I was looking at myself in the crystal clear looking glass. It wasn’t difficult to be disappointed in what I saw. In fact, looking at myself was always a shock these days. Even now at almost 55 I still expected to see my reflection as it had been in my late twenties. For some reason this was the image which stuck in my mind, whether I was thinking or dreaming. But since then things had changed.
Tears were never something I shed very often, since I was around six years old. Standing by my grandmother’s grave at her graveside service, I had looked all around me at all the people surrounding my grandmother’s coffin and saw only stoic faces and dry eyes, as the tears flowed from my eyes.
My mother had reached down and taken my hand but beyond that there was no other comfort. All I remembered was wondering if something was wrong with me since I was the only one shedding tears. It never occurred to me, that the problem wasn’t me but in all the people surrounding me, including my parents, my brothers and even my grandfather.
From that moment on, tears did not come easily. When they did they came hard and cruel with sobs so fierce I didn’t know if they would ever stop. Of course they stopped eventually after I was exhausted and had no more tears to shed.
Today, however, was not one of those days. Today was a day of dry eyes and sensibility.
Looking in the mirror I refused to look away as I had done every day since reality had finally taken me down into the dark rabbit hole. Today, was the day I would finally stand and look at myself and accept the fact that regardless of what had happened I would stop avoiding reality and learn to love myself again.
This would not be an easy task. It was almost a year to the day when my world had been turned upside down and what I suspected had become reality. In just a few short weeks after the doctor’s visit, and just six days before my 54th birthday I was given a diagnosis of cancer. Breast cancer.
I had sat in the surgeon’s office, calm, cool, and collected. Logical to a fault, asking questions without a single tear, without a single emotion crossing my face, without a single tremor running through my body.
I had learned how to survive what I never wanted to know like a seasoned warrior standing on the frontline waiting for the signal to advance.
I faced the oncologist with this same stoic, logical, countenance. Nothing would tear me down. Nothing would defeat me. No matter how much I didn’t believe in the treatments the doctors professed would save my life, I sat and spoke like I was sitting in front of my tenth grade math teacher verifying I understood the algebra equation before me and the logical path to solving the equation.
I had done the research with dry eyes. With a scientific mind absorbing facts. Like a knight dressed in his suit of armor protecting me from the bows and arrows, swords and spears, and knives being thrust my way.
Nothing could take me down.
Nothing until I looked into my daughter’s eyes and saw the fear. Fear. Fear and knowledge that she would one day lose her mother no matter what she did to try and stop it.
I sat with my daughter, told her, explained to her all about modern medicine even though I did not believe in the treatments. I knew, after all my research, I couldn’t afford the alternative medicine I had read about. I also knew I couldn’t sit by and not try. And so I told my daughter all about the treatments. That I would live, and live to a ripe old age, even though in my heart I didn’t know if this was true.
When I was alone, I remembered my daughter’s eyes. I remembered the fear I saw in them, and I couldn’t help but imagine the devastation she would feel if I died. It wasn’t hard to imagine because I knew I would feel the same if I lost my daughter.
In that moment, the tears flowed. They flowed long and hard, my throat hurt from the pressure of trying not to release the feelings all at once. They were too much. They were too strong. They would overtake me and once released I would not be able to stop. Anyone nearby would hear for I had no doubt I would not be able to contain the sobs. As it was, the sobs which did escape were loud in my ears, unknown, and harsh, as if something wild were trying to escape. I did not recognize the sounds of my own grief.
Rushing to my bedroom, I grabbed my pillows, squeezed them in my arms wishing more than anything that they could squeeze me back and hold me, keep me from falling apart.
The first time I broke down, I had cried alone in my room. My daughter was home but she never heard. I cried and wept and sobbed into my pillow muffling the sounds, rocking myself back and forth trying to sooth the raging torment within me. Tried to shoo away my cruel imagination of my daughter rejecting my friends attempt to sooth her and care for her in my absence. I know how my` daughter is. When she hurts she pushes people who love and care for her away.
