'It's Saturday and everything is different. No, I didn't go to the market this morning and I didn't have my usual coffee on Westerstraat. And no, I wasn't getting ready for a new semester at college. Next Monday, January 31st, I have to admit myself at the hospital for my first chemotherapy session. For the next two months, I'm expected each week for a fresh shot of vincristine, etoposide, ifosfamide and loads more exciting abracadabra.'
Sophie is twenty-one when she is diagnosed with a rare, aggressive form of cancer. A striking, fun-loving student, her world is reduced overnight to the sterile confines of a hospital. But within these walls Sophie discovers a whole new world of white coats, gossiping nurses, and sexy doctors; of shared rooms, hair loss, and eyebrow pencils.
As wigs become a crucial part of Sophie's new life, she reclaims a sense of self-expression. Each of Sophie's nine wigs makes her feel stronger and gives her a distinct personality, and that is why each has its own name: Stella, Sue, Daisy, Blondie, Platina, Uma, Pam, Lydia, and Bebé. There's a bit of Sophie in all of them, and they reveal as much as they hide. Sophie is determined to be much more than a cancer patient.
With refreshing candor and a keen eye for the absurd, Sophie van der Stap's The Girl With Nine Wigs makes you smile when you least expect it.
|Publisher:||St. Martin's Press|
|Product dimensions:||8.30(w) x 5.60(h) x 1.10(d)|
About the Author
SOPHIE VAN DER STAP was 21 years old when she was diagnosed with cancer. The Girl with Nine Wigs is the memoir of a girl struggling to survive but even more to live, through her nine invented characters. The experience changed her life, and Sophie has worked as a writer ever since. She has published her first novel, And What If This Were Love, and is currently working on her second. She lives in Paris, France.
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The Girl with Nine Wigs
By Sophie van der Stap, Charlotte Caroline Jongejan an Stap
St. Martins PressCopyright © 2015 Sophie van der Stap
All rights reserved.
THURSDAY, JANUARY 13
Before, my daily routine was to wake up at eight for a long run in the park, then have my coffee while rushing off to class. Now I wake up with a cough, and I'm lucky if I can run half the distance in double the time. Lately I need three coffees just to get going, and I'm still late to class every day.
Visiting the hospital is a thrilling part of my new routine. After numerous appointments with multiple doctors in various hospitals and two visits to the emergency room, I now find myself in yet another antiseptic hospital lounge with stale magazines, waiting to see a new doctor with a new diagnosis and a new file.
At this point, I know this hospital like the back of my hand. I've spent the past two months wandering from one department to the next, from the top floor to the bottom, from the front to the back. Over and over and over again. I've seen eight interns, two gynecologists — why do doctors always assume you're pregnant when they can't figure out what's wrong? — a pulmonary specialist, and two ER teams, and have been prescribed three courses of antibiotics. All to no avail. Between all these doctors, no diagnosis but plenty of symptoms and a lost tampon. Ick. It gave the doctors and my father, who was waiting in the hallway, a big laugh but left me mortified.
My symptoms — a strange jabbing here and there, shortness of breath, the loss of a few kilos (which I'm definitely not complaining about), and a pale face that no amount of blush can mask — don't seem to bring me to a diagnosis. So here I am in the waiting room. Again. A door opens and I see him — the one hundredth white coat to examine me and try to figure out what is causing all these seemingly unrelated symptoms. He approaches the reception desk, picks up my file, and calls out "Miss van der Stap" while randomly scanning the waiting room to see which of the rumpled contestants has just won a spot in his examination room. He calmly acknowledges me as I stand up. A teenager. I can practically see the thought forming in his mind as he looks at me. But to me he looks like a dream: handsome face, nice hands, fortysomething. Finally, my Grey's Anatomy fantasy is becoming a reality. Who knew that a hospital would turn out to be a great place for a single girl like me? I abandon my mom in the waiting room and follow him, gingerly, down the hall.
As my details are taken down for what feels like the hundredth time — amid all these technologically advanced supermachines, they still can't keep track of my records — I take advantage of this time and study Dr. McDreamy more closely. His nametag says DR. K, PULMONARY SPECIALIST. I'm guessing early forties. Charming, handsome, and smart: a playboy or happily married in the suburbs? Or maybe both? Better Google him later. A white coat can be misleading, but shoes never lie. Brogues, black leather. Hmm. ... Not bad, not great either. Not much to go on, but given his age I decide to give him the benefit of the doubt.
