One summer evening finds me in the uncomfortable position of being the focus of attention as I stand in the center of the large group of gathered women. It is dusk, the wind is dying down and the swallows have begun to dip and dive around the meadow. Heat from the day radiates from the ground under my booted feet but I am covered in goose-bumps. A forgotten fire in the pit next to the gathered women smokes and pops. The sudden snap of the banners planted in the ground in each of the four directions makes me flinch. Wearing my work clothes from the lodge fire I have been tending for the past 4 days, I am closely surrounded by a dozen or so women wearing versions of “warrior” costuming ranging from full on Middle Ages chainmail to Amazonian/Xena fantasy. Stuffing my leather gloves in my back pocket I remove my denim shirt to catcalls that immediately fall silent. I walk to the front of the group wearing only my dirty jeans and work boots. All eyes are on me. I am bare-chested standing in front of 150 suddenly silent and crying women and the smooth plane and deep scar where there used to be a right breast cannot be ignored. I raise my makeshift homemade bow to the sky and pull back the string aiming for the newly emerging stars and tears begin streaming down my face.
About a year after my journey with cancer began I attended a Women’s Summer Solstice retreat in eastern Washington with my then 20 year old daughter Megan. This had been an annual event for us – one that appeals much more to her bohemian pagan theatrical self than to my own quieter earth based spiritual side. But I have found my place as one of the leaders of the Lodge community – a small group of women who hold ceremonial and prayer space for the gathering through the use of a Native American sweat lodge that is open to the participants. My role leaves me well known at the gathering, but most of the women I have only a passing, albeit meaningful, connection with and next to no one knew how I had spent the previous year.
As a part of the gathering women have the opportunity to lay claim to one of many offered archetypes (Maiden, Mother, Crone….etc.) to celebrate attributes that they are recognizing now or would like to manifest . It is a public statement of sisterhood and commitment to a path of growth in a certain area. The way of Amazon – or woman warrior – is one of the offered archetypes representing the qualities of female strength, power, leadership and triumph over challenges. The legendary all female tribe of Amazon warriors were respected as ferocious, courageous fighters who reportedly cut off their right breast. Ancient Greek historians have written that this body modification was undergone as a young girl in order to arrest breast growth so that the right side would grow strong with nothing to hinder movement. Symbolically at this gathering women who claim Amazon relate to the warrior spirit and are honoring their struggles that maybe have resulted in “sacrificing” pieces of themselves in order to bring out their inner strength. This archetype typically represents active leadership, self-sacrifice and commitment to the battle- whatever it is. It is the role of protector and the activist and claiming it at this gathering has changed many lives.
Years prior to this, I had claimed the path of Amazon in celebration, recognition and honoring of the strengths I gained through adversity and a commitment to being a leader within my community. In the year following my full, right side mastectomy, the irony of reclaiming Amazon couldn’t be ignored. I and my good friend Carole, also a recent breast cancer survivor with a right side mastectomy, decided that now was the time to claim our right to acknowledgement for the challenges we have faced. Surrounded by the love of our friends, teachers, family and many total strangers we made this a time of honoring the more private parts of our path that are nevertheless a shared theme among all women.
The claiming of my own body – claiming the scars that are a testament to my strength and a diary of the trials that I have been through was the driving force behind my decision to bare my chest in front of so many people who would never have otherwise known what I looked like under my shirt. As a 40 something, reasonably good looking, fit, unmarried mom, this was a claiming of my body as attractive in a world that judges “attractiveness” by the standards of plastic surgery, enhancements, push up bras and air-brushing. Here was the bold, stark, naked truth about who I am, and the sacrifices we sometimes have to make as woman. Here was an opportunity to force myself to not hide from what I look like and to see my own beauty mirrored back to me in the teary eyes of the women around me. Because I wear a prosthesis so I look “normal” it was even more important that my body be acknowledged for what it really is and what better place than at a gathering celebrating womens strength and beauty.
