When No One Is Watching
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I’m writing this next to a stream in Hawaii, where my husband and I spend a few months each winter to escape Alaska’s darkness and cold. The stream originates on the slopes of Kohala Mountain, an extinct volcano, the oldest of five volcanoes that form this island. Less than a mile from here, the stream pours from a lava tube and plunges fifty feet into a pool before heading seaward.
The sound of water has always comforted me, especially fresh, shallow water rushing over stones. I grew up in western New York, in a small town bordered on two sides by creeks that cut deep gorges into the landscape before emptying into Lake Erie. I waded in and skated upon and hiked up and down those creeks all through my childhood. After college I took a job at a remote salmon hatchery on an island in Prince William Sound, Alaska. There I met my husband, Craig, a commercial fisherman and orca biologist. I volunteered on his research boat and, once I’d earned my master’s in biology, became his colleague. We lived on his boat for several months out of the year, counting orcas and humpback whales. Finally we became lovers. I helped him raise his three kids, and every winter he brought us all here to Hawaii, to this piece of land on the wet, windy north coast of the Big Island.
I was reluctant to come here at first. I have a northern soul and prefer a snowbound landscape. The harsh sun, the insects, and the barren fields of lava rock initially felt hostile. But this place drew me in. Now, after fifteen years, the kids are grown, and I’ve come to love this island. Hawaii has mostly been subdued by human habitation, but there are still pockets of wilderness, like this one. A trail from our land leads to where I’m sitting on a tablecloth beside the stream with my laptop. When I look at my computer screen, I see my reflection, in which my bald head is hidden by a scarf. I’ve had no hair for six months now, a constant reminder that I have breast cancer.
It started in 2010 with a dull ache in my right breast that I blamed on strenuous yoga. I found the lump one morning, lying in bed with Craig. The moment my fingers touched that hardness where softness should have been, I knew, but I pushed that knowing back under. There is no history of breast cancer in my family. I have none of the risk factors. I’ve always been healthy — so much so that, though I was in my mid-forties, I didn’t have health insurance or even a primary-care doctor.
I shook Craig awake and asked him to feel my breast. When he couldn’t find the lump, I repressed my fear for a month longer, until I saw swelling above my nipple. I was on Cape Cod visiting my sister, who’s a doctor, and I asked her to check the spot. I lifted my shirt, unhooked my bra, lay back on her couch, and watched her expression change as she pressed and circled.
The standard treatment for cancer that’s invaded the lymph nodes, as mine had, is brutal: mastectomy, chemotherapy, radiation, hormone therapy. It’s an attempt to eradicate all traces of the disease, every possible errant cell. Craig and I decided that the best place for me to be treated was Boston. In Massachusetts I could get health insurance despite having a preexisting condition, and I could live with my sister and be under her care. I stayed on Cape Cod for eight months, through a hot and humid summer and a stormy fall. I had my breast removed. I sat in a recliner while toxic drugs dripped into my vein. I lost every hair on my body. I was zapped with radiation. After my final appointment Craig and I boarded a plane for Hawaii. There, my radiation burn faded, my body regained strength, and my brown hair began to grow back as pure-white fluff. Before I flew home to Alaska, I dyed it red. My friends there hadn’t seen me in a while, and I didn’t want to look as if cancer had aged me three decades in twelve months.
In the years that followed, Craig and I tried to heal, each in our own way. I worried the cancer would come back; he insisted I was cured and doggedly believed that we could resume the lives cancer had interrupted. All that summer, while I’d been living with my sister, he had flown back and forth between Boston and Alaska, planting our garden, filling our freezer with fish for the winter, and carrying on our whale research. He’d kept our life intact as though it were a painting and I could, once treatment had ended, slip back into the picture.
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