He tells me to take a seat and asks me to lift up my top. I'm allowed to keep on my bra. He places a cold metal stethoscope against my chest, and then on my back.
He listens, I sigh.
I sigh, he listens.
I listen, he sighs.
"Something isn't quite right," he says. His words don't scare me. In fact, I'm even a bit relieved. It's been blatantly clear for a long time that something's wrong; finally, someone else is catching on. Handsome and smart. Dr. K might be the answer to this Kafkaesque hospital. At last I'll get a diagnosis, some pills in a jar, and back to normal life.
He finishes examining me but wants me to get my lungs X-rayed on the first floor and then come back and see him. Later, when I get back to Dr. K, pictures of my lungs in hand, he leads me to a different room, where I sit perched on an exam table, the words ENDOSCOPY AND PULMONARY RESEARCH hanging above my head.
"These X-rays don't look good," he says. "There's fluid in your right lung that we need to drain."
"Yes, via a tube in your back."
I swallow. I'm not sure what this tube means, but it doesn't sound like something I want stuck in my back.
This time the bra doesn't stay on. I feel exposed. I'm uncomfortable, and I'm suddenly starting to feel scared and out of place. Why are there all these people fussing over me all of a sudden? I feel outnumbered and wish I hadn't told my mom to wait outside, but I'm too proud to change my mind now. So I sit there shivering as Dr. K, his assistant, whose choice of footwear clearly states that she's more into me than into my doctor, and a clean-shaven intern named Floris prepare a monstrous needle. Three sets of eyes are directed at my two little mounds. Or maybe they're too busy looking at the horrible needle that is about to be stuck into my back and straight through to my lung? Floris seems just as uncomfortable as I am and avoids looking at me directly, which makes the awkwardness I'm feeling grow even more palpable in the small room.
Dr. K's assistant begins to explain to me what is about to happen and why they think it's necessary to puncture my insides: "The X-rays show that there is about three-quarters of a liter of fluid between your lung and your pleura, the sac surrounding your lungs."
"If it's yellow pus, that's bad news," she continues. "That means there's an infection."
"It's better if it's clear fluid."
She gives me a shot of anesthetic to numb my back, but I wish she had given me two. I feel every excruciating inch of that tube as it's being pushed through my back. Dr. K immediately comes to my rescue with a second shot of anesthetic when he sees me wince with pain. The tube is long enough for me to see the fluid streaming from my back. The fluid isn't yellow, but, as it turns out, what it is isn't great either.
Dr. K asks me for my cell phone number. I'm flattered: Everybody knows that cell phone numbers are for dating, not for doctors.
The next evening he calls while I'm having dinner with my parents, but it isn't to ask me for coffee.
"I can't figure out exactly what's going on. I want to admit you for a week so we can run a number of tests. We'll start with an endoscopy."
"We'll make a small incision about two centimeters long on the side of your back and go inside with a tiny camera to take a closer look at your lungs. While we're in there we'll take some tissue samples as well."
"Oh ... sure, if you think it's necessary." I hang up the phone as the first tears come. Suddenly it hits me that this might actually be the start of a long-term relationship with Dr. K, only not in the way I'd hoped. I wipe away my tears before returning to the table. "The doctor just likes having me around," I joke to my parents, who laugh along briefly. We finish the rest of the meal in strained silence.
* * *
Dr. K doesn't waste any time. The next thing I know, instead of staring at the tapestries on the bedroom walls or my souvenirs from far-off places that fill the room, I'm looking at the sterile walls of the hospital.
For a week I lay there in my white room, in my white bed, in my white hospital gown, surrounded by white, white, white. Everywhere I look there are white nurses' uniforms, white gauze, and white lights shining down that give everyone a chalky pallor. Even the doctors and nurses look sick. I have a tube down my nose, a collapsed lung from the endoscopy, and a respirator hanging above my head. There's a lot going on and none of it is good; none of it seems to be leading to any answers. The only silver lining is that I'm finally getting around to some heavy reading. You know, those books you always swear you're going to read but somehow never have time for? Dr. K — whom I've cast as a leading role in my fantasies — comes to visit me every day to see how Anna Karenina and I are getting along. Well, at least I'm doing better than she is.
