By Rene’

It’s my desire that you receive this blog as a gift to carry in your heart.  This is my journey with breast cancer; dealing with the diagnosis, the disease, the recovery, my relationships, and my own self-discovery.  

One in eight American women will experience breast cancer, one in two women and one in three men will experience some sort of cancer in their lifetime.  This means that each one of us will embark on our own journey with cancer, whether it is having cancer yourself or being called upon to comfort someone close to you going through their private struggle. Nobody gets a free pass.  As for me, this is my second entanglement with the beast.

“Subduing hardship is a difficult skill to acquire, and yet we are offered no option but to practice.”

– Francis Weller

My most recent day to practice was June 27th, 2019.  A bitter tincture to be sure.  This dark hour of my life happened to be a beautiful warm sunny evening.  My husband Eric, and I were about to meet our daughter Anna, and her boyfriend for a delicious, home-cooked meal and a movie.  I was looking forward to an enjoyable evening.  My relationship with Anna was going through its own journey of growth.  Navigating through childhood, teenage adolescence, and now young adulthood; a new realm of our relationship was emerging. She was a young woman who wanted her independence yet reluctantly needed our support, I was struggling with an empty nest.  As a mother whose greatest joy was raising her children, how could I learn the skill of letting go? This dinner was a step forward for all of us.  

My cell phone rang. It was my doctor’s office with confirmation of the biopsy results. I had breast cancer on my left breast in addition to abnormal cells on my thyroid. It’s intriguing how life can turn instantly with no way of going back. I could barely focus on the rest of the conversation. A title surge of dread waved over my body and I felt lightheaded. My fingertips and toes went numb. Our evening turned from light-hearted to apprehensive.  We had two choices: we could spend the evening imagining the worst, letting the diagnosis become our main focus, or paste on a fake smile and soldier on. We chose the latter, each of us afraid to give life to our feelings of trepidation. The four of us forced ourselves into good spirits and ate a wonderful dinner all while harboring self-consciousness and private thoughts we believed no one could see.  We went to the movie, each of us grateful for the distraction.

“The familiar world is left behind and we exist at the edge of something without shape”

– Unknown

A few weeks before that phone call, I was in North Dakota visiting my newly found half-sister when I felt a deep itch on my left breast. One of those deep tissue itches that you can’t truly scratch to get relief. I tried to massage the area tenderly but the itch continued. I used a vigorous approach, like a dog scratching an itch behind its ear. That’s when I felt something hard, larger than a pea but smaller than a marble.  Apprehension draped over me.  I already had a lot on my plate. This past couple of years had been a challenging time of unforeseen events. The promise of growth and rebirth after a hard rain was on the horizon for me. All that I was delightfully anticipating would yet again be put on hold as I reluctantly entered another season in which I needed to find inner strength from an already depleted source. 

Staying with my new sister and her family, though joyful, had its own emotional strain and confusion. I didn’t want to add to the intensity, so I chose not to tell anyone what I had found. I thought that by keeping silent, it would all go away and by the time I got home, it would all be something I had imagined, not part of my life going forward. 

Illness carries us into places of great uncertainty. Will we ever get better? Will we ever get back to where we were before we got sick?

Three weeks passed and it was still there. One night, I reluctantly shared my discovery with Eric. He told me that it was most likely nothing and purposefully rattled off statistics about cysts and calcium deposits, then put his arms around me and comfortably slept well that night. His detached tone left me feeling lonely. I laid awake that night, my mind ruminating; playing out conversations with doctors, friends, family, and creating various scenarios in my mind:

  • Where would I like to be buried?
  • What songs do I want to play at my funeral?
  • Should I make a guest list?  

Then I started to think about the things I would miss:

  • My children’s weddings
  • The birth of my grandchildren
  • Never knowing my grandchildren
  • Watching my children experience parenthood
  • Retirement with my husband
  • Trips we planned 

I prayed, thanking God for the gift of time that he’d given me on this amazing planet, the particular people he placed in my path, allowing me to love and be loved, and the most precious blessings of all, my husband and children. Tears silently streamed down my face. The next day I scheduled a mammogram.  

