Like Angelina Jolie, I carry the BRCA1 genetic mutation, which, as you probably know unless you've been hiding in a bunker for the past few weeks, burdens its carriers with almost certain odds of breast and ovarian cancer.
With the risk of breast cancer as high as 87% and hard-to-detect ovarian cancer above 50%, the recommended prevention is surgical: Preventive hysterectomy and bilateral mastectomy.
But how do you face surgery when you're not even ill? Surgery is a military action; violent and wounding, but sometimes necessary. Cancer is a terrorist; a senseless bomb out of the blue obliterating your peaceful life.
At the time I discovered that I had the gene, I was in the middle, watching cancer eat away my mother's life. Waiting for my turn was intolerable. Playing Russian roulette with a single bullet is generally considered deranged. BRCA loads up 87 out of 100 chambers and I wasn't going to play.
I've always turned to humor to deal with stress. If you're going to laugh someday, might as well laugh now, right? In a moment of giddiness, I wrote a limerick.
A limerick is a simple, silly thing -- easy to write once you have the rhythm of it, even when your brain is fried. If you've never tried it, the first few may be a challenge, but you'll be surprised at how quickly you get the hang of it -- and how addictive they are.
Here's what I wrote:
I've just had a genetic test
And I'm feeling a little depressed
It's not just because
I'll have menopause
But I wasn't quite done with my breasts
I posted it in the forum on the FORCE website. FORCE (Facing Our Risk of Cancer Empowered) is a nonprofit organization for women with high hereditary breast and ovarian cancer risk and the best place for both current information and support. The response was astonishing. Apparently, this was something people were craving: A moment of laughter and lightness. Pain is a lonely business, but limericks connected us. Over the ensuing months, women all over the world wrote literally hundreds of limericks. No subject was off-limits. We rhymed about our genes, families, husbands, lost loved ones, nail-biting waits for test results, mammograms, approaching surgery dates, protracted recoveries, flagging libidos and constipation. These were the people who understood when no one else in our lives did. And along the way, we became friends.
Why did limericks strike such a chord? I think it's the simplicity and familiarity in part. I associate them with childhood and laughter. But it was also participatory, like a party game when you didn't even know there was a party. One poem would inspire another. They were dashed off in spare moments. Dreamt up in the middle of the night, bubbled up in the bath and cooked up with dinner. They were little windows we could peek through and see how much we shared. Reading them now is like looking at snapshots of an arduous but amazing journey.
The morning of my first surgery, a hysterectomy:
Time for surgical soap in the shower
'Cause I head out the door in an hour
Got my phone and my fleece
Feeling mostly at peace
I have done everything in my power.
Coming home after surgery:
On the couch 'cause my legs are like jelly
Watching old flicks on the telly
And it sure isn't fun
When the cat wants to walk on my belly
I also rhymed darker moments:
We deal as we can with our fears
We've all cried an ocean of tears
Won't stop singin' the blues
For the ones that we lose
But we lengthen our own lives by years
And didn't shy away from worries about sex:
I'm dreading the loss of my nips
How they feel 'neath my man's fingertips
Why can't technology
And reboot feeling with microchips?
Waiting was the hardest part:
This surgery I've thought hard about
And I don't have a trace of a doubt
But with five days to go
I'm ready to blow
It's time for a major freak out
Sleep, post-mastectomy, can be elusive:
I don't want to seem like a whiner
And it feels like something so minor
Though my bed is so near
Post-op drains interfere
And I'm stuck sleeping in this recliner
In the end, we all just want to feel whole again. I'm short a few body parts, embroidered with scars and more joyful than I ever expected to be. I can see a future with me in it. Writing and sharing limericks was a small thing, but it made a big difference.
Here's one more:
There once was a mutant who laughed
These rhymes are not much of a craft
But I simply refuse
To give into the blues
Just because nature gave me the shaft
You can read them all on the FORCE website. Search for "limerick" in the message boards.
Now it's your turn! Leave a limerick in comments.