Part 8: Welcome To Maybe
The Final Boob Lounge Installment
A few weeks ago my friend Heidi and I were discussing Rothy’s footwear. She’s a big fan, and has waxed poetic about how super comfortable they are, how they are made from recycled plastic water bottles, and most amazing of all, how you can throw them in the wash! I was admittedly getting closer to trying a pair. So after patiently answering yet another gazillion of my questions about them, she added helpfully, “Oh and guess what? In October for every pair you buy, Rothy’s will send a free pair to a breast cancer survivor!”
To which I responded, “Well that is super cool!”. Because it is.
We returned to drinking our coffee. And then it suddenly occurred to me.
“Wait a second!” I shouted. “I’m a breast cancer survivor!!” And we burst out laughing.
I had completely forgotten.
I’ve given Pinktober a huge amount of side-eye over the years (Pink potato chips? Really??). When I was diagnosed (In October, no less) the hospital gave me a tote bag filled with resource material, candy, trial-size hand lotion, and a pleather pink journal with a pink pen. It didn’t land well. Not the fault of all the kind people who put those bags together, it was just in that moment I realized “Oh my fing God this is really happening“. I had just gained membership to a club I never wanted to join. And a goodie bag wasn’t exactly comforting.
That moment marked my entrance into the Boob Lounge.
But when had I exited?
My mother, who had breast cancer fifteen years ago (and is cancer-free to this day), said something to me after my mastectomy was well in my rear-view mirror, and it stopped me in my tracks. “Keep in mind that there will be substantial pressure on you now to become a Survivor with a capital ‘S’, in a way that attaches you to this experience maybe more than you feel is authentic”.
I had no idea what she meant back then. But today I think I do.
Two years have passed since my diagnosis, and I am living well, with the luxury of forgetting from time to time that I too have lived with breast cancer. My gratitude for the entire experience is immense. But aside from the pieces I wrote and shared about it, I did not create a life afterward in which survivorship is entwined with my identity.
I do not buy the breast cancer merch. I do not celebrate a “cancer free” anniversary. I do not march.
I don’t even say I had cancer. I use several versions of “there was a tumor discovered in my breast”. My body may have been predisposed to creating it, but I steadfastly refuse to claim any part of receiving it. There was no way I was going to cleave any part of that thing to my psyche. Whereas I consider myself a distinctly down-to-earth intuitive, on this point I was balls-to-the-wall metaphysical. I went full Radical Spiritual Creativity on that shit. No part of my consciousness would be attending to the patterns that contributed to cancer. My body was to be thanked for that tumor because it was a way of sharing high-level information with me, including but not exclusively that I was grieving the loss of my husband. Which had triggered deeper layers of old emotional patterns and very old trauma that was still in residence in my cells.
Looking at all of it gave me the chance to go forward committed to healing.
And because I believe in holism, meaning that the body, emotions, and spirit are always in communication, I saw nothing contradictory in taking no prisoners with regard to my thought process and feelings while at the same time embracing a Western medical course of treatment. Far from being in denial, I fully accepted what was happening to me. And I got my ass down to one of the best cancer treatment centers in the country. I most definitely heard the wake-up call my body sent to me via the massive immune system failure that had happened. And I faced every single implication.
I also added many alternative health practices as a supplement to my general health, to help strengthen my body as it healed. It was a way of responding to it, acknowledging, “I am going to be a good Mama to you. I hear you, and I’m taking action”.
I accept that the body, my body, all of our bodies are not designed to live forever and that sometimes during the journey here we will get sick. It’s what bodies do. Just being a woman alive at this point in the story of human civilization means I am part of the 1 in 8 of us who will receive a breast cancer diagnosis. Plus I had two additional risk factors: I am Ashkenazi Jewish and I have a family history. So I could think whatever I liked about it, but in order to be a human being, I would have to include the admission that I am not infallible.
As a result of my diagnosis, I changed. Physically, emotionally, and spiritually. My spirit feels different than it was before. There is not one area of my self, or my soul, or my life that is the same. Incredibly, I feel so much more comfortable in my own skin. I like being me. Perhaps I understand what it means to love oneself.
But I did not have cancer. It was in me, it gave me the exact lessons which I would need to thrive going forward into the last third (or so) of my life, but if you believe as I do that the words we choose are important then I reject it on every possible energetic or metaphysical level with the strength of my entire soul.
Then there’s this: there are countless women in the Boob Lounge whose suffering was, and is, so much more incredibly worse than mine.