The tech and I engaged in upbeat conversation as she manipulated my too-small breasts and pancaked them into a torturous device that detects abnormalities that may save your life.  After a few moments, the tone in the room changed.  The tech became quiet and without making eye contact, she said she would be right back. A chill came over me after she left the room. As I waited for her return, tension rose from my stomach and gripped my throat.  The tech came back with a PA. With a look of compassion, the PA recommended an ultrasound; she could perform the procedure within the hour. The look of kindness on her face made the tension in my throat more gripping. I didn’t trust myself to speak; fearing I might cry, I nodded in consent. The hour dragged by as I sat shivering in the waiting room watching Extreme Makeover: Home Edition on the TV. Imaginary conversations filled my mind as I told myself to quell my flare for the dramatic. Eric was probably right; this was likely a cyst or calcium deposit and I would leave the clinic feeling silly and embarrassed. Finally, it was my turn; holding back tears, I remained silent during the sonogram. I felt like I was outside of my body watching someone else. Neither the PA nor the tech made eye contact with me. If only they would look at me or talk to me, I wouldn’t feel so alone. They focused on their job, taking pictures, moving slowly to ensure each picture was clear and easy to read. In my mind I pleaded, “Someone please look at me, talk to me, or tell me a joke.” The PA left the room and the tech busied herself tidying up.  I knew then something must really be wrong. A few minutes later, the radiologist came in to talk with me. He recommended a biopsy and said if I had time, he could do it right then.  I couldn’t hold in my emotions any longer, tears leaked from my eyes and streamed down my face. Again, I nodded in consent. The procedure took less than 15 minutes. The doctor numbed the area, inserted a needle, and extracted the cells he needed. He would send the sample to the lab and I should know the results in less than a week. Either he or my doctor would give me a call.  

The events of the morning left me feeling emotionally numb except for the stinging pain, like a really bad paper cut, I felt on my left breast as the topical anesthetic wore off. The eeriest part of the whole experience was the staff; avoiding my gaze, the hush that filled the room, and the compassionate look on their faces and tone in their voices when they did speak with me – I felt afraid. I wished I hadn’t gone to this appointment alone. I needed someone I loved to tell me everything would be okay.

On my way home, I called Eric and told him about the appointment. I wished he would have told me that everything would be okay and no matter what, we would get through this together.  But instead, he downplayed the whole experience and assured me with more statistics.  Again, his detached tone left me feeling alone. In Eric’s defense, that’s how he handles all serious events. He downplays them, analyzes, rationalizes, and then buries any emotion he may be feeling. I could no longer hold in the anxiety that I felt. I cried all the way home.  

The next day I received the phone call from my doctor. He told me matter-of-factly that I had stage 0 INSITU breast cancer. Stage 0 means that the cancer is contained and hasn’t spread to the lymph nodes. He went on to say, most likely in order to make me feel better, that it wasn’t truly cancer, but a pre-cancer. A lumpectomy and radiation were all I needed and gave me the names of two surgeons to contact.  

My daughter, not knowing what to do sat with me on the couch. She put her arm around me and was quiet. When Eric arrived, he too was quiet for a moment. Then the two of them focused on the fact that it was stage 0 pre-cancer downplaying its seriousness.  None of us really knew how to react, so we ignored our feelings and focused on the evening in front of us. The loneliness of that moment forced its silence in my soul.  

It’s really hard to know what to do when someone gives you bad news about themselves whether it is a diagnosis or the death of a loved one. I myself have felt so awkward in these situations that I don’t know what to say. Now I know how I’m going to react next time someone shares with me, a tragedy in their life because this is what I needed:  someone to hold me, cry with me, share their feelings, tell me they were there for me, whatever I needed and to be told everything would be okay. I needed people not to avoid me or feel pity, but to actively distract me such as taking a walk, going to dinner, or playing cards and to have a sense of humor and keep the mood light.  