The challenges I have faced as a cancer survivor are largely the same faced by most everyone –those of self-acceptance and self-love, recognizing and honoring your strengths and beauty and learning to living in the moment with commitment and true presence. Body image and self-acceptance are unquestionably the main challenges I continue to face daily as a cancer survivor in my head, heart and body, and this moment of throwing it all into the wind is one that I return to in awe of my own audacity again and again. The battles I continue to fight as an Amazon many not be the obvious ones of physical strength, but ones of love, compassion, forgiveness and openness to the life-long challenges and changes that have come unrequested, but nevertheless in my best interest.
Claiming Amazon again that year was far deeper than just honoring the physical pieces of being a cancer survivor. Life – mine in particular – was messy and there have been a multitude of bumpy roads and bad turns along the way. Dealing with the issues surrounding being a young parent raising kids in poverty, abuse survival, depression and all the resulting self-esteem issues have been a constant battle. But rather than avoid the difficult work involved in healing I have stepped in with both hands. Post-cancer, it became even more important to live a more heart-full, compassionate life. I am a complete work in progress, and much of what I have learned along the way seems pretty universal. It is vitally important to me that no-one feels alone in the struggles they face and reclaiming Amazon that day was a commitment to becoming an advocate as much as it was an honoring of the warrior within.
I am conflicted about how to feel about cancer and its repercussions on my body. On one hand there is no question that I have learned valuable things about who I am in the world, how to treat myself with more kindness and learn how to finally identify what I really wanted on a day to day basis. On the other hand, I resent the changes in my body, the changes in how I walk in the world, the multitude of emotional issues that creep their way out of my mouth over dinner conversation when I had no idea they even lived inside me. I resent the interruption to a life that was finally starting to go my way – kids out of the house, an amazing loving man, getting my debt under control and a career in front of me. How do you balance the conflict of being a better person at the expense of everything you used to look like, know, believe, and value?
In the yoga class I attend several times a week one of my instructors begins with two questions: “What do you bring to the mat today? What do you need to heal?” Each time, to my unending surprise, the answer is quite loudly: FORGIVENESS. And each time, I am brought to tears in that moment as if the concept had never occurred to me. I still hold so much anger at how hard life has been – how unfair it so often is, and how horrible people so often are. Angry with myself for being “stupid” so many times. But am I also angry with my body for “betraying” me and getting cancer? Angry at it for taking so long to heal? Angry that it gained weight and lost the muscle I worked so hard for? Angry that I am still in pain, tired and resentful? Angry that I am far more vain then I ever would have guessed and not big enough to just GET OVER IT?
Pema Chodron, a Buddhist nun whom I someday hope to tell how many times she has saved my life writes,:
“Loving-kindness –Maitri — towards ourselves doesn’t mean getting rid of anything. Maitri means we can still be crazy after all these years. We can still be angry after all these years….The point is to not try to change ourselves…it is (about) befriending ourselves. The ground of practice is you or me or whoever we are right now, just as we are.” (Pema Chodron, Comfortable with Uncertainty, 2002, Shambhala)
I find myself holding both sides of the issue these days. I hold an acceptance and appreciation for what I have undergone and the strength, courage and tenacity that it took to get through it all. I hold a deep knowledge of myself as an incredibly beautiful and powerful soul with a deep connection to Spirit that resonates to those around me when I allow it to. I fully and wholeheartedly love and accept myself as I am right now. And yet, I also am so full of the opposite emotions-wishing that bad things didn’t happen and that cancer had never happened, angry that my life was uprooted, bitter that I am completely different. This must be what Pema meant about the work of loving kindness – the ability to walk the tightrope of life with the discipline to not lean too far to one side or the other in order to stay whole. Instead of struggling with not struggling, perhaps I am learning to relax into it and accept the turmoil; to not judge myself harshly for the challenges I have faced and mistakes I have made and to maintain humility and grace in the presence of all I have accomplished. The idea is not that I need to forgive my body for its failure in getting cancer, but rather to forgive myself for viewing it with such animosity, for not loving all it has done for me and to see how beautiful it has always been – with one boob or two. I need to choose instead to view my body and its’ little dance with cancer with loving kindness, accepting both the positive AND the negative aspects as a part of a larger whole of beauty and light.
