My first morning in Maui, I sat on the lanai and I cried. For five months my life had been inscribed by chemotherapy. Everything I did, I did because I felt well enough to do it. Everything I missed, I missed because treatment kept me from it. Even what I wore each day was dictated by the chemicals swirling through my veins: Sweaters stayed in the closet because they collected too much of the hair I was shedding; earrings were to distract from the wispy remains on my head; eyebrow pencil evolved from mild vanity to public service.
And then, like that, chemo was over and I was at a fancy Hawaiian resort, overcome by the disturbing feeling that I didn’t know who I was anymore. I was no longer a breast cancer patient undergoing chemotherapy, yet I wasn’t free from either cancer or chemo.
When I got invited by a publicist for Hawaiian Airlines to visit Maui and Oahu, departing from New York four days after I was scheduled to have my sixteenth and final round of chemo, it seemed like a clear sign that god wanted me to go to Hawaii.
I consulted the team of medical professionals at Mount Sinai’s Dubin Breast Center who’d been clinically feeling me up for the last six months and got thumbs-up all around to take the trip. I quickly said yes and bought my husband a ticket to come with me—after supporting me through my diagnosis and treatment he needed this vacation as much as I did.
I started reaping the benefits of the getaway almost immediately. Since I’d started chemo in October, I’d grasped at the date of my last treatment—February 28, 2018—and it offered me all the certitude of a wet sponge. Like a prophecy for the Rapture: a big deal that may never come. Even as I turned the calendar page from January to February, it failed to seem real. But that changed when the flight confirmation landed in my email. If the date on the ticket, March 4, was coming, then by definition, February 28 was coming, too. I had something tangible to look forward to. Instead of marching toward the absence of something bad, I was actively pursuing something good: comparing hotel rooms, arranging tours, booking a WaveMotion massage and a lomi lomi facial, and counting down the days to escape and adventure. I was actually excited for something.
In the very near future I’d be 5,000 miles away from snowy New York, sending a distant middle finger to chemo, my savior and constant foe. At the same time, I was bidding a bittersweet farewell to my body as I know it. Less than a week after finishing chemo, and less than a month before having a double mastectomy, I was taking my breasts on one last trip to the beach. I was going on my boobymoon.
The moment I stepped onto the plane I was transported out of my reality and into vacation mode. There was Hawaiian music playing and the flight attendants had flowers in their hair. I sipped a Mai Tai. We arrived at the Fairmont Kea Lani in Maui after dark, and in the morning I woke early to take a functional strength training class with the other travelers in my group—two young Instagram influencers and an even younger social media manager from a wellness website.
I expected I’d have spent time with them the night before and had a chance to explain my situation. But I hadn’t, and I wondered if there would be a good time, or a good reason, to do it. (I’ve been open about my diagnosis and treatment, but it’s not the kind of thing you drop during the cab ride from the airport, or over cocktails and crudite with strangers.) Although I did the exercises without a problem, I was suddenly very aware of my weird post-chemo hair and dearth of eyelashes, that I was the only one stopping to drink water, and the way that doing a team-building hands-in put my chemo-ravaged fingernails on display. I wanted to disclaim all my medically-induced idiosyncrasies, yet saw no pressing reason to do it except to make me feel less self-conscious. Not that it would have.
After a breakfast of fresh fruit and smoked opah (moonfish), I went back to the room energized from exercise and sunshine. Then I sat on the balcony, looked out over the Pacific, and burst into tears. I was so happy, but I was so confused. I was no longer a chemo patient, but I wasn’t really not one, either. After defining myself in a particular way for so long, I wasn’t sure who I was supposed to be anymore.
And though I had a sense of being “done,” my journey was far from over. By the end of the month—the day after my 37th birthday—I’d be on an operating table having both of my breasts removed and replaced with tissue expanders. As I healed, we’d cross our fingers that the severed blood supplies to my skin wouldn’t cause cell death, and after a few months I’d have my temporary implants swapped out for permanent ones. Those would probably have to be changed every decade or so, and all the while I’d have the fear of recurrence lurking in my mind. By 40 I’d have my ovaries removed (a bonus of being BRCA1-positive).
After exploring Maui and Oahu, my husband and I flew to the Big Island of Hawaii and hiked the basalt rock fields of Kilauea volcano to see a lava flow up close. I’d been worried the 7-mile trek would be too much for me 10 days after my last dose of Taxol and carboplatin. I’d never made it to 10 days; the treatments were weekly. But I was fine and fantastically thrilled to be fine. Our guide found a great flow (a 10 out of 10, he called it), and as I watched the burning hot lava pour forth from the ground, harden, and crust over, I cried again.
The earth there had been forever changed. It cracked and it bled and it wept, roiling, spilling over itself, searing with its own infernal heat. Yet as it cooled, it calmed and grew stronger. Soon it would be solid. In days it would be rock. Tears poured out of me like that primordial ooze and I thought about where I’d been and where I was heading. Soon my body would be forever changed. I pictured myself in my new topography, stronger, solid, rock. And I knew that one day I’d again be calm.
I thought about something the instructors said the morning of that strength workout. They’d started the class with an oli, a traditional chant to consecrate an event. In translating it into English, they told us about the Hawaiian interpretation that time is not linear. They described it as a spiral: The past informs the present, which informs the future.
Even as I watch the traces of chemo recede bit by bit from daily life, it is as much a part of my present as my past. It’s part of my future, too. A future it will have helped me reach, a future in which I could need it again.
In coming to Hawaii, I wanted to get far, far away from my life for a spell. Standing there, in that otherworldly terrain, watching the planet seize with upheaval and settle stoically into its evolution, I felt that distance and it felt like joy.
After my own personal volcanic eruption, the boobymoon got significantly lighter. We kayaked and met sea turtles and took a terrible tour of a Kona coffee farm where an intern accidentally made our pour overs with salt water. Twice. If I’m being honest, my boobs didn’t even get to see the beach. Chemo makes your skin super sensitive to the sun, so I stayed ridiculously covered up most of the time. I packed a bikini—but only sported a high-necked, cap-sleeved one-piece with a thick layer of SPF 45 sunscreen. I wore leggings in a canoe.
But when I strapped a snorkel mask to my face (and a UPF bandana to my scalp) and swam among sea urchins and trumpetfish in the coral reef at Kealakekua Bay, I felt a freedom that even the teeny-weeniest of bikinis could never impart. Concealed though they were, the pair of Ds that once earned me the nickname Trophy Rack provided ample flotation for my coastal adventure. And if that’s the last thing they ever do, it’s as splendid a send-off as I could hope for.