Independence Day: New Blog Title Debut!

At the party with friends Cheryl and Brigitte

Yesterday was Independence Day in the US, typically celebrated with cookouts, parades, and fireworks. Steve and I have an annual tradition of attending a pool party thrown each year by a hiking friend, Jeff, and his wife. They grill hotdogs and hamburgers, everyone brings a dish to share, and we sit outside in camp chairs (or inside if it rains) and occasionally take a dip in the pool. Jeff always takes lots of fun pictures, and it’s a great afternoon spent with friends.

At last year’s July 4th party, Steve and I were still trying to get our heads around my recent diagnosis; it was so recent, in fact, that we’d told a few of our friends, but not yet all. I had an appointment on July 7th to get my port surgically implanted, and my first chemo was set to begin on July 8th. I remember feeling strangely calm—I managed to talk with some of the friends who knew what was happening about my illness without ever crying. But it was hard to feel genuinely celebratory, anticipating a year whose few certainties included pain, grief, and loss. It didn’t feel much like freedom, of any kind.

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Rose bouquet

This year felt much different. Two weeks out of my last major reconstructive surgery, I’m doing well and feeling stronger each day. This year’s Independence Day was marked by a return to a sense of personal independence, of healing, hope, and looking forward to regaining health and strength. My friend Cheryl surprised me with some beautiful roses, a happy acknowledgment of a day that had more significance than even she may have realized. There’s still a long road of recovery yet to travel, but I’m so grateful that this holiday, my struggle was trying to get my head around just how much can and has transpired in a year. I am once again free from cancer. It feels like a whole new world.

So, in honor of Independence Day, I’m making the name change of the blog official: Still Life, Beyond Cancer. As some wise friends have pointed out, I may wish to make still another change in the future, as I continue to heal and my world shifts and changes further. For now, I think the word “beyond” acknowledges both my cancer-free state (hooray!) and the fact that the physical and emotional effects of this past year still affect me daily. I hope that continuing to tell my story helps others who are themselves survivors or who know and love survivors.

Cheers!

Survivor: sur– referring to beyond, in addition to; -vivor as in vive, life. There’s life beyond cancer, something I’m thankful for each day.

Over the next week or so I’ll be updating some of the images on the site, too, to reflect the change visually. Now that my last major surgery is complete, I hope to resume a weekly posting schedule in the near future as well.

As always, thank you for reading, and stay tuned!

And—better late than never—cheers to freedoms of all kinds, to (re)gaining independence, and to those fighting for both.

 

 

They’re Not “Just Boobs” to Me

“They’re just boobs.”

More than one well-meaning friend or acquaintance has uttered that or a similar statement in an attempt to comfort me, minimize the anxiety I feel as I face a bilateral mastectomy. I will willingly say good-bye to my natural breasts in the interest of prolonging my life; it’s the wise choice. But there’s no “just” about it.

They aren’t “just” boobs. They’re my boobs. My breasts are part of me. I have not, and will not, “use” them, it is true, for their evolutionary purpose, to feed a child or children. As such, some might say they are extraneous.

But they’re mine. And I like them.

And I grieve their loss.

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I didn’t always like my breasts. They debuted, when I was a young teen, as small knots on my chest, literally: hard bumps arose underneath each of my nipples. I was embarrassed to ask my pediatrician to examine these buds, but he reassured me (and my mother) everything was fine. For years I worried I was “too small,” even after I turned seventeen and suddenly gained a cup size, perhaps a result of the hearty German fare I ate while an exchange student that year. I still felt my minimal cleavage didn’t quite balance out my womanly hips, that my nipples were too prominent.

And they were troublemakers, these breasts of mine. When I was in my late twenties, I found a lump. It turned out to be nothing but a benign, fluid-filled cyst, and some doctors in the medical center at Ohio State, where I was in grad school, drained it. That was the first of many more benign cysts, too many to count.

makeup2It was also the start of many years of creative commentary by various medical professionals. I’m a “cyst-maker”; I have “busy breasts.” Enough nurses and doctors expressed surprise at the number and volume of my cysts that I felt like a curiosity. One surgeon in Georgia, who I’d been referred to for draining yet another set of what one nurse called my “natural implants,” greeted me by exclaiming, “Why, you’re just a little bitty thing!” He waved a copy of my scans through the air. ”After seeing the size of your cysts, I thought you’d have great big ba-zooms!”

I didn’t, though I was slowly learning to appreciate them just as they were. Practically speaking, smaller breasts offered maximum wardrobe flexibility: I could wear low-cut or clingy tops without attracting unwanted attention, and button-downs never gaped. But I also finally realized they were, actually, pretty nice breasts. Kind of perky, actually. By the time I reached my early thirties, I’d have said they were my favorite part of my body.

Like many women, I’ve often struggled with body image and self-doubt. It took me more than half my life to love my breasts. Now I must let them go, and re-learn to embrace my body, post-surgery, all over again.

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I know I am no more or less a woman with or without my breasts. My identity as a woman, my worth as a human, is not defined by the shape or size of my chest. Nor do I assume that breasts are universal signifiers for femininity, womanhood, or desirability. In fact, the way breasts are weirdly glorified and overly sexualized, especially in American culture, has often puzzled and annoyed me. I once argued with a man who insisted that breasts were always sexual. No, I replied. If I choose to walk out my front door with my breasts exposed, or with no clothes on at all, that does not necessarily constitute a sexual act; minus a display of express and clear intent, it’s definitely not a sexual invitation. I’m just naked, and we’re all, as the saying goes, naked under our clothes.

portrait-poseSomething else I know: attachment is the root of all suffering. Yet I find it difficult not to be attached to something that is, well, attached to me. Front and center.

