The greatest joy of my life is my daughter, Rachel, and I waited 39 long years to meet her. Those first few years were bliss. Sleep-deprived, tiring, beautiful, bliss. I love being a mom and I feel that through motherhood I finally have the chance to live my life's true purpose.
However, five years after Rachel was born, I was diagnosed with breast cancer, and what followed was the most difficult experience of my life. "Older" mothers, meaning those over age 35, are at an increased risk for postpartum breast cancer, but it was something I had never even considered a possibility for me. When I was diagnosed, I felt angry, anxious, and shocked. Truly, shock does not come close to the feelings I experienced, because I was healthy! I never smoked, I exercised, I drank green juice for God's sake. It felt so unfair, it all just felt so completely and utterly unfair. The news hit me like a giant wave, knocking me off my feet and slowly dragging me out to sea while I was helpless to do anything about it.
Although I felt suffocating fear and dread, I refused to go down without a fight. After discussing treatment options with my doctor, I started the challenge which is chemotherapy. I went to chemo once a week for three months and it was awful, to say the least, but I held strong in the belief that after I would be cancer free. However, the universe, or God, or whatever you believe in, had other plans for me.
My cancer had not been responding to the chemo as it should and my breasts would have to be removed with surgery. I knew I had to do whatever had to be done, so I got a double mastectomy. I chose not to get breast reconstruction at that time because it added weeks to my recovery and I had been so sick for so long that I just wanted to remember what it felt like to be healthy, play with my daughter, and enjoy my life.
It was a month or so later when I nearly recovered from my surgery. I'd begun to regain my physical strength, my emotional state was another story. I saw other survivors who were so strong, confident, and grateful to be where they were, but I fell into a deep sadness, with a healthy dose of self-pity. After my mastectomy, I had this thought that would replay in my head like a bad song; Without my "womanly" body, and my beautiful female features, was I still a complete/whole woman?
While I wish I could tell you that one day I took it upon myself to get help, that's not the truth. In truth, it was my husband who noticed what a dark place I was in, and he very kindly and gently suggested I talk to my doctor, who directed me to some breast cancer survivor support groups.
The following Friday I begrudgingly made my way to our home office, where I sat at my computer. There was no way I was going to attend in person, I wasn't even sure I'd get anything out of it! 20 minutes into the meeting I had a full breakdown/meltdown/catharsis. Full tears, full heaving sobs, snot, crying! But it wasn't that I was sad, in fact, it was the best I'd felt in months. I felt this unbelievable relief that other women not only understood my experience but many felt the exact same way as I did.
Beyond the recognition and understanding I got from group meetings, I also found women who looked at life with joy and hope. They shared their plans for the future, and stories about the absurdities and frustration of getting cancer, but mostly they shared their gratitude. In all my self-pity, which I had every right to feel, I lost my gratitude for recovery, which in turn made me feel guilty because I knew how lucky I was.
Over time, the meetings inspired me to face life with the same optimism. Through our group, I developed deep connections and meaningful friendships with women who I admired. Women I saw as truly beautiful inside and out, breasts or no breast, implants or not. They were funny, and kind, and loved their families and their life just as I did. Many of them have gotten reconstructive surgery and through them sharing their experience I decided that it was actually the right choice for me.
As a woman I'd spent so much time fighting my bodies, wishing I was smaller or looked different in some way. I swear the ONLY thing I would tell myself if I go back in time would be to knock it! Life can change really fast, and you'll wish you'd appreciate it when it's gone.
I never thought I'd have implants, but then again, I never thought I'd get cancer either. I underwent one last surgery (god willing) to get a breast prosthesis, meaning breast reconstruction with implants. I heard many of the other women say that they had difficulty with their husbands and partners during their recovery from a mastectomy as they felt they'd lost what made them attractive. I realized that although I don't feel that was the only thing that was bothering me, it had definitely played a part.
But here is the most important thing I learned on this whole journey and through my connections with the other women in my group:
I am not my body.
My worth and femininity do not come from a figure or a shape. As my soul and spirit remain the same, I am who I've always been. The woman in my group showed me that hiding the truth about your experience, be it in regards to cancer or reconstructive surgery, never did anyone any good, so I'm sharing mine.
What I have lost is just one part of my body, but what I have gained is a life with my daughter, and I'll take that trade a million times over.