Jay Lake: Writer

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[Cancer]

[cancer] Sex, somatic illusions, and me

I’ve always been subject to what doctors call “referred pain“, which I tend to think of as a special case of somatic illusion or neural signalling error. My very mild plantar fasciitis, which is a problem in the soles of the feet, expressed itself as a painful soreness in the ankle that caused me to think at first I was developing a bone spur. The time I somehow acquired adhesions in my shoulder tendon, I felt it as a pain in my right biceps. The nerve damage to the outer curve of my third and fourth left ribs during my lung surgery in 2009 felt like damage to matching points my sternum and spine, the “shot through with an arrow” feeling I complained about for more than a year and still occasionally feel as an old ache.

Under cut for TMI of all sorts, but still mostly work-safe

In other words, my body likes to play tricks on me. This figures pretty largely into my lower GI disruptions as well, in everything from the inevitable tenesmus that has been a significant problem since my 2008 colon surgery, which can keep me trapped on the toilet for an hour or more; to the neural signalling errors that often make it impossible for me to tell flatulence from stool needing to be passed until after the fact. It’s a festival of fun in my personal corpus delecti, let me tell you.

But the weirdest one ever was the “tennis ball”, and what it has morphed into in the years since. My lung resectioning in the fall of 2009 was supposed to laparoscopic. They were doing a small wedge resection, not a lobectomy or anything major. However, when the surgeon got into my lung tissue, he found a number of small, hard nodules that hadn’t been on the pre-operative imaging. So they spread my third and fourth ribs at the point just under my armpit, and he went all the way in to harvest the nodules from all around my left lung by feel. This gave me a much more complex post-operative recovery process, both short-term and long-term.

For the first few weeks after surgery, I kept feeling like there was an enormous swelling at the surgery site. This feeling was so intense that I would also notice it in my left arm, as if my arm were being pushed away from my body. I must have driven my caregivers nuts, asking them to check and recheck, like a little kid demanding that the closet be inspected for monsters six or eight times per night. Yes, I was that little kid, too. Drove my Dad nuts.

Nothing was ever there. The swelling was only ever minimal, and went down promptly. I never had any kind of a bump, visible or otherwise. But I kept believing it. It felt so real. Like a tennis ball duct-taped to the side of my body. And without standing in front of a mirror, it’s kind of hard to look under your own armpit with full visibility.

The tennis ball illusion eventually shrank to a small orange. Then a lemon. Then a mandarin. These days it’s long gone. But I still have an odd, sensuous, sensitivity there. All my scars are sensuously sensitive, but the two on my left side especially so. When I’m with a partner who wants to kiss or stroke them, it gives me an odd frisson unlike anything I ever felt prior to my cancer experiences. It’s not arousing, particularly, to have my scars kissed and stroked, but it is especially erotic.

And those two on the left side? When they’re being attended to, I have the illusion of a layer there that can be picked at with a fingernail and peeled back, like a childhood scab. I imagine that feeling would be slightly, pleasantly painful and deeply intense and rock me to the core of my world. It’s weird but understandable how cancer has become entwined with my sexual identity. I’m not a pain queen at all, and I haven’t acquired any kind of medical fetish — I certainly have no particular special interest in (or aversion to) anyone else’s scars.

But my own?

They’ve become a sort of focus. The mark of my survivorship. And my extraordinary libido has carried forward through all of this without ever being wiped out. It’s just created new erogenous zones for me.

I don’t care if the feeling those scars being me is a somatic illusion. They’re mine. And I love it when they are loved on.

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