After a week of hospital tests and scans, they release me on Friday night, just in time for the next semester of university to begin.CHAPTER 2
MONDAY, JANUARY 24
But instead of going back to university, on Monday my father and I are once again sitting in an office of the hospital, but this time opposite a much less handsome face. I try to hide my disappointment as he informs us that Dr. K is at a conference for the week. Whatever, at least somebody will finally be giving me a diagnosis. Suddenly I understand that we've all been worried, but nobody has been talking about it out loud. I think my family is afraid that sharing our worries will make them real, and there's been enough fear recently. At home, the champagne is on ice. Soon we'll be on our way, diagnosis in hand, which for us, after all we've been through, is as good as a cure.
"We received the results from the lab. It's not good. It's cancer."
For a moment I just sit there, my mouth wide open. Then my eyes fill with tears and all the strength drains out of me as I collapse on the floor. I crawl under the desk to hide — maybe cancer doesn't exist under desks. The moment is at once completely surreal and terrifyingly real.
At some point I remember that my father is there. I look up at him — he's just staring off into the distance. My first instinct is to comfort him, but words fail me. I can see the tears reflected in his glasses. He's trying desperately to fight them back, probably thinking the same thing I am: My mother just won her own battle with breast cancer. She went through chemo only two doors down from where we're sitting. It can't be happening again. Not to me. Not when I'm only twenty-one.
Eventually my legs start to work again. I get out from under the desk and hide myself in my thick down coat, looking for some kind of physical comfort. But it just keeps getting colder. All I want to do is to leave. I want to run away so that the last few minutes of my life can be erased. No one except my father and me know that this nightmare is happening. It hasn't yet entered the lives of those around us, and if I run fast to them now, maybe it won't exist in mine either. I turn my back to leave. The doctor asks me where I am going. Who the hell knows? The only thing I know is that I have to get out of here. I instantly and wholeheartedly hate this man. Where the hell is Dr. K? Not only is this creature sitting behind my beloved Dr. K's desk with his arms crossed, now he's telling me I have cancer!
I'm not supposed to be here, at the hospital. I'm supposed to be at my first day of classes for the semester. Outside, students are running to make it to their lectures, coffee in one hand and newspaper in the other. This world is unrecognizable. Outside, my mother and sister are waiting for a reason to pop the champagne.
But inside, I have cancer. We are sent to the oncology ward: Cancer HQ. There the nightmare is confirmed and the truth begins to sink in for real. I'm no longer in the pulmonary department, no longer under Dr. K's care. I sit there, comatose, as my new doctor, Dr. L, discusses my body's malfunctioning as if he were a mechanic. Gross. His first words are a blur; all I hear is "aggressive," "advanced," and "rare." "Rhabdomyosarcoma," he calls it.
"The cancer reaches from the lungs down to the liver," Dr. L says. From the hospital down to the morgue, he might as well say. "It looks like the main tumor is attached to your liver, and it has spread to the pleura." I wish desperately for him to stop, but the blows keep coming.
"It will be a challenge in itself to get rid of, but the real challenge will be keeping it at bay." He pauses. "If there is anything we can do to help ..."
I knew it. "If." He said "if"! "If" means I'm going to die. Am I going to die? Is this what dying feels like? I look down at the spot where the wall meets the floor. I keep on staring at the same spot, trying to hold on to something that isn't there anymore. I walk out into the hall. Numbly shuffling a few meters, I then lean to a wall and let myself glide down till my butt touches the floor. On the floor, there's no danger of falling. My father comes out what seems hours later, but that's not possible. There are too many other unlucky ones to be told they are going to die. I don't dare look him in the eyes, scared of what I will see.
Our next stop is the radiology ward, where I'm injected with radioactive fluid so that they can do a bone scan. My father turns to leave the room. Well, that's great. If he can't even handle this, what the hell am I supposed to do? He comes back bleary-eyed, which he unsuccessfully tries to hide. I later find out that he went to call my mother and sister. The change in the eyes of my family will turn out to be the worst part of this whole nightmare: my father falling to his knees when he thinks I'm not watching; my mother crouching on the stairs, crying on the phone in the middle of the night; my sister unable to touch me without tears welling up in her eyes.
The injection requires two hours to take effect, which gives us just enough time to go home for an hour. I can't bear to spend another second in this place.
"This is not good, Dad," I say. "Not good at all."
