March 31st, 2011 - Gila Pfeffer
No matter who you are or how your life is going, sooner or later every adult person experiences something that is so pivotal, so earth shattering that every other experience they have must be viewed through the lens of that monumental thing. Every photo you look at is classified as either B.I or A.I.; Before Incident or After Incident. Forty-seven years into this life of mine, my first thought upon looking at any photo of myself is: Was this taken Before Chemo or After Chemo?
In any given photo, it is my hair (or wig, or scarf) that quickly answers that question. A full head of hair in a photo taken of me with my family in early February 2009 doesn’t fool me- I know that I’m looking at a 34—year-old mother of four who is two weeks into her breast cancer treatment and that the very next day her hair will start coming out in clumps. That a few days later she’ll shave her head rather than suffer the indignity of losing her hair despite every effort made to avoid the cancer that made orphans of her and her younger siblings when they were too, too young.
So here, on March 31, 2011, you may think you’re looking at a young woman posing ironically in the warm sun of a late-season French ski slope, mugging for the camera while sporting both sunglasses AND goggles and wearing the first pair of ski pants she’s ever owned, but all I see is my hair. It’s less than two years post chemo and it’s still short, but dammit it’s pinned and pulled back into a barely-there ponytail and that is progress. I am so grateful for my new, baby-fine hair that my goggles can rest on after a year and a half of not being able to execute my most natural maneuver- pushing up my ever-present sunglasses (I am NEVER without sunglasses) to rest like a headband on my scalp. God, it felt good to have my own hair as a barrier between my scalp and the goggles. The wafting, lunchtime scents of coffee, beer and greasy French fries being consumed by other skiers nearby lulled me further into the sense that life could be good, that it didn’t have to be one trauma after the next.
I’m experiencing a huge range of freedoms and firsts all at once; having moved with my husband and four little kids from New Jersey to London just two months after completing my grueling breast cancer treatment regimen (complete with a menopause inducing oophorectomy), this was our very first adults-only vacation with our new British friends. My mother-in-law had flown in to watch our kids while we stayed in a wooden chalet and skied in the French Alps for four blissful days. It was my first time in the French Alps, and it seemed impossible to me that this little girl from an insular, modest upbringing in Staten Island was somehow skiing in France. It felt strange and perfectly normal at the same time.
It was my first time attempting such a rigorous and demanding activity such as skiing since having my abdomen sliced open to move my stomach fat and muscle up to where my breasts once were, before the tissue was removed in a preventative double mastectomy. I was terrified that with one false move on the slopes, something in me would rip or break, that my body would once again betray me the way it had when it revealed early but aggressive cancer during what should have been a preventative surgery.
And it was the first time I remember feeling truly settled in my new British life and truly settled in my new body which made its way at a moderate pace down several intermediate ski runs a bunch of times without incident. My stitches were healing, my hormones had settled into their new menopausal roles and now, with enough hair to feel the wind pass through it, I allowed myself to relax, to unclench my jaw and feel not only that the worst was behind me, but that the best was right now where I stood in the bright snow and even brighter sun wearing nothing more than two layers of T-shirt, the sounds of clinking coffee cups and pop songs blaring from the ski resort speakers all around me.
Gila Pfeffer is an American writer and author who lives in the UK with her husband and four teenaged children. She writes relatable personal essays in the parenting and breast cancer space and recently co-authored a book called I Just Want to Hang Out With You which is part of a NYT best selling series.
Gila is an eleven-year breast cancer pre-vivor AND survivor (like Angelia Jolie but with less press coverage) and she uses her social media platforms to promote breast cancer prevention. She posts an attention-grabbing “Feel It On The First” post every first of the month on her Instagram.
Her work can be found on the parenting websites Grown & Flown, Momtastic, Filter Free Parents and such humor publications as Points In Case, Sammiches & Psych Meds and more. Please visit her website, https://the-mom-who-knew-too-much.com to read more of Gila’s writing.
Gila is currently at work on a memoir about how to sail through the worst life throws at you while keeping your sense of humor and perspective intact.
Connect with Gila on her social channels:
Tik Tok: @gilapfeffer
Facebook: The Mom Who Knew Too Much