Chapter 3: The Elephant in the Room
“Win the crowd and you will win your freedom.” Nico repeated one of his favorite lines from Gladiator to me again and again as I prepared myself for surgery. At the time, I found these words funny in their application to my predicament. He was likely just trying to be cute, but I took them to heart anyway and pondered them, searching for some nugget of wisdom buried within. What crowd was I supposed to win over? It seemed that everyone around me was already rooting for my victory. From friends and family, to the doctors handling my care, I was surrounded by a loving safety net ready to catch me should I fall.
Looking back, I have found the nugget of wisdom hidden beneath the surface and have come to understand the profundity of that simple quote. In many ways, I was indeed being held captive, forced against my will into a fight for my life. But while I certainly knew who my opponent was, I had misidentified the “crowd;” my friends, family and doctors weren’t the spectators in the stands, they were my weapons in the fight. Their love armed me in my battle with the strength and courage needed to step into the coliseum and face the gravity of treatments before me. So who were those monsters chanting for my ultimate demise?
Fear was front row and center with the booming voice of a thunderclap, rattling the earth and silencing my heart from singing in its cage. “It’s going to hurt like hell. Something will go wrong! You could die,” he bellowed on repeat, sending all of my joy and bravery scurrying like frightened animals trying to avoid the storm. Vanity was there too, like an evil queen armed with an arsenal of sharp words like torture devices, ready to break my will. “What will they look like? You’re going to have scars. You definitely won’t be as beautiful and your husband will probably find you less attractive. Say goodbye to v-necks and triangle bathing suits.”
It seems to me that as mortal beings our biggest lesson while we inhabit these fragile bodies and live among other fragile mortals is to learn to be unafraid. It is a lesson we face again and again throughout life, in varying degrees of intensity and in various scenarios, all in an effort to get us to face the ultimate fear; our own impermanence on this planet. It’s as if we must learn to see this elephant in the room from every side and angle until we finally come to understand that the ear is not just an ear, the tail not just a tail, but actually one small piece of an animal so large we must first understand it’s many parts before we can begin to grasp it’s whole. Because of this, facing fear is not a one-time fight, it is a moment-by-moment challenge, one that requires endurance, vigilance, constant dedication and willingness to rise when all instincts tell you fall back. The spiritual practice and the depth of connectedness to the eternal source of life that is needed to confront and overcome fear cannot help but bring transformation. If we can learn to open ourselves fully to our most crippling fears and allow them to break down our walls, then the eternal source of life can begin to illuminate our very core, bringing not just transformation but a complete metamorphosis.
I have wrestled with many fears throughout my life, most prevalently in relation to my music career. The thought of not achieving my dreams was terrifying and it held me back from being able to fully explore my talent and express my art without judgment. This fear grew from a rotten seed that was planted in my childhood. Picked on relentlessly by my peers, never having felt accepted or valued by them, becoming famous was my way to prove to the world and to myself that I was good enough, that I was worthy, so worthy in fact that people would remember my name until the end of time. If you had asked me about this fear, I would have told you that it was round and flat, greyish in color and rough in texture. I would have described the massive ear of an elephant, without ever knowing its name or its inevitable source.
I also continue to battle the fear of aging, of losing my youthful good looks. A common fear for many women, our appearance is often viewed in western society as one of our greatest assets. Once it begins to fade, we are no longer as noticeable, no longer as desirable…sometimes we even become completely replaceable. This fear is thick like a tree trunk, sturdy and weathered. It is one of the gigantic legs of my elephant. Until my second battle with breast cancer, I would have told you that all of these fears were unrelated, the ear was just an ear, the leg just a leg. But facing a serious health crisis brought the whole elephant into clear view as he came crashing into the perfect little house that I had built around my life. I can see him clearly now, his enormous weight supported by all of the little fears I have accumulated over time; all of the little fears that led to all of the many ways that I tried to assert my existence more permanently onto this world. And my initial battle with breast cancer was truly the first time that I consciously realized that I could die, not someday down the road in 100 years or so, but soon, in five years, maybe 10 while I was young, in love and very far from famous. All of my fears and all of yours too are ultimately connected to the inescapable realization that one day we are going to take our last breath. And like a little girl, when all of this came pouring down on me, I sat in my mother’s lap and sobbed. “Mom, I don’t want to die.”
So what do you do when you are finally awoken from the slumber of ignorance? How do you begin to process the magnitude of this fear and all that comes with it? Well, I believe it’s a process that takes many forms and a great deal of time. I have been fighting this head on since my first diagnosis and still continue to fight it today. I have won many of these battles by now and will share their stories in the chapters to come, but I am acutely aware that the fight is still far from over. Yet facing my double mastectomy taught me one of my first important lessons; that fear is both physical and mental. While we often attribute it to the mind, it also causes tangible responses that can leave us paralyzed. In the early days of my diagnosis and lead up to surgery, I would often feel the stabbing pains of terror in my gut that even once subsided, would leave me tense, irritable and sad. Meditation was a powerful tool in helping me find a sense of peace and relaxation, but I could still feel the effects of fear harbored in the nooks and crannies of my body.