My breasts have been my conscious companions at the beach, suited up and sun-screened in a cleavage-baring bikini; on the figure-modeling dais, revealed in the service of a painter’s line, curve, and shadow; on the running trail, compressed and protected in a jazzy neon sports bra.

My breasts have brought me pleasure in private moments, sensual pleasure wrapped up in sensitive nerve endings and a lover’s tender touch, his open admiration. My breasts have brought me aesthetic pleasure, when I slip into a pretty dress that fits just so, hugs the curves of my hips and breasts in a way that makes me feel sexy and beautiful.

My breasts are not some idle, remote organ like an appendix, whose absence I’d scarcely notice. They are a daily presence and a source of pleasure, and I will miss them.

~~~

I will have reconstruction, and I’m grateful for that. I’ve talked to enough survivors, however, to understand the process is no picnic. And my bionic boobs, as I’ve come to call them, will look and feel quite different from my natural breasts.

I’ve been trying to find ways to reconcile myself to the coming changes. I’ve begun to try to re-frame the mastectomy in my mind: instead of thinking about losing my breasts, I focus on regaining my health. I’m saying goodbye to a cherished part of my body, but I am also saying goodbye to the cancer.

I’ve tried to imagine my breasts as being like an old friend, one whose friendship has become toxic. She was a perfect match in my younger years: we liked the same music, went to the same parties, celebrated good days and commiserated over bad ones. Then, she began to lash out, to drink too much; when I was around her, so did I. We had a great run, my old friend and I, but now—well, she’s not healthy for me anymore. I appreciate the good times we shared; I’m grateful and glad for her having been in my life. Even though it hurts, I know I have to say goodbye.

Still, my body isn’t a metaphor. Metaphors don’t go numb or swell with lymphedema. They don’t scar or press your chest with pain. They don’t change what you wake up to every morning, what you see in the mirror, for the remainder of your days.

I’m working on cultivating greater self-compassion and acceptance. I recently hired a photographer to document and celebrate my pre-surgery body, highlighting my bald head with a beautiful custom headpiece. And this time, after surgery, I don’t want to wait thirty years to decide to like my body, my (new) breasts. It won’t always be easy, but loving myself as I am is a choice I will endeavor to make every day.

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The photos included here are a preview selection from the shoot described in the post: photos by Michael Wilson, Bohemian Robot Photography; make-up by Jolina Goad, Jolina does Make-up; bespoke headpiece by Sandra Eileen, Every Girl a Goddess Couture Headpieces.

This Brave New World

Getting a cancer diagnosis is a disorienting experience. It’s as if you’re sitting curled up on the sofa, reading the newest Jennifer Weiner, empathizing with the protagonist as she navigates the everyday joys and foibles of new love and family life, and you turn the page to find yourself suddenly thrust into the middle of a dystopian sci-fi novel. The characters are mostly the same, outside a few additions wearing white coats or colorful scrubs. But the rest of the world has changed. Surrealistic and strange elements—barium smoothies, giant machines, unpronounceable chemicals—appear frequently. The tone, previously light peppered with poignancy, now shifts between darkly serious and comically absurd, every page weighted with philosophical subtext probing what is the meaning of life?

You want more than anything to flip the pages back, to return to the other story. But you can’t.

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The weekend immediately following my Friday biopsy, a lone gunman entered Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, and shot and killed 49 people and wounded 53 others. That Tuesday, the day after my diagnosis, a toddler was snatched by an alligator in the shallows of a Disney resort lagoon while his parents stood steps away. As I read accounts from those in the club who’d lost loved ones in the shooting, as I imagined the horror and pain of the parents who lost their son, I wondered: how do people who have experienced such suffering, such sudden and horrifying trauma, stand it? How do they go on?

I am slowly discovering: you just do.

I’m not equating anyone’s tragedy with my breast cancer diagnosis; another lesson I’m quickly learning is how individual the process of navigating any form of grief or loss is. And yet all of us who experience a sudden trauma (and many, if not most, of us will) must face that same question, and need to find an answer.

I go on because there aren’t many alternatives. Some who are ravaged by grief take their own lives, but that’s exactly what I don’t want: I don’t want to die yet. That’s exactly why a cancer diagnosis is scary and soul-shifting: the aura of death that hovers around the word. I don’t want to die yet because there are still so many things I want to do. And that eliminates another alternative: curling up and hiding. It’s tempting, and I did lay low in the early days, when we were waiting on more information before we shared the news. It was easier to avoid people than to lie when they asked “How are you?”

But I’ve since felt spurred to action. To reprioritize. To kiss my husband Steve more often. To work actively on a book project. To tell my friends and family as often as I can how grateful I am for their care. Even when it feels like this giant looming thing has pressed the pause button on my life, I am still a newlywed, a wife, a daughter, a friend. I still have stepsons, a dog, cats I love; trails I want to hike, words I wish to write. Uncertainty will be foregrounded in my life for a while, but it’s better, necessary, to keep moving forward. If I found myself in any other threatening landscape—a snowstorm, a swamp—I wouldn’t stop and stand still; that would be uncomfortable, painful, dangerous. I keep moving because hunkering down and staying put won’t make things easier, only harder. I keep moving because whatever hope there is lies somewhere ahead.

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Getting a cancer diagnosis is a disorienting experience. You wake up one morning, head to an appointment for a routine procedure you’ve had done maybe 10 or 15 times—already assured of your good health from a test the week before—and then: an image on a screen, a doctor’s pause, and you know the world you knew is no longer. The story is rewritten in an instant. Perhaps it is a bit like standing on the edge of a peaceful lagoon where an alligator you never imagined could exist appears and snatches away your heart. You wonder: What could I have done differently? Is it my fault? Why me? How can this happen? Yet you know these are pointless questions. The thing has already happened. The world has already changed.

And so you go on. Put one foot in front of the other, and go.