Drag Queens and Dobermans - a cancer survivor (PhD) story
Hello, my name is Vivi. And I am Survivor.
In honor of International Cancer Awareness Day (typically the first Sunday of June each year) as well as the month of June being Pride Month, I thought a post from me would be apropos; I am a queer cancer survivor who asserts that drag queens and Dobermans not only saved my life, but also lead me to pursue a PhD.
The first time I was diagnosed with cancer, I was 18 years old, mere weeks from my high school graduation. Cervical cancer. I went through surgeries and radiation and kept my diagnosis and treatment under wraps because I was embarrassed by it, and felt like it would define me. And who wants to be defined by something so crappy?
At 19, I was diagnosed a second time. Ovarian cancer treatments were more aggressive. Unable to conceal my illness entirely, I sometimes accepted when friends offered help. As a result, I have fond memories of a friend who literally wore me like a backpack to get me to class, while another friend carried my satchel, and after class the two would come to get me again. I had allies.
But it still remained ever important to me to not be defined by my cancer. Struggling with being a member of the queer community as well, the last thing I wanted to manage was the identity of someone who was Sick, Separate, and Fragile as well as Bisexual. So even in my small circle of friends, no one talked about why I was so tired. Or slept so much. And on the days I felt good, I was a normal college student, doing normal college student things.
In my mid 20’s, I was in graduate school and in treatments once again, this time for intestinal polyps which involved the “treatment trifecta”, including radiation, invasive surgeries, and chemotherapy. My chemo cocktails could have brought a rhino to its knees. Twice I had to be rushed to the ER for severe dehydration, because I couldn’t stand or talk due to the lack of fluid retention in my body. But (making things worse) I remained a bad patient.
Vivi Fun Fact #254. I was once forced to reschedule a Chemo Cocktail Appt. because my blood alcohol level was too high. Can we say Bad Bad Party Patient?
Inwardly, I resisted praise and warmth. Outwardly, I scoffed at kindnesses and sympathies offered in my direction. I didn’t want to be defined by my illness. I didn’t listen when others told me how tremendous it was that I was even breathing. Air goes in and out, right? How is that so flippin’ special? I didn’t feel fortunate; I felt like a fraud. And this newly-defined existence could not be survived without sharing with others, actually trusting them to help me heal.
At the time (in the mid-90s) group therapy was a newly integrated part of cancer treatment and was a bit “hit or miss”. For me, it was a miss. My dark humor was not appreciated in the inner circles of CBT and talk therapies.
So how did I survive? Early detection? Experimental drugs? Having excellent health, a strong will, a loving family, and blood pressure one step above a zombie’s? All important factors that I indeed had. But the real key to survival? Finding a support group/system that works for you.
Not many people can say that drag queens and Dobermans saved their lives, but I can. I had two loving Dobermans (Lucy and Ethel) who gave me unconditional love and whose natural instincts saved me from myself on more than one occasion. My drag mother, Lee, lived next door to me. An HIV positive queen and a marvelous human being, she was the leader of my private tribe.
When I was really suffering, those who had empathy, through survival stories of their own, rather than sympathy, were my queens. This was the support group that understood me and loved me. Acceptance is not to be taken for granted when you’ve been labeled Unacceptable and Inappropriate for much of your life. They didn’t judge me or pity me, even when I had a meltdown and my eyebrows wiped off my face with a single swipe of a washcloth one morning. They waited until I came up for air, gave me a martini, and taught me how to draw those suckers back on.
I let this support system into my life and they saved it. Beyond the smaller obstacles of managing synthetic wigs, creative stage-to-street make-up, and sitting upright for longer than 30 minutes at a stretch? They taught me to own my decisions, the good ones and the bad.
Twenty years after leaving Los Angeles, I wa finally ready to come to terms with the identity struggles that I experienced during those times in my life. I began digging up old journals, reading about how my queens taught me to create the beauty on the outside that I felt inside, to look objectively at the world in order to demand that it view me that way too. And I thought, here is a queer narrative that is also illness narrative and survivor story – one that is worthy of examination and expression.
My PhD project delves into the world of inherited narratives, investigates and applies the craft of memoir, discusses identity development, stigma, performativity, trauma, and memory, and considers the impacts of these intersections with illness narratives and queer lives. It has also necessitated a spiritual and life-changing journey that involved examining the impact of inherited narratives of my own identity through (re)lived experiences and (re)created memories. I wrote a memoir using “honest ink” to (re)construct queer lives with genuine voices, that intersect with illness experiences in sincere and complex spaces. And I did it with Dobermans and drag queens.