Chapter 4: Written in the Scars
The Santa Monica air is damp today and my little bungalow is chilly. I’m sitting on the couch writing while Nico sleeps in our tiny bedroom just beyond the kitchen. I have more to tell you about my days post surgery, but I must confess that it feels strange for me now. Writing about, and conveying the challenges of that time when everything I’m enduring now seems exponentially harder. I didn’t truly realize then how difficult it could and would become. And yet, with all that I’ve been through and all that lies heavy on my heart, I must still keep some perspective and count my lucky stars. I caught this early twice and can (and will) be completely cured.
But just because some have it harder doesn’t mean that your own experience isn’t valid or challenging. And today I don’t feel like counting my lucky stars because truth be told, there are some days when I just don’t feel all that lucky. While some women are out having babies, focusing on their career, and walking around with natural, healthy breasts, I’m writing to you about what it’s like having lost mine, and what it’s like now recovering from chemo, enduring radiation and making tough decisions about the years of hormone treatment I have yet to face. There is still an ocean’s worth of tears contained behind these hazel eyes that sometimes build like a tsunami until nothing can hold back their tide.
But I hadn’t yet learned of all the obstacles I would have to navigate in the years to come as I laid in my hospital bed slowly becoming lucid after surgery. My mom fed me Graham Crackers and helped me sip apple juice with a straw to minimize the number of times I’d have to lift my arms. When the epidural wore off and the full weight of the pain began to set in, Nico remained fixed to my side, filling every waking moment with love and tender words of support. He slept in a wooden chair next to my hospital bed and held my hand between nurse visits every few hours. It was in these sweet moments of complete vulnerability that I fell even deeper in love with the man that I had married only two years earlier. We had experienced so many romantic and glamorous moments together, traveling the world, making love in fancy hotel rooms and sipping expensive wine while savoring meals at renowned restaurants. Yet here, under the florescent lights of a New York City hospital room, the love that we shared had never looked so beautiful.
But on some days, even though I could see the love and adoration in his eyes, fear would find it’s way back to my bedside. “Will you still love me without breasts?” I whimpered softly as he sat next to me on the bed. “Will you still think I’m sexy and beautiful?”
“It’s a good thing you have more to offer than just a pair of boobs,” he responded with a smile as if to gently chastise me for even asking such a question. I had to smile too. I had spent so much of my young life focused on beauty, always wanting to look perfect, to be perfect. And what I realized then was the awe-inspiring depth of true love. That with or without makeup, with or without breasts, lingerie or boxers, socks and drain tubes, accomplishments or failures, I could be naked and vulnerable in front of another human being. I could allow myself to be fully seen without fear that I would be loved less for it. What a world this would be if we could learn to give this not just to others, but first and foremost to ourselves.
This seems like as good a time as any to admit to you that I do not always offer this kind of love to myself and I think most women, if they are really honest, can relate. We believe that our social and spiritual capital rests in our physical appearance. We compete with each other, trying to fit into smaller and smaller sizes, as if our worth directly correlates with the circumference of our thighs. We apply brighter shades of lipstick, darker shades of eye shadow. We buy expensive clothes, shoes and jewelry in a desperate effort to stand out in a crowd, to prove to the world that we are unique, that we are worthy of being loved. With the dawn of Instagram Influencers and social media "highlight reels" on full public display, it gets harder and harder to keep up with the Kardashians. We begin to feel ordinary and our self-esteem plummets. I have fallen prey to this life-sucking game as much as anyone and have spent way to many hours lamenting the bad hair day, the pimple that appeared on my cheek, or the slight bloat from last night’s dinner which strangles my confidence and makes me feel less than the powerful and radiant soul I was created to be. I’ve harbored a deep fear of aging because I’ve allowed myself to believe that diminishing physical beauty somehow makes me less valuable, less able to attain what we all so desperately want; acceptance. Even though I didn’t realize it until they were taken away, my breasts played a critical role in the theatrical trailer I had crafted for my life. They weren’t large or voluptuous, certainly not the star of the show, but they were real and they fit well on my slender frame. I could push them up, wear low cut dresses or allow my husband to touch them without shying away. They were a part of me, and they made me feel sexy and feminine. Even though they never defined me, without them I don’t feel completely whole.
