plug made me a little sad. It was barrel-shaped and kind of cute, if a little bloody. The biopsies on my thighs weren’t too gory, but I had one on my arm that bled copiously. I just remember both nurses with handfuls of blood-soaked gauze depositing them in the appropriate “red bag” trashcan. Somehow I got blood on my hands and had to wait until they were done with the surgery to wash them, and I felt the blood go from fresh to heavy and sticky while I waited, then pondered how hard it would be to scrub off.

The plug goes in a bag which goes in a little zippered insulated container, of the type you see people carrying lunch in, although it bears a biohazard symbol on the side. Hey! I think. Then, oh yeah. Guess who’s barred from donating blood to the Red Cross for the rest of her life? Moi. Farewell, little piece of me!, I think, as the nurse bears it away.

Where does it go? To the lab, where it is cut in half. Half goes in the freezer in case further study is needed. The other half is made into ten slides, which reveal lots about what my antibodies are up to in various parts of the immunization cycle. Is this a chance at scientific immortality? No. If humanity fails, so will our generators, and thus everything frozen or preserved in slides will decay, too.

I was raised in a religion that speaks a lot about the immortal, decay-proof body of our Savior, Jesus Christ. He sacrificed his own body for our salvation. We members of his church comprise his Mystical Body here on earth, and, in our rituals, we reenact his last meal, then consume it metaphorically and literally. The bread that Jesus offered, that we share in remembrance of him, is magically transformed into the actual Body of Christ.

I remember my whole class being brought to see the film Jesus at a local theater as a special treat. We were meant to see the Passion of Christ in blazing color and to experience our Lord’s suffering, which, after all, was all for us. My big question was, “How did they make the nails look so real?” Someone explained to me that they used real ones, only they were cut in half to look like they were piercing the actor’s hands.

I’ve always had a lot of questions about the Lord’s Passion. If Jesus knew that his dad/self was God, and that it was going to be over for good in three days, doesn’t that make it a little less impressive? I’m reminded of the Pulp song “Common People,” in which impoverished student Jarvis Cocker meets a rich girl from Greece who wants to slum it, recreationally, with the “common people.”

But you’ll never get it right
cause when you lay in bed at night
watching roaches climb the wall
if you called your dad he could stop it all yeah.

Not that Jesus did ask his dad to stop it all. But he could have! And God really didn’t forsake him because—guess what? Three days in the tomb and he was up and walking around feeling better than ever.

I don’t really understand why Jesus had to suffer and die for us. I’ve never wanted to be included in the “you” that Jesus suffered and died for. I would never wish suffering on anyone. I never asked Jesus to suffer on my behalf, yet I keep getting inculcated in his death simply by nature of being a human, and therefore a sinner. It’s always seemed to me that there’s enough actual suffering in the world. Why would someone suffer recreationally just to make a point? “To redeem our sins?” What the heck? We’re all still sinning, all the time. We’re killing large groups of ourselves and pillaging the environment and kidnapping 12-year-old girls and making them into sex slaves. We are a species of jerks. Now, if Jesus’ death had stopped war once and for all, I might be just a little more impressed. I just don’t see how it accomplished anything, other than the torture of children for generations to come with bizarre and boring rites every Sunday. We’re still the same assholes who nailed him to a cross and left him there. We’re still executing people all the time! Only the technology has changed!

I, meanwhile, am losing more parts of my body. I think I might safely assume that the cancer will be back if it isn’t already. But, if I can forestall the return of cancer by five, seven, ten years, then the technology will have changed accordingly and I’ll be in a better position to have it treated. This is the way you have to think: proactively. I don’t think that God has forsaken me; I just think that this is how life is. I guess what I’m getting at is that the whole crucifixion-and-rising-from-the-dead thing is, well, a little showy. But a useful metaphor, I suppose. My hair is growing back and at some point next year I hope to have a reconstructed breast and possibly be as cancer-free as I can be. Maybe it won’t come back. Who knows? Regrowth, resurrection, all these things are possible. Maybe that’s the point of the story. It’s not the sins or the suffering, but the resurrection. I always enjoyed that clean, shiny feeling of Easter morning. Maybe my own Easter is imminent.

I remember when my second-grade class was studying for our first communion and one of the parish priests would come in and answer our questions. It was a lot to get one’s head around. Jesus died. Then he rose from the dead. Then he went to heaven. Now, at Mass, the priest recites special prayers, and a miracle called transubstantiation occurs. Wherein a small wafer becomes the actual Body of Christ. The Real Presence of God is in the waxy little circle (or chunk of brown bread if you’re at one of those kinds of Masses), which will then imbue you with God. We weren’t yet allowed to drink from the cup, and the offering of both species, the bread and the wine, was becoming a popular parish practice, along with other such post-Vatican-II practices as receiving Communion in the hand and standing while taking the Eucharist.

A kid raised his hand and asked why, if we were supposed to be partaking of the body and blood of Christ, and kids could only have the bread, then what gives? Weren’t we getting shortchanged? And the priest said no, it wasn’t a problem not taking the bread and the wine. Because, you see, the bread, as the flesh of Christ, contains both. He held out his forearm, exposed as it was in his short-sleeved clerical tunic (a garment not unlike the short-sleeved dentist’s smock). He acted as if he sliced a piece of flesh off of his arm, making a swipe at it with an imaginary knife. Holding up the imaginary fillet of priest’s arm, he asked us “Would there be blood in this piece of my arm?” We all nodded and said yes. So you see, he said, the host, or Body of Christ, contains the blood too.

Looking, again, at a little piece of me off for great adventures, I think, what do you know? Father Gonzalez was right. You take the flesh, you get the blood too.

Mary Valle lives in Baltimore and is the author of Cancer Doesn't Give a Shit About Your Stupid Attitude: Reflections on Cancer and Catholicism. She blogs on KtB as The Communicant. For more Mary, check out her blog or follow her on Twitter.