First of all, stage 0 IS breast cancer, surgeons won’t know for sure if the cancer has spread until they remove some of the lymph nodes from under your arm (axillary lymph nodes) which are the first-place cancer is likely to go if it spreads.   

“Be strong and courageous, and do the work. Do not be afraid or discouraged, for the Lord God is with you.”

– 1 Chronicles 28:20

Before choosing a doctor and treatment option, I decided to do some research about my type of cancer. This was a dizzying and exhausting affair. What sources of information were the most factual? What does the staggering amount of obscure statistics mean? Friends and acquaintances had strong opinions. Why do people think it’s okay to share cancer-related horror stories about a friend of a friend of a cousin to a sister someone else told them about? This is not helpful! I read, and reread then read some more. Then I took a step back and thought about the women in my life who’d had breast cancer. The statistics indicate if you have breast cancer on one breast, the likelihood of cancer recurring on the other breast is pretty low, especially with INSITU stage 0. However, of the women I knew, who’d experienced breast cancer on one breast and opted for a lumpectomy or mastectomy, all of them had breast cancer return on the other breast in less than 5 years.  Other facts to note are that a lumpectomy leaves your breast indented and deformed and radiation after a lumpectomy damages the skin. Radiation can leave your skin looking burned and marred, making reconstruction and uniformity difficult. So, the outcome of radiation and a lumpectomy at best will remove your cancer, leaving your breast deformed and marred. My already poor self-image couldn’t handle that. On the other hand, lumpectomy and radiation are far less invasive and the recovery time is often easier and shorter.

Eric and I began the time-consuming, anxiety-ridden, and emotionally draining journey of getting a first, second, and third opinion. Each from well-known cancer centers in our area. The first surgeon we spoke with was kind and spent a good deal of time with us explaining my type of cancer answering all of our questions, in addition to questions we hadn’t thought to ask. By the way, the American Cancer Society website has a list of questions to ask your doctors. This relieves some of the anxiety of trying to figure out what to ask when your knowledge of the disease, treatments and recovery is limited.  This surgeon’s recommendation was the same standard procedure as my primary doctor; lumpectomy and radiation. However, before committing to a treatment plan,  he recommended genetic testing.

Just months before being diagnosed with cancer, I was seeking answers and treatment options for seizure-like episodes and abnormal thyroid cells (I had thyroid cancer many years ago).  Both concerning conditions. We spoke to the surgeon about these conditions and he told us to put all of that on hold and treat the cancer. This advice left me with more questions.  What happens to possible seizures and abnormal thyroid cells if you ignore them? Will cancer treatments exacerbate those conditions?

One of the best cancer centers in the country is Cleveland Clinic, which is just over three hours from our home. Three hours seemed like a huge inconvenience, but we decided to see what they had to say.  Just like the first surgeon, the woman we met with was kind and spent a lot of time with us explaining my type of cancer. However, she did not recommend one type of treatment over the other but explained each treatment in full, lumpectomy with radiation, mastectomy with or without reconstruction, and a double mastectomy with or without reconstruction. She did not assume it was stage 0 but would remove and test several axillary lymph nodes during surgery. She said to choose the treatment option I felt most comfortable with. We talked about the abnormal cells on my thyroid and my possible seizure disorder. The doctor recommended looking into both of these issues before choosing cancer treatment. She had her nurse navigator schedule appointments with an endocrinologist and neurologist before we left the clinic. The surgeon also recommended that we meet with a radiologist and oncologist. Walk-in appointments were arranged for us for that same day. The last question she asked was, “On a scale of 1-10, where were my emotions.” She was the first person to acknowledge my emotions.  I began to cry. She looked at me compassionately and said everything would be okay. She gave me her card and told me that even if we chose to have treatment somewhere else, I could call her anytime. My decision was made.  

