A Breast Cancer Survivor’s Survival Guide? Start With Air Guitar

Source Photo courtesy of Marquina Marie Iliev-Piselli

Why you should care

Because happy solutions trump not-so-happy problems.

The first time I got up onstage, I had no idea what I was doing. But with my hair spiked into a mohawk, I jammed out and jumped around for 60 seconds — and just like that, I fell in love. With? Competitive air guitar.

Dressed in the most outlandish apparel I could find, I’d compete on stages from New York to Finland, strumming a nonexistent guitar while very existent fans screamed in appreciation. It was a “sport” that combined the kinetic expressiveness of dance with the rockstar swagger of karaoke, and I couldn’t get enough of it — onstage, I was at my most confident, my most spontaneous, my most assertively and wildly alive.

But having a child has a funny way of changing, well, just about everything. So when Lorenzo was born, I thought that maybe it was time to put my frivolous hobbies aside. I decided to hang up my air guitar, and instead, focus on this new performance of mine called “motherhood.”

I was raw, primal energy, an ecstatic triumph of the imagination.

One day when Lorenzo was three, however, I felt a tiny lump in my breast. A clogged milk duct, I thought. Surely. But when the tiny lump grew from the size of a pea to the size of a walnut, I went in for a breast exam.

A few days later, the doctor called.

“I hate having calls like this,” he said. “It’s malignant.”

My mind went blank. Later I would google the word “malignant” to be sure that it meant what I thought it meant. It did.

Before long, I found myself lying on an operating table, fluorescent lights above me, shining harsh and unblinking, and a nurse was cutting my chest open to implant a chemo port. It was strange to know, in an abstract kind of way, that the chemo was poisoning me. But it was even stranger to be able to track the chemicals’ progress, to feel the cold sludge scrape its way through my circulatory system, and reach my mouth that now tasted like metal.

I’d sit there for six hours at a time, listening to the cries and wails of the patients around me, thinking about all the errands I had to run and the lunches I had to make. Because after all, I was still a mom — the only difference was the crushing exhaustion and the fact that I had less and less hair to run my hands through.

After the chemo shrunk my tumor down to a manageable size, it was time to remove and rebuild my right breast. As I laid unconscious beneath a swarm of surgical masks, a scalpel was plunged into my torso. It sliced all the way around my breast, which was then cleanly lifted up and off my body. My nipple was carved out of the dying flesh and placed to the side like a spare part. Then the skin and fat of my belly were cut away, sculpted into something resembling a breast, and then sewn into place. Nerve endings were reattached, and my nipple was affixed to its new mound of flesh, like a confused tree planted in foreign soil.

Recovery was difficult. When I finally stopped leaking blood into silicone bags, I would walk around hunched over, as I did not have enough skin on my belly to stand up straight. I also could not exert myself, or carry anything — including my son, a new inadequacy that he found baffling and, at times, intolerable. 

Only weeks after my surgery, I flew with Lorenzo to visit my parents, but when we landed, it was well past his bedtime. As I walked a sleepy, cranky Lorenzo through the hallway connecting the plane to the airport, he asked to be picked up. Already struggling to carry the luggage, I shook my head — and that was not the answer he wanted. He plopped himself down on the ground and began to scream.

I knelt down and tried to comfort him, the suitcases of grumpy passengers knocking into my shoulder as they stepped around our little crisis. But even when I could soothe him enough to stand up and take a few steps forward, he would collapse down in renewed sobs, and the cycle would begin again.

Holding him close, I began to cry myself. He was so tired — from not being able to sleep, from having to do so much on his own, from putting up with a universe that had thrust a seemingly impossible task upon him.

Six months after my surgery, and still in the midst of my radiation treatment, I entered the local air guitar competition.

“I’m tired too,” I whispered. “But I can’t pick you up. Please … We have to keep going.”

After what felt like an eternity, we finally made it to the baggage claim, where my dad picked Lorenzo up and calmed him down. I fell into my mom’s embrace, where I found — as always — a reprieve from the trials and anxieties of the world.

During my post-op treatment, I would lay on a table as radiation burned into my body. I was holding my breath and searching my memory for a time when I felt like the joyful, energetic woman I once was. And I found myself thinking back to all those times onstage, music blaring as my fingers galloped across a fretboard made of air. It didn’t matter that I wasn’t holding a real guitar — I was raw, primal energy, an ecstatic triumph of the imagination.

The power of air guitar!

And I realized that just as I had imagined that guitar into existence, maybe I had imagined my excited, passionate self out of existence.

Why? Because moms are supposed to live every moment for their child and their child alone? Because cancer is supposed to be a somber affair, with respect paid to its gravity at every turn?

Suddenly, I decided that I’d had enough. I knew who I was — I was playful. I was adventurous. I was powerful. I was not about to just sit and watch myself wither away — and I knew exactly what I had to do.

Six months after my surgery, and still in the midst of my radiation treatment, I entered the local air guitar competition. No one knew that I was in recovery, and in their presence I found myself not denying or resenting my cancer, but transcending it. Instead of averting their eyes from my shaved head, my fellow competitors excitedly asked to touch it, admiring it as one of the most “metal” things they’d ever seen.

Marquina!

I’m pretty big on the air guitar. Maybe you’ve heard of me?

Source Marquina Iliev-Piselli

And then, it was time. I stepped onto the stage. The crowd cheered, gazing up at a rocker chick who, judging by her buzz cut and feathered bolero, was familiar with the random, often absurd nature of human life, and had decided to embrace it with her whole being.

As the roar of the crowd faded into an anticipatory hum, I planted my feet wide. To signal I was ready for the music to begin, I closed my eyes and pointed a defiant finger skyward. Then I grabbed my invisible axe and stood perfectly still — heart beating strong, and listening patiently for what would come next.

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