I’ve gotten in the habit in recent years of asking myself where some of these feelings may have come from. In order to heal wounds properly, we must first seek to fully understand them. And while to some degree, I believe all women are concerned with their outward appearance because of the societal messaging that brainwashes us, perhaps for some, the struggle is more deep-seated. You see, when I was growing up, I wasn’t popular, I often felt alone and was the subject of bullying for as long as I can remember. In fifth grade, I had finally mustered the courage to have a friend tell another friend that I liked a boy named Chase. (Names have been changed to protect the innocent). Then later that day, during a full school assembly, Chase’s friend stood up in the middle of the gym and shouted, “Chase doesn’t want to go out with you Jennifer!” Everyone broke out into laughter and looked over at me in mockery. I was mortified, ashamed and completely deflated. I wanted so desperately to cry, but refused to let them see the pain that they had so callously inflicted. Episodes like this continued and only got worse in middle school and high school. Girls called me a slut, I was the furthest thing from it. They tried to trip me in the hallway, laughed at me openly in the middle of classes and did everything in their power to try to make me feel like I was a loser. As I matured out of my awkward years and did in fact become a beautiful woman, I realized that my looks garnered attention and this made me feel validated. It made me feel like all of those people were wrong to have so easily cast me aside, that I was wanted and worthy. Over the years, I grew more confident in my appearance and learned to really love myself, not just for how I looked, but also for the person that I became. But as I faced multiple assaults to this front like mastectomies, scars and later hair loss from chemo, acne from hormone treatment, and the natural aging process that we all face, I was forced to look deeper and deeper within myself for the source of true beauty; the soul.
But all of this awareness came after years of self-reflection. On my second day recovering at the hospital I was still in survival mode, passing the hours in an opioid-induced haze until dusk fell and I was finally cleared to leave. Though I considered staying one more night, I decided that I would get much better sleep in a room that did not have a steady stream of people marching through it like the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.
Slowly, and painstakingly I tried to get out of bed. One of the most physically painful parts of those early days and weeks following surgery was sitting up. With so much trauma to the chest, the placement of new foreign objects, and drain tubes to keep the area from filling with blood, every change of position caused a shift in how these bags of silicone had settled, activating new nerves and pain sensors that forced me to really think critically about just how badly I needed to use the bathroom. A close second in painful and laborious tasks post surgery was getting dressed. Luckily, I had received some key advice from a friend who had a mastectomy a year beforehand. She advised me to wear a zip or button up shirt going into surgery, since putting my arms over my head would be a simple luxury I wouldn’t experience again for quite some time.
I carefully slipped my arms through the hoodie and my mom placed my jacket over my shoulders. We pinned the drains to my sweatshirt, and very slowly made our way out into the frigid, February air. Getting into the Uber was not easy.
“Please drive carefully,” Nico instructed our driver. “My wife just came out of a very difficult surgery.”
At ten miles an hour our driver took us to the Andaz Hotel where we planned to have a two-week recovery stay-cation. He turned corners slowly to mitigate any movement from centrifugal force and said that he would pray for my recovery when I stepped out of his car.
The kindness of strangers and those on the periphery of my life has moved me more times than I can count throughout my battle with cancer. People I hardly knew have shown up to support me in ways that demonstrate the true meaning of love and compassion. And by the same token, some of those closest to me disappeared into the shadows, resurfacing just often enough for them to tell themselves that they were there. I’m not the first to say it and I certainly won’t be the last but life’s greatest challenges have a way of separating the wheat from the chaff and it is in these knee-buckling moments that you finally see an individual’s true character. Do you care enough about a friend to be there when it’s not glamorous or convenient and there are no selfies to be taken? Or are you too caught up in your own day-to-day problems? Do you possess the inner strength to transform darkness into light? Or do you wallow in your darkness and allow it to become the excuse for why you cannot see? When the shit in your life hits the fan and splatters hopelessly all over the walls, look around you. The people walking waist-deep into the mess are the ones worth investing your time into. As you start to rebuild after these disasters, do it with them as your cornerstones. It was a painful lesson for me, but some of the people that I loved the most simply didn’t have the capacity to handle such rocky seas. I love them anyway, with all my heart, but I now know how and with whom to build the foundation of my life and I made a decision about the kind of person that I intended to become.