I have finally lost the weight I gained due to surgery, stress, inactivity and medication. There were things I liked about all the extra padding – the remaining boob was fluffier, I was filled out and the potential for me having more stomach fat to mold into a new boob should I decide to do reconstruction was a fabulous, if odd, bonus. But looking in the mirror and seeing a body that was so completely different from anything I had ever known – even if I wasn’t looking at my chest – was difficult to say the least. As I started to think about breast reconstruction more, I realized that based on the past 40 years, I wasn’t going to be happy with my body no matter what I did unless I changed myself inside . Even now that I lost the weight I gained and became close to what I used to look like all I could see was how “damaged” I was even though I was easily back to the size 2 most women would kill for.
I wasn’t loving my body when I had two boobs and was skinny, athletic and full of muscle and I wasn’t loving it when cancer invaded and made me fight for my life. Now looking in the mirror, I am not loving my body because these days it really doesn’t look like the standard of beauty in the movies and tv. Even after all I had been through I couldn’t find it in me to see past the obvious and love the beauty of how strong it was. What makes me think that after I have 3-4 plastic surgeries I will love my body then?” The issue is not what my body looks like, but what is going on in my own head as my partner Neil has always told me. I called my plastic surgeon and had them remove me from the 6 month long wait list for reconstruction and removed my name from the Victoria’s Secret catalog mailing list as well. I committed to learning how to love the skin I was in, regardless of all the “stuff” that came up about what I thought I should look like.
My yoga teacher John and I had a conversation in which I told him that it was hard to send love to my body when such a large part of me was physically missing. “How do you love what exists AND what used to exist?” He replied that to send love to my missing breast and remaining chest area would take constant attention as there was no longer tissue there to hold the love I was sending. I would have to constantly and intentionally love what remained. I find this to be a very profound and deep practice. How do I love such a deep physical and emotional wound? And yet, to heal and to be a survivor, and not let the disease get the best of me, this is precisely what I must do. I must learn to love the power and strength and courage that it took to save my own life. I must learn to love the fact that I am not the same person I was – internally or externally. I must learn to love my scars and the differences in my physical being. And I must learn to love my sad little self on the days when it is brutally difficult to look in the mirror or be naked in front of my boyfriend because I feel like a freak. Remembering to send love to the parts of me that have suffered so greatly through surgery and radiation when it is becoming a blurred memory can be hard. It is necessary to tell myself the story again and again, to remind myself of how courageous I am and that the mirror shows a small portion of all that I am.
I can say the words – and most days I believe them – but many days remain when it feels like a boatload of crap I keep feeding myself to feel better. That girl in the catalog selling stuff to a 40 year old is probably 20 and looks 14 and has boobs that couldn’t POSSIBLY be real and a flat stomach that means she must never eat IS actually what men like – right? Even the yoga magazines show buxom young women with low cut shirts bending over in positions that presents the fruit ripe for the picking. No man in their right mind fantasizes about a pasty, flabby 40 year old cancer survivor with one boob, scars from surgery and radiation and a butt that seems to be sliding down the back of her legs.
How do I get past seeing myself as an object instead of as a whole being that is not loved or respected based on my appearance? In our media based culture we are inundated with images of all that we are somehow “supposed” to be. But, it takes supreme effort to learn how to tell ourselves positive stories about who we actually are. Our tendency is to beat ourselves up for the things we are NOT. We don’t discuss the things we ARE because we seem to think that doing so makes us vain, conceited, arrogant or full of ourselves. So all we are left with is an airbrushed, edited perfection that no-one recognizes but still insists is the goal. Telling our own story, in its’ honest wholeness is critical to our realizing how amazingly fabulous, courageous and beautiful we really are and to learn to live in the body we now have to live in.
I look and act years younger than I really am. I have been asked on dates by young men my kids age and have taken pride in the fact that I turned heads (although I would never have admitted that to anyone). I am curvy and fit and have tattoos and thought that was largely what got me noticed and why people paid attention to me. Now part of me wonders how am I supposed to reconcile what other people see on the outside with what I know I look like under my clothes? How do any of us show our genuine selves?