Even though we were sure Cleveland Clinic was the place for me to have surgery, I still wanted a third opinion. I was looking for a place closer to home where I could get nutritional advice, physical therapy after surgery, and any other support I might need along the way. This experience couldn’t have been more of a nightmare. The place I went to was the same clinic I had been getting mammograms for the last 20 years. The surgeon at this facility came highly recommended by a friend who, at the moment, was going through her own journey with breast cancer. I thought it was strange that the doctor’s office called me twice to make sure I would keep the appointment. On the day of the appointment, sitting in the exam room, Eric and I told the nurse about the cancer diagnosis, the recommended opinion from the first doctor, and that we had been to Cleveland Clinic. The nurse told us their diagnosis would be no different, they were backlogged and we were wasting an appointment. I told the nurse I was interested in follow-up care such as nutrition, physical therapy, and any other programs that would help aid in my recovery. The nurse left to speak with the highly recommended surgeon. When she came back, she said that they don’t collaborate with other clinics and there was nothing she would do or say differently than any of the other surgeons and we should go to Cleveland Clinic for treatment. She told us the doctor was busy but if Eric and I insisted, she would go get her to come and speak with us.

There are no words to describe the slap in the face and what little value my life had in their eyes as I left the clinic. I came to seek advice at one of the most vulnerable times in my life only to be rejected and told that I was wasting their time and appointment slot. There really are no words.

We left the office and I went to my car and had a complete meltdown. I was overwhelmed, feeling alone, and of little value. 

In the meantime, the genetic testing came back negative for the BRACA1 and BRACA2 gene. However, there was a lot of cancer on the maternal side of my family and the doctor did not disregard a possible genetic link, even though the specific genes tested were negative.  

It became clear that driving over three hours each way to Cleveland Clinic was going to be my treatment of choice. After completing all of my research and meditating in prayer, I knew the right decision for me was to have a double mastectomy with reconstruction.  Plus, my breasts were small, and nicer bigger breasts would be the reward for having to go through all I was about to endure.

A prayer to Jesus

I don’t have much knowledge yet in grief,

so, this massive darkness makes me small.

Jesus, you be the master: make yourself fierce, break in:

then your great transforming will happen to me,

and my great grief cry will happen to you.

– Maria Rainer Rilke, modified by Rene’

It was evident that Eric and Anna were dreading the burden this entire process was going to have on us all. Anna agreed to come over a few hours on Sundays to help out, but couldn’t commit to any more than that. Eric wanted the surgery to be scheduled on a Thursday or Friday so he would only need to take one day off of work before the weekend to care for me. During one of the appointments, the surgeon looked at Eric with all seriousness and told him that this was major surgery, and aftercare would be significant.  Implying that it would take more than a weekend to recover and I was going to need help.  

You share your vulnerability, and they dismiss you.

Eric and I argued after that appointment. I let him know how hurt and alone I was feeling at everyone’s indifferent approach to the significance of my cancer diagnosis and the surgery I was about to undergo. Did they realize I was about to have my breasts amputated? To magnify matters, I contracted a severe sinus infection that put me in bed for days, and at that same time my son Will, who was recently stationed in Germany, came home for a previously scheduled leave. Will spent those two weeks sleeping during the day and hanging out with his friends at night. I was sick and I had cancer,  his comment to me was that he had come home for a vacation. I would survive both the sinus infection and cancer and he couldn’t see why this was such a big deal. I was devastated by his apathetic attitude. By the time he left to return to Germany, we had stopped speaking.  Frankly, I was so angry, had no idea what else to say. I felt like the relationships I cherished most were little more than superficial. I felt betrayed, not only at my family but at my body. Throughout my life I’d eaten a healthy diet, I’d exercised, I wasn’t overweight, I didn’t smoke, I drank in moderation. My body shouldn’t be sick.  What was the point of living a healthy, balanced life if I was to get cancer anyway? I was exhausted beyond measure. Part of me wished that this cancer was more life-threatening. I just wanted relief from heartache and exhaustion. What plagued me more than having cancer was the disintegrating relationships I had with my family. A fog of depression began to roll in.