I know I’m not supposed to say that. Like somehow I must have damaged self-esteem if I believe it. I’m supposed to honor my own experience, and not compare, I’m supposed to say that I too took hits from this asshat of a disease.
I have told anyone who would listen that the discovery of that tumor was the best 50th birthday present I could ever have received. That is my truth. I am the only one who is allowed to say it was a gift, and I say it all the time. While other women who are suffering are waiting to decide (or maybe they already have) that it’s a gift (or not), I can stand alongside them in my own experience and say, I was fortunate.
I am also the only one who is allowed to put limits on the compassion I feel for myself or others, and I choose not to do that. Compassion is not a zero-sum game. It doesn’t harm me one whit to be generous with anyone.
In honor of all the other women who have kicked this disease straight in the keister, who have had way more taken from their bodies and way more losses, whose treatment has affected their minds and hearts and loved ones in incalculable ways….and then who have risen up anyway and done all the things a breast cancer survivor is supposedly supposed to do, and proudly, like tattooing pink ribbons on themselves and going on every Making Strides Walk and wearing Pepto Bismol pink for 31 days straight every October, leading support groups and mentoring other women who come after them…..I yield the floor. I cannot say my name along with theirs. I have tried over and over again to claim Survivorship, and I cannot form the words in my mouth or use my own voice to release them.
I know we all can be warriors and survivors. Ask someone who loves me if they think I belong with them and they will say of course. I was diagnosed just over a year after my husband died and for several months I thought I was orphaning my precious children.
But I am out of the Boob Lounge now and I can’t say it. Breast Cancer Survivor. That’s someone else. Not me.
I wonder if it happened all at once that I am standing outside the Boob Lounge looking into the future. Or did my leaving keep pace with my relief?
A turn toward the exit after mastectomy surgery? A first step down the hall when the biopsy report came back saying my lymph nodes were clear? Another step taken when I tested free of the BRCA genes? Another when my Oncotype came back so low it meant I’d get a pass on chemo? A few more paces after reconstruction was complete.
My hand reaching for the doorknob the first time I had sex with my new boobs.
Pushing the door open at my appointment for my nipple tattoos.
And walking through the doorway, when I showed them off to my boyfriend. His reaction, “I’ll be damned,” was pretty much mine as well and made me smile. With few exceptions, everyone I’ve flashed (not a cast of thousands, just a few people who were chosen for their loyalty and humor) has said the same exact thing.
My new boobs have always felt like they were mine. Sensation is starting to return to them, although it will never be the same as having nipples. More importantly, as much as I love them, my soul is what feels ultimately more beautiful for having gone through this experience. I feel free in a way that means I cannot carry the weight of my own suffering around under the badge of surviving. It has to go, along with the tumor.
Having said all that, I am quite clear that one of the reasons I’m alive and feeling this way is due in part to all that luscious research funded by the pink shoes and potato chips and power tools and t-shirts.
This is a moment in my life I’m calling Maybe. Since I was conscripted onto the Mortality World Tour and then because of that, redirected to my life’s happiest period to date, it follows that the most important gift breast cancer brought me was an appreciation for the unknown. Uncertainty does not upset me as much as it once did. Within it, I now see opportunities for my life to unfold in ways that require more of me than perhaps I am ready to recognize, but that I know will be to my benefit.
I am solidly, loudly, broadly happy. I luxuriate in the gifts of middle age in that I know myself better than I ever have, and I have done the rigorous work necessary to authenticate that knowledge.
Plus, I do not have time for bullshit. Or for drama. Or for selfishness or immaturity or victimhood or cruelty. If I’d been given a tote bag on my way out of the Boob Lounge, it would be filled with this resource: the ability to choose who I want to be on most days and to discard what I can no longer tolerate. I am a double member of the Life Is Short Club and I have discovered I have too much love and compassion and fun and great sex and laughter now and ahead of me to waste one fucking second of the life that has been returned to me.
Maybe means I’m less needy to know what’s up ahead, not that I won’t ever know (I’m an intuitive for gosh sakes). I’m still human-on harder days I am not immune to worry. Maybe I will only feel this good for a short time. Maybe I will have to take another tour through the Boob Lounge. Maybe I will have to face tremendous loss unexpectedly again.
But I’m friends with Maybe now. She has somehow made sure I’m continually turning into the best version of myself, making the loving choices daily that keep me ready to give all I have to this world. Because Maybe I’ve been fortunate to discover a more universally true way to live. Maybe, just Maybe, I’m ready to laugh and play with all the other travelers I’m lucky enough to bump into while I’m here.
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