I am more than what you see: I always speak my mind and am friendly and warm and adapt how I approach whoever I deal with based on their needs. My friends say I will flirt with a rock, much less people of both genders and all ages. I do my best to do my best, I grieve for the times when I fall short and I am hard on myself about the reasons why I do. I am loyal to a fault, brutally honest, and generous to those I care about. I work hard, take care of others before myself, am devoted to my loved ones and can be oddly and randomly reclusive. I am funny, sometimes smart and always completely dedicated to the things I choose to spend my time doing. I can be fierce and tough and a royal bitch when pushed too hard; I am intimately familiar with how far I will go to protect myself and my loved ones even though I would never discuss what I have had to do to survive. I love deeply, cry often and laugh easily. I get overtired and overwhelmed more than I would like to admit, am a huge softie, and often think that I am not a very good grown up. I have moments when I wonder how I got so smart, and more moments when I wonder if I will ever BE smart.
Many of these things are what I think make me a good person – the things I think make me beautiful. These are qualities I would love in another person and that I am learning to love in myself. Some of who I am I could do without and there are lots of things I am not proud of, but awareness is half the battle. We are a physical society and when I look at myself naked and face my flat chested right side with its scar I wonder…how do you SEE these positive qualities? How do you embody these things? I used to be a person that made a statement when I walked in a room. I had confidence and a presence. But when I started back at yoga it was months before one of my teachers even knew my name. How I walk in the world has completely changed. I don’t NEED to be noticed anymore, which is funny since I certainly didn’t admit to needing to be noticed before! Is this because I don’t think I am worthy of being noticed? I rather think that it is because I no longer need to prove that I AM. In a conversation with a male friend about a time before I had cancer, I jokingly said, “Oh, well, that was back when I cared about being sexy”. His response was “well, not caring makes you more sexy than ever”. Why as women do we spend so much time TRYING to be beautiful if, in the end, all that anyone really wants for us is to be who we are? So much wasted time, emotion and pain.
I am learning to accept and love THIS version of who I am. My body is an incredible, strong and awe inspiring thing to me in all that it has done and put up with. I have climbed mountains and had babies. I have been strong and weak. I have done yoga and danced and golfed and made love. I have healed illness, rehabilitated injuries and been through surgeries and radiation treatment. And although I honor each womans’ decision, plastic surgery to recreate a breast is not going to make me a better person, more socially acceptable or frankly more physically attractive. I will not be more feminine or better looking. I will just have two boobs instead of one and I will have another series of scars and months of recovery and the same issues about who I am that I have always had.
The path of healing and learning from cancer and the other curveballs that life has thrown at me lies much deeper than a series of surgical procedures. For me, the yogic and Buddhist beliefs in non-violence to all , loving what is and cultivating deep compassion for oneself as well as others, have led me to the work of the daily practice of loving and ACCEPTING who I am and letting the beauty of that shine through in my actions. That is beauty you won’t see in a Victoria’s Secret catalog. It is a PRACTICE – it doesn’t just happen and then I have “got it”. But, the fact that I am even working on loving all that I am makes me, as my friend Ginny said to me one day “more beautiful now than ever before”.
Back in the meadow the moment of silence seems to last forever and I wonder if I have made a huge mistake. But as I glance over at Carole who is also standing bare chested and crying next to me and feel the love and support of the other women who have claimed the path of Amazon behind me, I realize that I am never alone in fighting these battles. The support and love available to me are endless because the scars I bear are those of all women who struggle with being proud of all that they are and a tribute to all that we have accomplished. It is my fervent prayer my daughter will never have to worry about breast cancer and will always love herself for ALL that she is. As I claim Amazon, I stand next to all women, cancer survivors or not, who may not yet be able to see how gorgeous they are in hopes that they may feel my compassion and love for their challenges. We are not alone in our struggles to love the skin we are in. It is work to remember – a practice – and I sometimes forget too….. and that is why I tell this story.
(This article appeared in a different form in the free e-book “How We Became Breast Cancer Thrivers” in November of 20010)