“Unable to truly grieve, because we feel in our body that this piece of who we are is unworthy of grief.”

– Francis Weller

Allow Yourself to Grieve

I grieved because I was sick, I grieved because I was vulnerable, I grieved because this illness would take the majority of my time and energy, I grieved because my life would never be the same. I grieved because I needed my family, I grieved because part of me was about to be cut off and discarded. This was more than just cancer to me. I was about to lose the part of me that made me a mother and a wife, not just physically, but what they stood for – Motherhood – I nursed my two babies with those breasts. The intimacy of nursing was like no other I had ever experienced.  This loss represented those most treasured early years with my children.  -Sexuality- What would this do to my intimate life with Eric? Would he still be attracted to me? Especially after witnessing such vulnerability both present and future. Could I be sexy again? There would be unsightly scars and no feeling in my breasts. What would that be like? They would be blobs of silicone sewn into my body; they wouldn’t be me. I grieved over everything that was in my heart. 

Allow Yourself to Cry

I cried, privately, when I was alone. I cried hard, angry fearful tears. I didn’t know how to share this grief with anyone.  How does one show such raw emotion with dignity and grace? I was afraid of what people would think of me, especially the fragile relationships with my family. I was afraid of being judged a coward. I was afraid of rejection. I needed someone to talk to, I needed a counselor.   

Through self-compassion, we are offered the possibility of new beginnings.

Speaking to a therapist was one of the best decisions I made during this frightening and stressful time. She validated my fears without pity. She helped me understand the perspective of my family and that they didn’t know how to navigate these waters either.  They had fears of their own that they didn’t know how to process or express, plus because they loved me, the last thing they would want to do is add any more burden on me. I needed to give my family time and patience as well as realize they had anxiety of their own. She was right, eventually, they came around and as we journeyed through this process together, our support for one another grew. We still aren’t very good at sharing our fears, but we did our best, and that was okay. I am grateful for the support they gave me during that time, and the lessons we are learning. Through this experience, we are working to become more in tune with each other. My therapist also suggested I put together a support team to help alleviate some of the pressure and guilt my family might be feeling. I spent time with positive friends whom I knew would encourage me. I didn’t need to hear any more stories of cancer treatments gone wrong. I found books on cancer recovery, moving forward after cancer, and nutrition. I found a trainer who teaches gyrokinesis (it’s sort of like bow flex, a chiropractor, a physical therapist, and yoga practice). My therapist helped me to meditate on my life after cancer. I pictured myself healthier than before: doing yoga and running on the elliptical.  My mental attitude was healthy and upbeat and my body filled with energy. In the future, I pictured my relationships, especially with my family, were healthy and strong, filled with moments of laughter and ease. I pictured myself traveling, riding a bike, and kayaking. I pictured myself having cook-outs, bonfires, and playing cards with friends. I did this meditation almost every day before and after my surgeries. It gave me hope and brought me peace.  Additionally, if I kept my thoughts on all of those good things, I didn’t have enough room in my brain to worry. The focus of my new life was to dance, sing, play, and laugh un-self-consciously!  

Come new to this day.

Remove the rigid overcoat of experience, the notion of knowing, the beliefs that cloud your vision.

Leave behind the stories of your life.

Spit out the sour taste of unmet expectation.

Let the stale scent of what-ifs waft back into the swamp of your useless fears.

Arrive curious, with the armor of uncertainty, the plans and planned results of the life you’ve imagined.

Live the life that chooses you, new every breath, everyblink of your astonished eyes.

– Rebecca del Rio

Once the treatment decision was made, two nurse navigators coordinated the myriad of specialists that I needed to see. These ladies were amazing. They scheduled all of my needed appointments in one day to minimize the number of trips from Buffalo to Cleveland. We saw a social worker, endocrinologist, neurologist, heart specialist, and plastic surgeon and breast surgeon. They explained how the medical system worked, answered our questions, guided us through each step, made follow-up calls for us. They called periodically to see that I was doing okay and  even came to see me after surgery to say hello.  

Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you.

– 1 Thessalonians 5: 16-18

A positive mental attitude and a sense of humor going into a procedure increases the ease in recovery, so I started to focus on all of the good that was coming out of this ordeal.  My family and I were having honest conversations about cancer and what was happening in our lives. I voiced my need for support and what that specifically looked like. My husband and daughter were able to share some of their feelings with me. We began to joke about the situation to lighten the mood. For example, they gave me an imaginary cancer card with 10 punches, which meant I could ask for 10 favors. Each time I asked for something they asked if that was truly worth a punch on my card. I think I still have punches left. My vanity played a part in this as well. My breasts have always been small and a source of self-consciousness. Here was my chance to finally have bigger breasts; maybe I would get a tattoo instead of nipples, turn something tragic into something beautiful.  

The weeks before surgery, I spent a great deal of time in prayer, reading passages from the Bible, and just sitting still in the presence of Christ. These moments brought me peace beyond understanding. In fact, of all the emotions I felt going into surgery, fear was pretty low on my radar. I knew that no matter the outcome, I would be okay. This practice of reading scripture, meditation, and being still, was so profound for me that I continue it today. 

Here are just a few verses that helped me:

For I know the plans I have for you declares the Lord, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Then you will call on me and pray to me, and I will listen to you.  You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart, I will be found by you, declares the Lord

 ~ Jeremiah 29:11-14.

The Lord is my light and my salvation – whom shall, I fear?  The Lord is the stronghold of my life -of whom shall I be afraid? 

~Psalm 27:1

Come to me, all of who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is easy and by burden is light. 

~Matthew 11:28-30

The day of the surgery finally arrived.  I discovered that I am a nervous pee-er. Even though I wasn’t allowed to have anything to eat or drink after midnight I had to go three times before they inserted the IV, twice after they inserted the IV, once more just before they wheeled me into the surgery room and I still had to go. I was worried I would wet myself during surgery.  The nurse assured me I would not. My team consisting of Eric and Anna, along with the doctors and nurses, told me bad jokes while I was being stabbed by multiple needles to take blood and insert an IV line. Anna championed them all. Her jokes were so not funny that they were funny. This light-hearted sense of humor and laughter went a long way towards helping me relax and take my mind off of my nervousness. It’s amazing how effective laughter is in easing anxiety.  

The surgery went well. There were no cancer cells in my axillary lymph nodes. However, several pre-cancerous tumors were found on my right breast. These tumors were too small to show up on sonogram and MRI scans but were found once the breast was removed. If I would have had a lumpectomy on my left breast as the first surgeon recommended, I would have been back in the hospital again with breast cancer. It gives me chills when I think about it; God working in real-time. 

After the surgery, I didn’t want to be alone. The anesthesia, the bandages, and being in a hospital with strangers was overwhelming. Again, the nurses and clinic staff were wonderful.  They found a private room so Eric and Anna could stay with me. This was fortuitous because later that evening I had two seizure events. Once while eating dinner, and another in the night when I got up to use the bathroom. Though I was in very capable hands, I was glad Eric and Anna were with me.   

My hospital stay was extended so neurological tests could be performed. It was determined that I have a seizure disorder most likely brought on by stress. I would need to be on medication for the rest of my life. I hate taking the medication, it fogs my brain and makes me tired. However, without medication, I will lose my driver’s license, so I guess it’s a tradeoff. I haven’t had a seizure episode since I started the medication.

