[UPDATE: As a result of the mastectomy on December 6th, three previously undetected, active tumors were found in both breasts. A year later, I posted He Faithful Will Remain, my thoughts as I looked back on twelve months of unexpected fear and miraculous peace.]
I’ve been practicing saying the word out loud. I used to frame it with a shudder back in 2008, when I was new to the world of cancer, weighing lump- vs mast- in the list of “ectomies” lined up like a firing squad in front of me.
The years since then have been rich with change, with joy and with discovery. With medical procedures too—with other “ectomies,” essential and life-lengthening.
And now “mastectomy” is back to complicate reality. But it feels different this time. It’s a necessity. In the toss-up between surgery and life, I choose longevity.
That’s why I keep saying the word out loud. In those moments after I wake up, when memory strums and severs the cobwebs in my mind.
In those pre-shower glances in my bathroom mirror, as the battle plays out in my head and heart and soul.
In those banal midday flashes that try to steal serenity by casting worst-case shadows on my hope.
In those quiet evening hours, in the glow of my tree’s soothing lights, as I try to trace the jolts and fear and miracles that brought me to this place.
I shape the word more easily now. I whisper it. Then I say it out loud, injecting purpose and choice into its simple syllables. But it still startles me from someone else’s lips, stealing just a smidge of peace when sighs of sympathy remind me of how big this change will be.
I went to the store last week, as I do every November, to select a Christmas ornament that encapsulates the year. I’ll admit that I struggled this time. Santas. Angels. Mangers. Sleighs and reindeer.
I picked an owl.
I picked an owl to represent this Christmas wrapped in bandages and saturated with the ache of altered self—an odd but apt reflection of what this challenge means to me. I thought of the sound the owl makes, in those nighttime hours when I lie awake and wonder who I’ll be when I open my eyes in the recovery room on December 6th.
Children’s books will tell you he says “Hoo.” But to me, his cry is Who. Who am I? What makes me truly me? How much can life-preserving surgery erode my femininity?
This isn’t the first time my womanhood has been attacked. A rare cancer of the sweat duct already scarred my face. Just two years after that, suspicious masses forced a hysterectomy. And now this amputation. This barbaric, life-saving dismembering.
I’m saying it more easily today, while still uncovering the answer to the “Who?” that floats through my spirit when distractions begin to fade. At the end of the soul-wrestling, my pondering always settles, in bright flashes of conviction, on a truth that feels like Life and Certainty:
I’ve given cancer far too much to let it take my Self from me. To let it steal my hard-fought self-esteem—that sense of value I pursued and failed to find until God’s lavish love burst through the self-condemning barricades I used to call Identity.
Just a few weeks ago, I decided as I drove home from my biopsy that I would find the beauty in this misery. I’d dig into its murky mud, without the opiate of denial or the deflection of false bravery. So I’ve sought out caring counsel. I’ve explored the predicted pain and the type of disfiguration my mastectomy will yield before the reconstruction that will begin on the same day my breasts are cut away.
And I’ve made lists of all I will still be when anesthesia releases its soft hold on me. As a woman. As a single. As a daughter. As a friend. As a teacher. As a mentor. As a life-lover. As a Christ-follower and God-truster.
I am more than my body parts. I know this in my core. I am a tightly-woven tapestry made of the people, places, loves, losses, hopes, ambitions, experiences, disappointments, successes, failures, surprises and challenges that have paved the way to the Me I am today.
I am a woman loved by God.
He rescued me from self-disdain. He filled my days—my adult years—with the priceless gift of places that nurtured me, people who buffered me, challenges that strengthened me and a sturdy, unflagging, foundation-forming faith that saw me through the worst life threw at me.
My brand new owl hangs on my tree beside the wicker chair a dear friend gave to me—a homage to the evening when we sat out on her porch and drank her southern tea. It was the night of July 4th, 2008, and the humid Carolina air was saturated with the fear of having heard, just hours before, three terrifying words: Invasive Ductal Carcinoma.
On that muggy July night, as Deb read Bible passages to me, I realized how desperate was my need.
Just as it is today.
That wicker chair speaks of God’s promises to me. He is still near. I see his goodness in the smiles of caring nurses. I sense his restoration in the peace that anchors me despite my trepidation.
I love my womanhood. I love its symbols and its strength. I always have. And I will grieve the body parts Tuesday will take from me. No. Not take. “The body parts I willingly surrender to a future I desire.”
I will be changed indelibly, but I will still be me.
So I say the word out loud.
And trust the lover of my soul to fill the spaces hollowed out inside my femininity with more of him.
And more of me.
[UPDATE: As a result of the mastectomy on December 6th, three active tumor sites were found in both breasts. These cancers were not detected by the x-rays and ultrasounds that preceded surgery and came as a shock to my doctors and to me. A year later, I posted He Faithful Will Remain, my thoughts as I looked back on twelve months of unexpected fear and miraculous peace.]