It was weeks later when I broke down again, this time though my daughter heard. After the first time, I had talked about it with my daughter because I didn’t want my daughter to walk in on me and be frightened. So I told her, there may be times when she may see me in tears, crying, that it was because I was scared and needed to let out the emotions. My daughter seemed to accept this but I didn’t really know for sure but hoped she really did understand.
When my daughter heard me, she came into my room, curled up on the bed beside me and wrapped me in her young arms. She held me, soothing me, telling me “I know, I know, it’s going to be okay.” A child so full of adult understanding and love. It took some time but my crying subsided. The comfort I felt from my daughter’s embrace was like a balm to my uncertainty and fear.
Today, looking in the mirror, I remembered all of this. How brave my daughter was and how finally she had admitted to not wanting to sleep for fear I might die or need her in the middle of the night.
As I looked into the mirror, I knew I could never allow those moments to transpire again if it was in my power to do so. I knew the only way I could do that was if I could accept what happened, forgive myself and learn to love myself again.
There are a lot of things that make this difficult to do. I have to forgive the fact that I ignored a serious symptom for too long which may have jeopardized my life beyond repair. I have to be willing to look at the horrendous scar on the right side of my chest and decide every single day to be positive in what it represents. I have to also decide to not let the deformities that now exist in my body to interfere with my self-worth, my sensuality and my sexuality.
That to say the least is a huge obstacle to overcome. There is more to it than just looking at the scar. Every time I move, I can feel the changes that have occurred. I can flex my chest muscles which now has a completely different feel to it than when I did it with my full right breast intact. I feel it more. I can also see the movement more through my clothing. When I move my arm, I can feel it pull across my chest, and I can also feel the numb sensation under my arm. When I throw a toy for our dog to fetch, I can feel the difference between how it felt when I threw things before my surgery and many times there is quite a difference in the power behind the toss or throw. Every movement of my arm reminds me.
In clothes, I’ve had people tell me it isn’t obvious to them and most didn’t realize I no longer have a right breast even though I do not wear a prosthesis. For me, it is quite noticeable. My shirt flattens on the right side. I have resorted to just sports bras because a regular bra feels weird and it rides up easier than a sports bra. The sports bras still feels weird but at least it doesn’t have the gaping material of a regular bra.
Looking at myself nude is also difficult. The right side of my chest looks like it caves in, and though the scar doesn’t look as horrible as it did weeks after the surgery, it is still a sight that makes me cringe when I see it. Partly because of how it looks but mostly because it is a reminder of what I allowed to happen.
I hesitate in saying I have no hope that a man will ever find me attractive because to say one has no hope is to say one gives up on any and all dreams they might have of it ever happening and I do still hold on if only by the tips of my fingers to the hope that there is a man who can see past the scars, both physically and mentally to the person who desires so much to have the love of a good man in her life.
I have written this for a couple of reasons. One to record the feelings I have and have had during this period in my life, through the devastation and recovery. I may find reconstruction will be what I need after all but it won’t be until I have learned to accept me as I am. I must find a way otherwise a reconstructed breast will only give me something to hide behind.
I don’t want to hide behind anything. I also know, I could use the scar to hide behind as well. I could use it as an excuse to not work on improving myself or accepting what happened. I could use it to pretend everything is okay, or I could use it to give me an excuse to not live my life and I can use it as an excuse to remain safely alone in solitude.
I stand here now in front of the looking glass and I know I am trying desperately to pull myself out of the deep dark rabbit hole I found myself falling into when the chemo tried to kill me. I have no doubt I am a survivor for as I look in the mirror I also remember a decision I made 15 or more years ago when I found myself at the bottom of a proverbial well. Did I want to commit suicide or did I want to change? Change was the answer, just as change today is still the answer.
And change will still be the answer tomorrow.
For those interested I have pictures posted on the Breast Cancer Gallery page, either click here or on the tab at the top of this page.