Considering what my body had just gone through, I felt pretty good. I improved dramatically the few days following the surgery and seizures. Then, a bruise began to develop on my right side and I started to feel lethargic and weak. Each day was worse than the day before. I needed to sleep. In fact, I slept most of the day and night, the bruise became bigger and more menacing, it covered the entire right side of my body. By the time I had my one-week follow-up, I could barely remain upright. I had to hold on to Eric so he could help me walk from the parking lot to the clinic and down the many corridors to my doctor’s office. I teased my surgeon, asking him if I had fallen off the table during surgery. He didn’t tease back but told me I was bleeding internally; my red blood cell count was dangerously low and I needed immediate surgery. My mind and body were so heavy I couldn’t process what was happening until the surgeon said to Eric that things would be ok and I would survive this. I didn’t realize, until that moment, that not surviving was even an option. I was in surgery first thing the next morning.  

Recovering from the second surgery was difficult. At times, the pain took my breath away.   Driving three hours home after the surgery was rough. As Eric drove, each bump and turn were excruciating. Moreover, I was so weak, I could do nothing for myself. I couldn’t undress, brush my teeth or use the bathroom. I was in so much pain I just wanted to cry.    

What Cancer Cannot Do

Cancer is so limited….It cannot cripple love.

It cannot shatter hope. It cannot corrode faith.

It cannot destroy peace. It cannot kill friendship.

It cannot suppress memories. It cannot silence courage.

It cannot invade the soul. It cannot steal eternal life.

It cannot conquer the spirit.

– Unknown

Watching me go through the surgeries and seizures sparked something in Eric. Even though the cancer was eradicated, the vulnerability and instability of two major surgeries within one weeks’ time were very serious. Anything could go wrong. Eric extended his time off from one day to the entire week after my surgery. He managed all of the medications that had to be doled out at precise times of the day. He changed my bandages twice a day and measured the nasty liquid and tissue that come out of the drainage tubes. He helped me to get dressed, made sure that I ate, and helped me get up and walk around until I was able to do it myself. It took several days before I was strong enough to get dressed and walk around the house without assistance.  

Drainage tubes….UGH!!

I had three tubes coming out of my body. They were continually raw and sore. The liquid and tissue that seeped out of them made my skin crawl. The drains had to be emptied, measured, and recorded twice a day. The memory still grosses me out. Eric was extraordinary. He woke up early each day, in order to drain the tubes, change my bandages, take my temperature, administer medication, and record all of this information before he went to work and repeated the process again at night. In addition to all of my physical needs, Eric took care of all of the bills, weeded through the daily barrage of medical statements, made the meals, did the laundry, and kept the house clean. My only job was to heal. This new level of tenderness and care made me feel safe. A bond formed between us that took our marriage to a new and deeper level. It was beautiful. 

Darkness is your potential for vulnerability, 100 roots that meet in the dark meet God in those roots, drink in the silence.”

– Francis Weller, The Wild Edge of Sorrow

After that bump in the road, my post-op care was uneventful. I healed as expected, each day better than the day before. During that time, I was told not to lift anything over 5 pounds – about the equivalent of a gallon of milk for 12 weeks. This left me with very little to do. This became a time of not only physical healing but emotional healing as well. I had time to reflect on all I had been through, how I got there in the first place, and how was I going to move forward. It was time to give myself permission to be still, forgive myself, love myself, and hold myself softly and warmly. I spent those weeks continuing what I had done those few weeks before surgery, I read the Bible and spent time sitting still in prayer and gratitude. I spent time on the phone with friends, read books about healthier living and reducing the spread of cancer cells, sketched, knit a sweater, and socks. I also spent a lot of time journaling.  Sometimes I would do too much and pay for it,  either by being in pain or so tired my only option was to sleep. It surprised me how much sleep your body forces on you when recovering from major surgery. 

“Through self-compassion, we are offered the possibility of new beginnings.”

– Francis Weller

In addition to healing, I was undergoing treatment for breast reconstruction. New breasts were my reward. Every two weeks Eric took time off from work and drove me three hours to Cleveland Clinic for a 10-minute procedure. Expanders were implanted where my breasts were supposed to be. They reminded me of mini beach balls with a squeaker in the middle. In reality, the squeaker was a magnet that allowed the precise insertion of a syringe to inject the saline solution. This in turn, stretched the skin for future implants.  We did this every two weeks for four months. From the beginning, I was disappointed with the plain brown band-aide they used to cover the injection site after the procedure, so I started bringing my own band-aids and donating the remainder of the box for other cancer survivors going through the same treatment. I had superhero band-aids, princess band-aids, emoji band-aids, sparkle band-aids and tie-dye band-aids. You might as well have some fun!