Nico possesses an incredible ability to distill seemingly complicated situations into simple truths and actionable steps. In many ways he is one of the greatest teachers in my life and as I wrestled with how to work through all of the fear that followed me closer than my own shadow, he reminded me that athletes prepare for big games both with the body and with the mind. “Your fight,” he said, “will require every piece of your being. It will demand physical strength, mental clarity and spiritual understanding. I can help prepare you for battle, but when game day comes, you will have to enter the coliseum alone and face your opponent.”
And so we decided that in preparation for surgery I should train like an athlete with Nico as my coach. We set up a program and he worked with me daily at the gym to build up my strength. From boot camp to mini obstacle courses, weight lifting and cardio exercises, I challenged my body and pushed myself to move beyond what I thought were my physical limits. I took yoga classes to increase my flexibility and keep my muscles as limber as possible. I took Pilates to strengthen my core. These physical tests of endurance not only helped me grow stronger and more resilient, but they also trained my mind to tolerate pain, to understand that when my body felt it could not go on, that my will held the power to push it one step further. It also helped me begin to release all of the pent up fear that my body was holding onto. Moving and sweating worked the energy out of every crevasse and into the open where it would often express itself as an extra spurt of angry energy that fueled me to jump higher, run faster, or fall into a heap of soggy tears.
In addition to all of the physical training, I spent weeks in meditation and prayer, speaking both to God and to the monsters in my mind. I began to imagine my arena, the cold, sterile silver of the operating room, like a twisted picture of Antarctica whose only splashes of color were the pale blue scrubs of the doctors and nurses that surrounded me. To familiarize myself with that place, I spent time imaging and looking over their instruments, their machines, feeling the cold flow of air as it brushed over my pale, naked skin. The eyes of the doctors were kind and reassuring in these dreams, giving away the soft smile that was hidden behind their surgical masks. I imagined myself waking from surgery to the reassuring words of my doctors that all had gone smoothly and that recovery would be swift. After many days spent picturing this space and the moments that would follow, they no longer felt so foreign. Their newly found familiarity would surly be comforting when I would finally plant my feet there physically for the first time in the week to come.
And it was. I entered the operating room with a smile on my face, escorted by my plastic surgeon who reassured me that he would be there the entire time, working with the breast surgeon to do everything possible to minimize scarring and maximize the aesthetic outcome. My breast surgeon promised that she would be careful and thorough, doing her best to eliminate all traces of cancer from my body. The operating room was cold, just like I imagined it to be, but I was offered a warm blanket. The IV’s were placed in my arm and I was given a mild sedative to further calm my nerves. Then came the epidural that would block pain receptors in my chest and ease my first few hours of waking after the surgery. While I hadn’t mentally prepared for the needle in my spine, by breathing deeply and reminding myself that I had already envisioned the outcome, I was able to remain calm and easily bear the pain of the injection. As I was slowly laid down on the operating table, I looked up at the anesthesiologist and said, “ I realize you do this for a living, so this probably goes without saying, but please make sure that I don’t swallow my tongue during the surgery. I’m not sure if it’s even possible to do, but please make sure that I don’t.”
He chuckled and assured me that he would be monitoring me throughout the entire operation. And with that, they told me to begin counting down from ten. I may have made it to 8, but I can only remember uttering the number ten and feeling the cold steel beneath me and the warm blanket above, as if suspended in the tiny sliver of space that exists peacefully between heaven and hell.
I awoke slowly in what seemed like mere seconds later. Hours had passed with no recollection, gone from my life as if they had never happened at all. Only the mild pain, and pressure on my chest were there as proof that those life-altering hours had in fact occurred. I felt a surge of fear rush through my body and even though my mind was still very much asleep, my spirit was clearly as awake as it had ever been, springing instinctually into action to calm the fear…I began to sing. It was a groggy and faint little voice that rose from my hospital bed, but it was a powerful song.
Baby I will provide for you, I’ll stand by your side.
You’ll need a good companion for this part of the ride.
So leave behind your sorrow, let this day be your last.
Tomorrow there will be sunlight, and all this darkness past.
Big wheels roll through fields where sunlight streams.
Meet me in the land of hope and dreams.
Oh this train carries saints and sinners
This train carries losers and winners
This train carries whores and gamblers
This train carries lost souls
Oh this train carries broken-hearted
This train thieves and sweet souls departed
This train carries fools, carries kings
This train, all aboard
I said this train, dreams will not be thwarted
This train all your faith will be rewarded
This train hear the steel wheels singing
This train bells of freedom are ringing
- Bruce Springsteen, Land of Hope and Dreams
I looked up to find that my surgeon had been caressing my forehead. “That’s the first time I’ve ever heard someone come out of surgery singing,” she said with a smile. “Everything went beautifully. You did great and will be back to feeling like yourself again in no time.”
“It feels like there's an elephant sitting on my chest,” I told her in a scared whimper. “It’s hard to breathe.”
“That’s totally normal,” she responded calmly. “Just breathe slowly and deeply. You will adjust to the feeling and are going to be fine.”
I looked over at my mom and Nico sleepily. “I did it,” I whispered. “I won the crowd.”
Nico smiled at me and kissed my forehead. “Yes you did, amore mio. I’m so proud of you.”