Updated: Aug 29, 2022
“The wound is the place where the Light enters you.” - Rumi
When my daughter was six, a small mass appeared in my right breast. I spoke to her as gently as I could about that first little surgery, when mommy would be away for the day. When I went in for a second surgery a few months later, my sweet words to my daughter were losing their reassuring power.
In my grown up conversations with my doctor, our concern was also growing. Pathology reports showed that “my margins were not clean”, meaning that what they’d removed might have been part of something still there. We had no way to be certain what was happening, or what I should do.
With my blessing, the “tumor board” took up my case. The tumor board is where a team of different kinds of doctors - oncologists, radiologists, surgeons, pathologists, etc – reviews the case and offers a collective recommendation. Making sure that someone had my back, my beloved friend Angel (one of the less than 3 percent of medical doctors who are Black women) petitioned to be at the meeting. I trusted Angel with my life, and knew she would speak up, to them and to me, if anything felt off.
My case was tricky because existing masses weren’t show up, in even the best imaging. After weighing all the factors, the tumor board surprised themselves and me with a unanimous recommendation for a mastectomy on my right side. Option B was radiation treatment and lifelong monitoring.
I was filled with fear and grief, and a touch of anger, but I was also clear. I’d written out my intentions when I first heard the diagnosis: I was committed to doing whatever would allow me to quickly and permanently get back to supporting my child emotionally, physically, and economically. I chose mastectomy for the 100 percent guarantee that I would be cancer free and face no ongoing risks, such as secondary cancer from radiation, and no lasting health impacts.
I chose mastectomy for other reasons too. Despite my dread, I believed my daughter would, at least someday, understand that I made a tough but healthy choice. The doctors are not making me do this, I told her. Mommy is making this choice.
With a lump in my throat, I turned down reconstruction because it would mean a much longer time in the hospital away from my child, and a much longer and more painful recovery that my frightened daughter would be forced to watch me endure.
My health insurance coverage was about to run out, so I was grateful to get scheduled for three days later.
The morning after the surgery, I woke up in the hospital to bright sunshine. I looked down at my pale blue hospital gown, took a deep breath in and lifted it up, bracing myself for the worst. I looked down, but instead of ugliness I found myself gazing upon the smooth right chest of my body as a little girl. A warm rush of happy familiarity flowed through me. What I saw was my physical being from before the world warped my view of my body and my value in it.
Looking at my scar, I woke up to forgotten memories of wellness, to the freeness I experienced before the onslaught of relentless body image poison. I woke up to renewed joy and possibility for me and for my daughter. I woke up more whole, not less.
I believe that she, and we all, have wisdom in our bodies that we can bring to this world. I believe that we have the power to work intentionally with our grief, fear, and anger, to look unflinchingly at our wounds and grow a healed future beyond them. I believe we can make the hard choices we need to make. I believe we can have each other’s backs. I believe we can surprise ourselves with a new view of who we are, with a greater possibility for wholeness than we even know.
Note: I am a two-timer, even though there is no history of cancer in my family. I joke that my bad luck comes from using hair spray in high school, which is not far off the mark. (See “Poor Environmental Quality LInked to Elevated Cancer Rates.”)
(This blog was edited on 8.28, when I realized that I was mis-remembering the year, and fusing two different medical events. Oops!)