My mom and my husband are two of my cornerstones and like always, they were there to take on the most thankless moments of my life. During the first week of recovery at the hotel, they helped me in and out of the bathroom, dress and undress daily and clean my drain tubes. To keep my body moving my mom and I would walk the halls of the hotel, over and over, solving all of life’s problems along the way. We counted each day as a triumph, knowing that as time pressed forward, recovery would creep ever closer. But we never wished away one moment as painful as it might have been. We did our best to relish in the down times as opportunities to talk, draw closer, enjoy the simple act of flipping through a girly magazine or watching a cheesy movie. These weeks were fuzzy, blurred by the numbing effects of the painkillers, but I still look back on the beautiful memories of un-interrupted time with two of my greatest sources of love in this world. Somehow, during one of the worst times in my life, they managed to make it fun.
On day four post-surgery I unwrapped my bandages and looked at my breasts in the mirror for the first time. I wasn’t expecting them to look normal yet, but seeing the reality of the bloody incisions, the drains coming out from my sides, the bruising, and the swelling was more than I was prepared for and tears rushed to my eyes as I let out a long sob. There I was standing naked in front of myself, no makeup, hair unwashed, mangled, uneven and pale. As I studied my battered torso in the mirror, the unmarred persona that I had grown so attached to was standing just as bruised and deformed as the chest from which those pair of breasts had been cut and replaced with silicone-filled imposters. In that moment, it seemed as if I would never be normal again, like my life would forever be segmented into two parts; before breast cancer and after. I felt like damaged goods and to be honest, sometimes I still do.
On day five post-surgery Nico wrapped my breasts in Saran Wrap to cover the drain tubes while I carefully tried to rinse my lower body in the shower. It was a harrowing and humbling endeavor and I’ve never thought to ask him what it was like watching his new bride wrapped in plastic, crying softly as she struggled to accomplish even the simplest of daily tasks. On day six I finally felt strong enough to brave the frigid temperatures and venture out for pedicures. But after only a few short hours, my body would begin to shiver with uncontrollable convulsions. It seemed as if it was using all of the energy it had left to heal and mend the inflicted wounds. Generating heat was one ask too many. On day seven, I had my drain tubes removed and we made it to a salon to get my hair washed for the first time in over a week. On day eight, we made it past the hotel restaurant and down the street for dinner. Each day we planned one small act of fun. They were simple and attainable, but they gave us something to look forward to, a new experience to remind us that healing was possible and that joy can still be present in the face of pain. And then finally, after ten long days, I was able to go back home and my mom flew back to California.
Over the next couple of weeks as I slowly continued healing, I still had trouble lifting my arms above my shoulders. I remember thinking about how many millions of times I had taken this simple ability for granted, as if it’s a given that our bodies will work as they’re supposed to. I never realized how much joy there was in being able to perform small tasks on my own. We spend so much time worrying about all of the things that we lack, failing to find gratitude in the thousands of tiny gifts that we are given every day. When was the last time you thought about how lucky you are to be able to raise your arms? Let me tell you about all of the things that become very difficult when you can’t; washing your hair in the shower, putting your own shirt on over your head, reaching something from a shelf, hanging up your coat, hailing a taxi, hugging your mom, and so much more. There are people who are born without limbs, soldiers who lose them in battle, and others who suffer injuries and must learn to cope with life in new ways. The fact that your body is intact and working properly today is not a given, it is an incredible blessing that may not be there tomorrow.
If you start looking at your life through this lens, your attitude will start to shift and you will be able to find gratitude in each of life’s moments, no matter how simple and seemingly mundane. I’m not suggesting you go through each second of your day thinking about the minutia of every step. Life would be nearly impossible to live if we were constantly aware of every bodily function that we are able to perform without consciously having to think about it. But once in awhile we do need to take a moment to really think about it, to be grateful for our health and all of the opportunity that we can tackle if we are fortunate enough to have this one very simple, very profound thing. When the more evolved part of my spirit was able to allow this truth to settle in, I became less concerned with how these new breasts would look and more interested in what the lasting scars they bore would forever remind me of; that I am a survivor and that my fortitude during adversity is more beautiful than my natural breasts ever were!