The holidays were just around the corner.  Will flew home from Germany to be with us at Christmas. Truth be told, the way we left things that summer, I wasn’t sure he’d come home.  I was feeling pretty good then so I planned family activities for us to enjoy, while at the same time allowing Will time and space to hang out with his friends. Our relationship was hanging by a thread; we both tread these waters cautiously.  Will isn’t one to express his feelings or talk about troubling matters. We were left to heal by our actions and leave words unspoken. Will actively balanced his time between friends and our family. He even asked me if I wanted to go out for dinner and see a movie – just us. I was elated! We had a lovely evening, finding common ground, enjoying casual conversation, a delicious dinner, and a movie we sarcastically criticized. Leaving me with a renewed sense of hope, Will returned to Germany after the holidays.  

The day of reconstruction surgery finally came. I was nervous about complications like the last surgery, but the nurse assured me this would be easy no need to worry.  She was right. The surgery went well! The pain was minimal – I only needed Tylenol for the first couple of days. Again, I wasn’t allowed to lift anything heavier than a gallon of milk for another 12 weeks. Because I felt good, staying still was difficult. I thought about what I had learned regarding myself through this experience. I had to allowed myself to be vulnerable and let others care for my most basic needs. I felt proud of my strength, resilience, and sense of humor.

Finally, the day came when I was released to go back to work. It felt good to be moving forward. During my recovery time, news about a highly contagious, deadly virus was spreading throughout China. My heart went out to them, but I didn’t think for an instant that it would affect the United States. I don’t know why I thought we were immune to such tragedies. Then my company emailed and told each of us that they had to close their doors until further notice (I’d only been back to work for two weeks)! The good news is, after a couple of weeks, we were able to provide services via telehealth, so I was and still am able to work from home.  

This entire experience has changed me somehow. Recovering from cancer only to re-enter the world during a time of a global pandemic, brought me to realize that not only can my life change in a manner of one phone call but that our entire species is unbelievably vulnerable, an organism so small it can only be seen under a microscope can put our entire planet on hold. How do we move forward?

As for me, I’ve realized that no matter what your belief system, what we make of this brief visit on earth is up to us. We have been gifted with this time, these particular people, and this astonishing planet. So, how will I live this day? How will I greet those I meet? How will I bring soul to each moment? I’ve already lived much of my life feeling unworthy of love, pretending to be things that I am not and compromising my own values in hopes to impress and please others who will never be satisfied. I’ve chased after empty friendships that left me feeling lonely. I’ve allowed myself to be manipulated, bullied, and abused. I’ve allowed others to waste my time not appreciating the preciousness of this short time on earth. This is not okay with me anymore. I am meant to live my life openly, freely, and with soul. It’s time to accept myself as myself. Through God’s grace and mercy, I am profoundly okay. I am safe enough, strong enough, and sure enough, to venture courageously into the time I have left in this world. Jesus tells us through John 14: 27, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” I cling to those words every day.  “Do not let your heart be troubled, do not be afraid.” 

To date, I eat mostly a plant-based diet. I have reduced my gluten, dairy, and refined sugar intake (and anything else that causes inflammation in the body) by about 80%. I take a lot of vitamins and supplements to boost my immune system and reduce inflammation. I am continuing with therapy, I do yoga, practice deep breathing and meditate, all to reduce the effects of stress. I have breasts that look beautiful. Even though I have scars that stretch across the length of each breast, I don’t focus on their ugliness. Instead, I focus on the resilience they represent. I’m designing a tattoo that represents me and my journey.  Something simple yet sincere, creating beauty out of despair.