"Sophie, they were just as negative with your mother. This year is going to be hell, but next year everything will be back to normal."
"That's bullshit, Dad. We both know this isn't breast cancer they're talking about!"
"That's just the way doctors are," he states firmly.
"And that's just the way fathers are," I reply.
As we turn onto our street, I make out my sister's silhouette waiting in front of the house. Saskia. I always call her Sis. We have the same dark eyebrows and full lips, but our personalities couldn't be more different. Sis is the consummate older sister: methodical, confident, responsible. Whereas I am the classic youngest child: stubborn, rebellious. The only thing we see eye to eye on is not getting along. After seven years of constant fighting, the rift between us just seems too big to fix.
But, bizarrely, Saskia is the one I most want to see. I sob into her open arms.
"Sis, I'm only twenty-one," I stammer. "I have cancer. I might die." She holds me close. I can feel her trembling. We go into the house, both crying. It's the first time in years that we've hugged. It feels good.
When we get inside I go up to my room and sit down in front of my mirror. I stare at my reflection, searching for something strange, something that isn't me, something that doesn't belong there. Something cancerous. All I see is a pale and frightened little girl. Is that me? Am I a girl with cancer? Is this what a girl with cancer looks like?
I think about my mother coming home on the tram. I'm sure she's found a spot in a corner, staring into the distance through the window. Maybe the tram is packed and she has to stand squashed between all those wet raincoats. Or has it stopped raining? I can't remember. I'm too busy crying, shedding more tears over this fucking cancer. Why didn't she just take a taxi home, today of all days? Maybe she needed time to process the news, or to pretend for a few more minutes that it was still just a normal day. First her cancer, and now my cancer. I wish I could be with her, support her, even though I can hardly keep myself upright.
I'm on the toilet when I hear her walking up the stairs toward me. She has this way of walking up and down the stairs: It will never go unnoticed. I quickly zip up my jeans and flush away my nervous pee. My jeans hang loosely around my butt — now I know I can thank the cancer for that. She comes bounding up the stairs and grabs my arms. Her eyes are moist but she isn't crying as she stares into my eyes. "We are going to get through this," she says over and over.
I just nod.
"Repeat after me, Sophie: We are going to get through this. We are going to get through this." She makes me say it countless times. I hold on to the words as tightly as I can. I don't stop repeating the mantra, even as we go back to the hospital for the bone scan. Bone scan. It sounds so ominous.
My grandmother has joined the brigade — she, my dad, and my sister are waiting downstairs in the hospital's depressing cafeteria while my mom, who was under the same machine not so long ago, takes me by the hand and leads the way. I have to take off anything metallic but am allowed to keep on my clothes. The room we're in is enormous, but the machine itself somehow seems even larger.
As I hand my mother my jewelry and bra, she presses her lucky chestnut into my hands. Keeping chestnuts is a family tradition, one that started with my grandmother, oma. Come autumn, we each pick up the most beautiful chestnut we can find and keep them in our pockets for good luck throughout the rest of the year. Anytime I slip my hand in my mother's pocket to keep it warm as we walk together, I know I'll find a chestnut. The one she's given me is the same one she carried through her own cancer treatment. She doesn't let go of me until she is convinced I have adopted her second mantra to chant during the scan: "It's not in my bones. It's not in my bones. It's not in my bones." If the cancer isn't in my bones, it means I have a chance. I repeat her words while stroking the chestnut so hard I'm afraid it might crack.
Excerpted from The Girl with Nine Wigs by Sophie van der Stap, Charlotte Caroline Jongejan an Stap. Copyright © 2015 Sophie van der Stap. Excerpted by permission of St. Martins Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
You would think that a book about a young girl with cancer would be all morose and would be something that would put you in a really bad mood. That is not the case with this book. Yes, towards the end, it does get a little tear jerky, but for the most part, it was kept pretty much up beat. As much as you can with a diagnosis of cancer. While it was kept pretty much upbeat, there was the underlying factor of the difficulty of finding someone to love. That had of have been very hard. I hope she finds him one day. I also loved how the author would put on different wigs and seem to be different characters for the mood that she was feeling then. This was definitely a great read and definitely held my interest. It was entertaining, endearing, informational, sad, funny and kudos to the author who was brave enough to tell her story. Thanks St. Martin's Press and Net Galley for providing me with this free e-galley in exchange for an honest review!