The day I had yearned for had finally arrived.
After a biopsy of a painful breast lump, the doctor delivered the words no woman wants to hear. “You have cancer,” she said gently but definitively.
I was a 35-year-old writer, wife, and mother of four. And cancer wasn’t part of my life plan.
I spent the next six months visiting many doctors, including an oncologist, radiologist, breast surgeon, and plastic surgeon. Six weeks after my diagnosis, I had a bi-lateral, skin and nipple sparing mastectomy, direct to implant.
Translation: the outside of my breasts were still mine, but my breast tissue was removed, my pectoral muscles moved forward, and silicone implants placed behind the muscles. Then I was glued back up. Like Humpty Dumpty. Put back together again.
My cancer experience was excruciating — physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. My world was turned upside down and inside out. And at the very center of my panic was the reality that I could die and leave my children motherless.
I didn’t die, and in fact, I came out victorious. I was told post-surgery that I was cancer-free. I’ll never forget the words from my integrative cancer doctor: “Go. Live your life.”
But it simply wasn’t that easy.
Yes, I felt joy, but it was fleeting. My breasts weren’t my own. They were more like enemy invaders than newfound friends. They were remade and sensationless, as the surgeon severed my nerves, yet there were times I had shooting, electrical feeling pains shoot from deep within them. None of my old shirts or bras fit. And after my surgery, it took me a good month to work up the courage to even look at them or wash them off in the shower.
Then, October rolled around and everywhere I turned, there were cheery pink ribbons. October, which is known as Breast Cancer Awareness Month, happened to fall on weeks five through nine of my mastectomy recovery. The bagels at the café were shaped like breast cancer ribbons. The ink pens and t-shirts and bracelets were displayed on every store aisle endcap. The temporary tattoos, bumper stickers, and even postage stamps all boasted of breast cancer research, pride, and survival.
Essentially, no matter where I turned, cancer was thrown in my face.
I was smart about it. I journaled, talked to other survivors, went to therapy, and faithfully took my anxiety medication. I visited an integrative cancer specialist who personalized my dietary and exercise plan to help me reduce my chances of reoccurrence. I wasn’t helpless, but I also was working to push cancer away from me. And it was exhausting.
I recognized how truly privileged I was. I have excellent medical insurance, a supportive network of family and friends, a stellar therapist, and an incredible breast cancer medical team. But I was still heartbroken, traumatized by the experience of losing my breasts, and tormented by the lingering thought that cancer can come back any time.
I knew the facts. One in eight women will develop breast cancer in her lifetime. 5% of breast cancer patients are, like me, young women. I also knew I was very fortunate. My cancer was found very early which gave me the opportunity to choose between treatment options, and in the end, avoid radiation and chemotherapy.
There were so many positives to my story, but having cancer was a weight I just couldn’t throw off me the minute I heard doctor say there were no signs of cancer. You see, breast cancer is a parasite that takes over every nook and cranny of a woman’s being. Long after the mutant cells are annihilated, the damage cancer causes remains.
I have chronic shoulder pain from the way my body was positioned during my surgery which requires physical therapy and chiropractic visits. There are days my anxiety is so relentless that I cancel all my plans and stay in the confines of my home, the place I feel most safe. Going to any medical appointment, even just a teeth cleaning at the dentist, can cause me to have heart palpitations and racing thoughts. I can’t even drive down certain streets, as it brings back memories of traveling on the surgeon’s office to hear the news that I had cancer.
It’s been over a year since I earned the title of Survivor, and this is my second October facing those pesky pink ribbons as someone who can say I’ve lived through the cancer experience. I continue my love-hate relationship with pink ribbons. On one hand, they are a symbol of strength and tenacity. But on the other, they are a reminder that I will never, ever be the same again.
I know I’m supposed to be grateful and proud that I fought “like a girl” to kick cancer’s ass. I know I’m supposed to pump my fist and declare #fuckcancer on social media. And some days, I manage to do just that.
But other days? I’m still the broken, terrified, and confused woman who misses her real breasts and yearns for what was. And I want to knock down every pink ribbon in sight, Whack-a-Mole style.
Anne of Green Gables, the endearing children’s book character, said, “I’m so glad I live in a world where there are Octobers.” I’m certainly glad to be alive and to celebrate the magic of fall, including wearing boots and scarves, sipping warms lattes, and helping my kids choose their Halloween costumes. But I’d be lying if I didn’t say that October always brings about a lingering shadow of dread.
And that is OK. Because for those of us who have fought and won, we’re earned the right to be beautifully broken.