It is a hard thing to communicate what is closest to the heart, and as much as anyone, I often struggle with putting words to paper. While I have written about body image and breast cancer here, I have only touched the surface of how deeply traumatized I, and other young women, are by the loss of a breast. Our breasts are such a revered part of womanhood that losing one can leave us feeling less sexual, less feminine and thoroughly just LESS. Regardless of the personal work one does around the issue, daily interactions leave us back pedaling and struggling with what we KNOW deep down inside vs. what we are being shown everywhere else. How we feel about ourselves internally, and how we see ourselves is in the mirror, is often warped by society, our histories and fears. Regardless of how we project ourselves in our day-to-day world, these insecurities follow us around, shaping us without our intention.
The past 2 ½ years have been a daily emotional work-out. When I look at myself in the mirror, I struggle to absorb, accept and get over what has been done to my body to survive. Everything about how I walk in the world changed when they cut off my breast. It wasn’t intentional–I wanted to be the same as before–but the suddenness of diagnosis, the ensuing trauma, and the loss of a piece of my sexuality took its toll. While I lost less than I gained, a piece of self-confidence/self perception was gone that I felt I would never gain back.
Most women who have a mastectomy these days have a smallish scar in an even line across their chest. Many are still able to keep their nipple and surrounding areola so that reconstruction is more natural looking. Most younger women choose to pursue reconstruction fairly quickly and while the new breast is not the same as the old, at least it is there.
Not so with me.
I had so much cancer in me that they took everything on my right side, right down to the muscle, damaging nerves as they scraped away tissue. While it initially looked “good”, and I was surprised at how small the incision was, in the end, my surgical wound wouldn’t heal. My body rejected the stitches and I was left with a gaping hole in my chest for weeks. From a tidy simple line following careful surgery, it turned into a gnarly scar-tissue gash.
The moment it healed, I started radiation, which again didn’t go as planned, leaving scaring and discoloration from third degree burns from my armpit across to my sternum and down my rib-cage. Needless to say all of this contributed to me not wanting to do any more surgeries out of fear of the side effects. Besides, the damage had already been done and nothing would make it look better. No matter how much time I put into the emotional and physical healing of my body, it is still difficult to cope with what has happened when I see myself in the mirror. Of course, this is all my perception of what I see – it is probably not as bad as I think it is – but how I feel about myself is all that matters.
I have tried to get over it, tried to accept it and tried to be bigger than what I look like. And, mostly, I have. Facing that gash every day I have learned so much about myself, about how I grew up feeling about my body and the results of abuse and our hyper sexualized society. I have observed the way I have changed, the way I have held back, and how different I feel about my physical self now that I can no longer claim a standard of “normal” attractiveness. I have written, thought, prayed about and explored the issues around healing the physical and emotional wounds that cancer opened up for me. The irony of having my surgical wound heal so slowly was not lost on me as I struggled with self-acceptance even in the face of the power and strength I have shown.
In the end, I realized that I get to choose how I see myself, regardless of the visual evidence. I do not have to be sad, embarrassed, ashamed or angry. I don’t have to force myself to accept the unacceptable.
So, I began to think about what it would take for me to feel good about what I saw in the mirror. I certainly did not need to recreate a breast – I am over that particular body part being so important, and I have given enough time to cancer. But I can’t stand the scar…I can’t stand having to see the ugliness when I don’t feel like the experience itself was necessarily ugly. While some people wear their scars as a testament of their strength, my scar reminded me of all that I was forced to change, about how life goes haywire despite your precautions, and how little control I have. It was about what had been done to me. I needed to change it into a thing of beauty and strength that reflected who I have become.
And so Shoyru came to me one day. She is a dragon-smiling but fierce; powerful, beautiful , and proud. She represents the protector, wisdom, luck, prosperity, transformation and the ability to adapt to all elements. She is a cross cultural symbol appearing in both eastern and western mythology, revered for her ancient knowledge. Where there is dragon, there is treasure hidden deep within.
And so she will be tattooed on my torso….she is not hiding my scar, she is encompassing it and making it part of her own body. She will move my eye’s line of sight to what IS there – the beauty and fierceness – and away from what is no longer. The focus is shifted for me from loss to creativity, from what happened to me to what I chose for myself. It is not a hiding from what is or trying to go back to what was, it is an open-hearted acknowledgement that cancer happened….and here is what I did with it.
While this may seem like a radical decision and is certainly not an option most would consider, I welcome the opportunity to shape my body – and my experience – in a unique, strong and beautiful way. I am not doing this for anyone but me, and I have the feeling that she is going to teach me much in our journey together. I can’t wait!