Taking Charge

Okay, I admit it. As a mom of a cancer survivor, the sister of a cancer survivor, and the niece and grandaughter to cancer victims, it’s hard for me to admit this. But, here it is…

I don’t wear sunscreen.

Predictably, some of you just gasped. Others of you just said, “WTF? That’s it? That’s the suspense? Psshawww.” But, given that cancer seems to be my best friend, one would think that I would be more careful with one of the most preventable babyoilcancers out there – melanoma. I hit my teens mostly in the late 80s/early 90s and spent many 10am-2pm hours sitting in the sun with, yes, baby oil. I even remember taking tin foil and placing it strategically near my face in order to reflect the maximum amount of rays possible. Hawaiian vacations – no sunscreen. Trip to Jamaica – no sunscreen. I never really burned, mind you, and always got a deeper shade of brown than I already was.

When my oldest child was born, I did put sunscreen on her – mostly because other moms (white moms who I hung out with in our old neighborhood) liberally applied sunscreen to the glowing white skins of their children; so, naturally, I did the same to my brown skinned baby. After she was diagnosed with cancer, we really didn’t go out at all, so no sunscreen issue.

Yet, today, I applied sunscreen. Liberally. SPF 50+ waterproof. I could hear my 14-year old-tin-foiled-self laughing hysterically on my shoulder. After I applied it to my children, I covered myself in it. Twice.

What I’m leaving out here is that I’m waiting for the results back from my skin cancer tests. This past week, I had a mole removed, and the stitches that continue to itch me is a physical reminder that I need to be more careful with both the health of my children and myself. I’m waiting in anxious anticipation for the results – cancer? No cancer? Given my odds and the way that the cards seem to be stacked against my cancer family, I’m holding my breath….

But, this all did get me thinking about race (what doesn’t, right?). Before writing this article, I got on the internet and started learning more about the OTHER genetic disease with which I have been recently diagnosed. Cards. Stacked. See what I mean?

I’m trying to find out the answer about connections with melanoma, this other genetic condition, etc., and I’m hitting dead ends. With other things that peak my interest — recipies, good places to take my kids, good movies — I only read the first few Google entries. Now, with my health, I find myself digging for answers. I want to learn more. I want to understand more. I want to be so well versed in my disease that I can answer any question that comes at me. Frankly, most of what I read scares the shit out of me is difficult. Some of the posts I read from others living with this disease are vibrant and full of inspiration. Others are full of dispair and isolation. Some say that they just do whatever their doctors tell them. Others say they have learned how to take charge – to be active patients.

In the end, who benefits the most? The passive participants or the active patients?

It got me thinking about conversations in race. There are some who come to the realization that RACE and RACISM exist — a diagnosis, if you will — and who take charge of their learning process. There are others who come to the realization and wait for others to educate them.  For me, it took stitches and anxiety to come to the table and take charge. I needed physical scarring to wake me up. What does it take for people to engage in the conversation about race? What kind of emotional scars to people need to heal and to create in order to move forward?

Are there benefits to both? Is one “better” than another?

A New Approach

I recently found out that I have a medical condition that could cause tumors in my spine. Yeah, it’s pretty bad. The funny thing is, though, that I’ve apparently had this medical condition from the day I was born due to a genetic condition that I was completely unaware of all these years. There are a whole host of other symptoms that go along with these spinal tumors, too — brain tumors, retinal tumors, etc.

spineSince finding out, I’m noticing my body feels different. I’m feeling aches in my spine. I seem to have a mild headache that won’t go away. My vision has been blurry. I have noticed that my foot gets numb on occasion. God! Have I made it all these years with nothing, and now that I know, are all these problems from this medical condition? Just a few weeks ago, my “aching muscles” were likely a result of the 3 mile hike I went on with my family. My headache – probably from the caffeine I’ve been drinking to keep from falling asleep after a disrupted night. My vision – likely that I haven’t seen an eye doctor in about 3 years. My numb foot — yeah, I probably just sat on it too long.

But, with this new information, why is it so hard to ignore the medical condition to explain these aches and pains?

So, why is this on To Loosen the Mind, and why does it get me thinking about race and racism?

Learning this new information has made me incredibly uncomfortable – physically, mentally, and emotionally. In this waiting period between now and my full body MRI in a month, I feel rudderless. I feel like the rug has been pulled out from under me, even though, essentially, the rug was never there to begin with. I know that once I meet with my doctors — the “experts” — I’ll feel better. I’ve slowly started to connect with other individuals who have the same condition as me, and I’ve begun to learn from them. I’m learning how they cope with the emotional turmoil. How they cope with the barrage of doctors appointments and scans. I’m learning how they keep positive despite the fact that they we will always be screened for tumors for the rest of our lives. THE REST OF OUR LIVES.

I’ve felt this feeling before — this feeling of physical pain, mental confusion, and emotional anxiety. I recall back to when I first started to unpack my own racism. I remember those feelings of being challenged about my learned messages about people of color, about sexual orientation, and about socioeconomic class. I remember being corrected when I made a “ghetto” joke to a brilliant African woman in college. I remember actually arguing with a Black woman that “permed” meant “curly”, and NOT straight like she thought it meant. Because of course, I was stupid right. She was one of the first Black women I had ever met, and yet I was the idiot authority on “perming.”

The more I learned about my own privilege, the more uncomfortable I got. The more I read, listened to, digested, the more I realized I had been living in the dark – void of information. I had an awakening, and that awakening was painful. I sometimes wished I didn’t know about the injustices that other people (including my own) experienced in our not-so-recent past. I wished I hadn’t learned about how families were separated on purpose in order to create and maintain a power structure of superiority. I wish I hadn’t heard about the ways in which men of color are disproportionately incarcerated, beaten, abused by a system that is supposed to protect them.

I imagine that’s what it’s like continuing through life thinking that we are all where we are solely based on merit and the willingness to try hard. It’s so much easier to believe that lazy people stay down while determined people rise up — all of them. It’s so much easier to believe that we got to where we are because of our invididual efforts, and not because of a system of privilege.

I’m still struggling with whether or not I wish I hadn’t learned about my genetic condition. Just a few months ago, I thought all these aches and pains were … well.. aches and pains. In this time between now and my first set of tests, I question whether or not I have a tumor. I question whether or not I have a clot somewhere. I question whether my fatigue is just exhaustion, or if it’s an adrenal problem.

Either way, once we KNOW, we have a responsibility. Once we accept that life isn’t as simple as MERIT, and that effort isn’t as simple as TRY HARD, and that freedom isn’t as simple as FOLLOW THE RULES, then we experience discomfort. If we care, we experience physical pain, mental pain, and emotional pain.

We eleviate that pain by getting more information, by uncovering the truth so that we can work to create a different path and a more realistic set of rules.

I’ll keep you all posted with the medical stuff. As far as the metaphorical stuff, I’m somewhat surrenduring to the pain and the paranoia. After all, it reminds me that there are others who have it both better and worse.

And, part of loosening my mind is putting myself in other people’s shoes.