There are many different approaches to dealing with illness, and one way is to affirm one’s faith in the act of continuing to live. And among those who decide to take that approach, there are, in turn, many different approaches to affirming said faith. Some seem rooted in group hugs and prayer circles. And some are far more concrete. I am sure it will come as no surprise, that I find myself drawn to the concrete, the urban, the slightly sardonic approach.
Which goes a long way toward explaining why when I was diagnosed with the beast in the summer of 2002, I spent a good deal of time shopping for clothing I had absolutely no use for while in treatment… stiletto-heeled-over-the-knee boots, a fabulous cream-colored suede shift dress…and which I had every intention of wearing once I was done with treatment. And let me tell you, I have… especially that dress. (The boots have been harder to fit into my regular rotation – the fact remains that it’s hard for a five foot one inch forty-year old to pull off over-the-knee boots. But I will keep trying…)
An email dialogue I had today with a reader of mine, who is a yoga studio owner and a survivor in her own right (not of cancer, but she will know what I mean) made me think about the notion that what might seem vain and shallow to one person could be viewed as a form of salvation to another. And in turn, my mind returned to an article I read several years ago regarding one writer’s uniquely urban and hip approach to her diagnosis with breast cancer. I bring it to you here, the words of Ellen Tien, a writer and young survivor of breast cancer. She wrote this amazing article for the Style Section of the New York Times back in 2002:
The News Was Bad, I Went to Bendels
“THREE doctors had already told me that the carat-size lump in my left breast was, in all likelihood, nothing to worry about. As a 37-year-old Chinese woman with no history of breast cancer in the family, my chances of a malignancy, they said, were lottery low. The radiologist who performed the routine biopsy last spring seemed less certain. She carried out the needle aspiration with brisk efficiency, extracting tissue samples via four staple-gun-like thrusts to the offending mass. After the fourth ka-chung, she flipped on the lights and turned to face me. “I’m not going to lie to you,” she said. “It doesn’t look great. I’d say your odds are about 50-50.”
Her honesty was cruelly refreshing. “I’ll phone your regular doctor tomorrow with the lab results, and he’ll call you,” she said. “Good luck.”
It occurred to me that when a doctor wishes you good luck, it might not be the world’s best sign. I got dressed, walked out of the office and did the only thing I really could do, under the circumstances. I went shopping.
F. A. O. Schwarz was conveniently situated on the corner, so I headed in and up, straight to the Star Wars section, where I gathered an armload of action figures for my 4-year-old son. That done, I went across the street to the Bergdorf Goodman men’s store and chose a summer suit and a striped Etro shirt for my husband. The entire expedition took less than an hour.
Still, by the time I stepped out of Bergdorf, the city had changed. The unpredictable gold and gray sky of late spring had faded to black, hurling great canvases of rain over Midtown. Fifth Avenue was bouncing with raindrops, and not an available taxi was in sight. As I peered down the rows of cars, my arms laden with packages, I felt my first pang of despair.
Magically, an empty cab stopped directly in front of me. “You’ve got a whole lot of packages there,” the driver said as I clambered in. I explained that they were gifts for my husband and son. “Lucky them,” he said. “What’s the occasion—did you just get a big new job?”
“Something like that,” I said.
By noon the next day, the results were official. My new employer was invasive ductal carcinoma, and it was now my assignment to best it. In the breath it took my doctor to say, “I have bad news: you have breast cancer,” I was lifted into a whole different shopping arena. For the next few months, I walked the aisles of breast surgeons, oncologists and radiation oncologists. I became versed in the brand names of chemotherapy treatments; I discovered a world where a single anti-nausea pill could cost $200. It was a grim and compelling sort of spree, the most high-stakes shopping imaginable.
Yet, oddly, I had never felt more sure-footed. I knew I had the skills. From the time I was old enough to point and say, “This one,” it was clear I had been born with my mother’s shopping genes. I bought my wedding dress in an hour, my apartment in a week. Now, I would sift through the shelves of medical terms and make order of them; I could remain unmoved by a flashy surgeon’s sales pitch. Given the opportunity, I was more than ready to haggle with fate. In a way, I had been preparing for this moment all my life.
Shopping is a freighted activity—at once a task and a hobby, a necessity and a pleasure. The average American spends six hours a week shopping. Last winter, the Harvard Design School put retail in the canon with its 800-page “Guide to Shopping.” The Stanford Medical Center is conducting studies on the brain chemistry of compulsive shoppers. Like eating and gambling, shopping has managed to traverse the pale from pastime to illness.
