Author Mary Ladd was diagnosed with triple negative breast cancer with a BRCA1 gene mutation at age 39. She collaborated with Anthony Bourdain on "No Reservations" and is a member of the Writers Grotto. She is the author of "The Wig Diaries," an irreverent cancer book illustrated by cartoonist Don Asmussen and featured in Cure Magazine, Lithub and W Magazine. After using writing prompts to navigate cancer and keep creative for her writing career, Mary created a pandemic book called "Write it Down: Coronavirus Writing Prompts." Her writing appears in the best-selling "642 Things to Write About" books, Playboy and. She lives in San Francisco and eats too much pizza with her family.
This is an edited excerpt from her irreverent cancer book "The Wig Diaries."
I develop a crush on my surgeon the first time I stand in front of him to let him examine my bare-naked chest, arms, and stomach. His eyes are friendly and sparkling. He never checks sports stats or email, and only takes detailed notes on me, me, me and my cancer. I start to feel beautiful, especially as my hair is falling out and I have huge bags under my eyes. My body has been prodded and traumatized. I avoid sex back at home, cuddling my rescue dog or the remote control instead.
He’s married. I’m married. I don’t care! Reassurance from an older, handsome man in a professional setting surprises and soothes. We share no heated arguments. He asks me in a non-rushed way how I feel and how I’m doing. I try to bat my chemo-desiccated lashless eyes, which seems like a vain attempt to feel pretty. He has such a great bedside manner and will be cutting off both of my breasts and moving my ample belly fat up to create new breasts. As he draws on my body with a marker, I wonder what it would be like to be in an actual bed with him.
I am age 39 when I experience this condition, known as transference which is really a chance to indulge a fantasy without many consequences. Maybe I was primed for transference by watching soap operas and horny-dialing the super expensive 976 romance hotline in junior high! Symptoms of pining for my surgeon include giggling and singing to myself. He’s a fabulous distraction from medical bills, “bathroom issues,” work, and my actual relationship.
Focusing on the doctor lets me forget for a few minutes that breast cancer makes me physically weak, withered, and depressed. Yet near him, I am oddly flirty.
Checking out his white jacket and button-down shirt turns physically painful surgeries into something slightly pleasant. During my DIEP surgery, I gush to two nurses, “He’s soooo good-looking!” They give me knowing smiles and seem used to patients on pain meds saying crazy things. I’ll soon learn that the doctor has many fans of all genders. While I thought I was super special, learning about his fan club is comforting, since it means others harbor not-so-odd medical fantasies.
For these procedures and appointments, I get used to showing skin and wonder if I should have hit amateur night at a strip club to slay my credit card debt years ago. Which of course leads to wondering if I could now be a cancer webcam gal, flashing my slashed up bodily goods for 20 minutes a day to in turn slay my medical debt.
In the hospital, I also flirt with the medical team under the influence of meds. Later, as I clean my smelly wounds at home, I worry about the nurses, technicians and anyone who wipes my butt or takes a cool washcloth to my forehead when I’m sweaty and crying. Male friends tell me in whispered tones that they have also proclaimed bonkers stuff. One grandly announced to a packed medical house: “I like fucking!” before going under the knife for a vasectomy. Another announced in an unintentionally loud voice that “pussy popsicles” are a favorite flavor, although the heard-it-all nurse was offering lime or cherry.
I’m ready to say sorry to the surgeon and staff for singing loudly a campy drag song called “Dildos Are Forever” right before I passed out. If you could see the extraordinary drag artist Jackie Beat sing this one, you’d become a fan, too. I feel like shit for also using a potentially offensive sing-songy voice to tell the Korean anesthesiologist “I want to go to Japan!” when he asked where I’d like to travel, right before I passed out in 4, 3, 2, 1.
These are all top-notch professionals. Days after my embarrassing dildo overshare, I email my crush and apologize for creating such a hostile work environment for his team. The next time I see him, he smiles and assures me that I shouldn’t worry at all, with the enticing promise that I have “no idea” what they talk about while patients are out—my statement is not the wildest thing they’ve ever been subjected to. Still, my face gets redder as I wonder what else I might have divulged while under the anesthesia influence.
Photo by Cynthia Wood and Illustration by Don Asmussen.