In the face of serious physical illness, however, shopping takes on a different cast. Certainly, there is a deny-yourself-nothing mentality that flashes on in the psyche upon diagnosis (and then flashes right off, after you receive the first medical bill). Too, there’s a desire to seek haven in a place where the inventory is guaranteed to be new and untainted by the blot of toxins or bad cells.
But more than an agent of acquisition, shopping can be an act of hope. The dying take stock of their possessions, the living add to them. Shopping implies that there are days ahead of you and good times to be had: a Christmas party that cries out for Cacharel’s pink kimono-tied dress, a spring afternoon just right for Stephen Burrows’s bright knits. In shopping, there is an implicit future. When a salesperson assures you that the shearling coat you’re buying will last forever, it helps you to believe that maybe you will, too.
So, as I trudged through the stages of primary and adjuvant treatments—a Memorial Sloan-Kettering ID slotted neatly in my wallet behind my American Express card—I shopped. There was the peasant skirt I bought at Calypso after the first surgical consultation, the Ralph Lauren cable cashmere cardigans I bought after the third.
After a post-lumpectomy checkup, there were the clownishly oversize Adidas sneakers I picked out for my son—a secret insurance policy that I would be around to see them fit. Even an 11th-hour trip to the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston yielded four coveted Palio plates from a little shop on Newbury Street. When one surgeon suggested that I start a “cancer diary” to help me process the process, I stifled the urge to laugh in his face. Who needed a diary? I had my credit card statements.
Along the way, I encountered women in similar situations who were keeping retail chronicles of their own. A fashion designer told me how she ate lunch at Barneys before her chemotherapy sessions. A college professor recounted how she fought a brutal, chemically induced depression by trying on shoes. Every morning for six weeks, as I sat in the waiting room of Stich Radiation Center at New York-Presbyterian Hospital, I listened to women with cancer discussing and comparing their most recent purchases, be it lipstick, a wig, a bracelet or a wheelchair.
Certainly, these women and I were only doing what women do every day: going to work, attending to our children, accruing details—and taking a quick spin around Saks somewhere in between. But for us, there was comfort in the routine. Much the same way we exulted over the words “grossly unremarkable” on the pathology reports of our tumors, we were buoyed by the normalcy of shopping. We browsed, not for the quick lozenge-effect of the latest fad, but for continuity. We ordered hairpieces that exactly matched our own hair. We bought makeup to simulate our precancer skin tones, blotches and all. No longer searching for a grail that could make us look taller or leaner, we shopped to look precisely the way we always had.
Last week, I had my final radiation session. To mark the occasion, I decided to walk from the hospital back to F. A. O. Schwarz. As I passed by store windows along the way, I was struck by the array of clothing, accessories and beauty products that had been created in honor of Breast Cancer Awareness Month: the T-shirts and tote bags, earrings and pink-laced sneakers.
Before my diagnosis, I thought of this October retail practice as slightly distasteful, the chic-ifying and merchandising of a serious disease. Now, there seemed to me a strange symmetry between these two worlds. Seen one way, breast cancer is not unlike Bendel’s in that both are populated almost exclusively by women. Both create a sense of sorority. Both have a certain underpinning of secrecy. Just as some women hide their purchases from their husbands, other women hide their cancers from their employers and children, grandparents and co-workers.
While I have never been secretive about my spending habits, I did hide my cancer from all but my closest family and friends. I wanted to avoid the scrutiny that comes with illness, the conversations with information-hungry people who mask their curiosity as concern and use phrases like “we’re rooting for you.” I needed to minimize the crocodile tears, the gossip, the questions like “How can you go shopping at a time like this?”
How could I not? In what had abruptly become a frighteningly circumscribed universe, shopping offered possibility, a forward stretch into seasons to come. Soothed by the familiar rhythms of a department store, I could distract myself from nausea and walk off waves of fatigue. Even on my shakiest days, I could convince myself that if I didn’t find anything good on one floor, I would on the next. In shopping, as in all else, where there’s hope, there’s life.”
(This article was originally published in the Style section of the Sunday New York Times on October 20, 2002. Copyright © 2002 by The New York Times Co.)
As far as I know, Ellen Tien continues to live, shop and write in New York City. And the shoes – they are Jimmy Choo’s Pink Ribbon Shoes. At $495, they are pricey. But 15% gets donated to the Breast Cancer Research Foundation (which happens to be headed up by my neighbor, God bless her, who has never had breast cancer). I’m not telling anyone to go out and buy them. I just think they’re pretty….