Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Becoming Me

“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation, old things have passed away; and behold, all things have become new.” ~II Corinthians 5:17 (NKJV)

The other day I turned on the television just in time to hear a talk show host announce the topic of her upcoming show: “Change your bra and change your life!” Maybe it’s just a sore subject for me, but up until I had my mastectomy, I never noticed what a breast-obsessed world we live in. Then again, as I look back on my years as a budding pre-teen, I recall doing “bust exercises” and chanting a cheer with one unnamed sister. “We must, we must, we must develop our busts! The bigger, the better, the tighter the sweater – we must develop our busts!” (Bring back memories, anyone?) And I still remember the year my mom gave me my first training bra for Valentine’s Day and how I locked myself in the bathroom so I could experiment with tissue enhancements. So I guess most girls are programmed from an early age to aspire to look like their Barbie dolls. It’s like the actresses who proudly parade down the red carpet, as if their breasts are their greatest asset. (Maybe in some cases, they are.) Again, I hope this doesn’t sound like sour grapes, but losing my breasts has definitely given me a new perspective on life. It just seems so superficial to place such great importance on a physical appendage. Change your life, by changing your bra? Give me a break. How about, “Change your heart and change your life!”

“Keep your heart with all vigilance; for from it flow the springs of life.”~Proverbs 4:23 (RSV)

Nevertheless, I must admit that adjusting to life without breasts has been very difficult. It is awkward being a breast-less woman in a breast-filled world. And I can’t help but notice the stares and double-takes I get when I go out in public without my prosthesis. (Apparently a flat chest sticks out more than you might think. Ironic, isn’t it?) But I am determined to find a way to become comfortable with the new shape of my body, because the thought of being ashamed of it is a notion that I simply cannot bear.

The other day I made a trip to Hair Secrets in Topeka, Kansas, to get fitted for my permanent prosthesis (the first one was more lightweight to give me some time to heal), and I must say that I was very pleased with the results. In fact, they look better than my real ones did. After nursing four babies, they weren’t going to win any blue ribbons at the fair, that’s for sure. (Maybe not even an honorable mention!) At any rate, I like having the freedom to choose between wearing the prosthesis or going without. It’s kind of like deciding whether or not to wear make-up. So when I want to dress up, I’ll just strap on my Sunday-go-to-meeting gear. It’s just important for me to be okay with myself either way.

You could also compare it to learning how to become comfortable with your own weight, even if you’re not a perfect size by the world’s standards. I had a friend once who refused to buy herself any new clothes until she lost some weight, and I told her that I thought it was important for her to see herself as “worthy” of a new outfit just the way she was. Then if she wanted to lose weight, fine. I eventually insisted on buying her a new pair of jeans and a pink oxford shirt – just to make my point. We still refer to it as “the pink shirt theory.” Love yourself, wherever you are in life; and accept yourself – regardless of your outward appearance. Don’t attach your worth to your weight! Just as I am not my breasts, none of us are our weight, either!

In Geralyn Lucas’ book, Why I Wore Lipstick to My Mastectomy, she expressed the following feelings about her pending surgery: “When I lose my breast I will be stripped of part of what I thought made me a woman, made me desirable. But, I think, I will still be me. Maybe I am like an antique table that is being stripped before being re-varnished. Layers will be peeled away to reveal something beautiful underneath . . . And when there is nothing left to strip, maybe there will be a revelation of a different beauty underneath, one that I never knew existed.”

But as I stated earlier, it has been a difficult adjustment indeed. There’s nothing easy about seeing two horizontal scars where my breasts used to be. A friend of mine who was paralyzed in an accident shared how she had to “mourn – grieve in all the stages,” the loss of the use of her legs. Although my situation seems insignificant by comparison, Keen and I have both had to grieve the loss of the old me – that is, the former shape of my physical body. But I am still the same person on the inside. In fact, if you consider the principle that “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” you could even say that I’m a new and improved version. I do feel stronger after this experience, which makes me better prepared for the next trial I may have to face.

“Dear brothers and sisters, whenever trouble comes your way, let it be an opportunity for joy. For when your faith is tested, your endurance has a chance to grow. So let it grow, for when your endurance is fully developed, you will be strong in character and ready for anything.” ~James 1:2-4 (NLT)

I’m reminded of the time in the late 80’s when Keen and I opened our little restaurant in Alma called The Back Porch. We thought we had a great idea, but we were never able to turn a profit. In fact, it was costing us more money to keep the doors open, than to shut it down and continue making our monthly payment to the bank. Still, we fought hard to hang on. But we finally faced the harsh reality that the restaurant was slowly sinking our financial ship. Although it was difficult to forfeit our dream and suffer the public humiliation of a failed business, we had to let it go to save our life. The restaurant, like my breasts, had become a liability.

“Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”
~Matthew 7:19 (NKJV)

Having a supportive spouse has been such a precious gift during this journey. Keen never seems to run out of encouraging words for me. Recently, when he put his hand on my chest he said, “Now I’m closer to your heart.” Another time he said: “Your scars reflect your beauty.” He often reassures me that he is still attracted to me – maybe even more so – and that our moments together are even more meaningful now because of all that we’ve been through.

I have also found that keeping a good sense of humor has helped me during the recovery process. As it says in Proverbs: “A merry heart does good like a medicine, but a broken spirit dries the bones.” The Bible also says that the joy of the Lord is your strength, so I am working very hard at maintaining a merry heart and a joyful spirit.

Along these same lines, recently I saw a contestant on the television show, “Last Comic Standing” who seemed to adopt this same philosophy about her severe lisp. Rather than be depressed and embarrassed about her speech impediment, she decided to turn it into something positive. In her comedy routine, she talks about how she attended speech therapy classes as a young girl and they would tell her to repeat words like “wagon” or “tree.” She said: “I can say wagon; I can say tree! How about supercalafragalistic-expialadosish? I seem to be having a little trouble with that word!” So the use of humor can be a very effective tool in taking the sting out of emotional pain.

"More important than talent, strength, or knowledge is the ability to laugh at yourself and enjoy the pursuit of your dreams." ~Amy Grant, Christian singer

One night after my surgery our son Keener decided to play a practical joke on me by hiding behind a door and jumping out to scare me when I walked in the room. Well, it worked – a little too well – and I screamed at the top of my lungs. Keener felt just terrible, apologized and gave me a big hug. So I jokingly chastised him saying: “Be nice to your mom! Just because I have a flat chest doesn’t mean I’m one of the guys!”

Another time I was talking to Keen on the phone at his law office, and he mentioned that he and one of his colleagues dressed exactly alike that day. The colleague was standing right there and commented that the main difference between them was that he was having a bad hair day. (He’s completely bald.) So I told Keen to tell him not to feel bad because I was having a bad chest day. Keen’s colleague replied that hair and chests are two things that are highly overrated.

I’ve discovered that there is one small caveat to my use of humor, however. It seems that I can make jokes about my flat chest, but nobody else can. We learned this lesson the hard way when my sweet, supportive husband thought it was safe to come up with his own joke since he saw that I was able to joke about it. As our three-year-old grandson Gabe would say: “That’s not punny!” When I explained the rules to my brother Joe, he said: “I certainly respect your right to make all the jokes, but I reserve the right to repeat them!” I don’t have a problem with that – as long as the jokes originate from me!

Geralyn Lucas chose to have immediate reconstruction surgery after her mastectomy, and later she agreed to pose for a special breast cancer survivor’s edition of Self Magazine. In her book she described her experience this way: “I never existed as a beautiful woman until I saw myself that July day . . . In every photo in the past, I hated my nose, my cheeks, my smile. Now, when there is a huge defect, I was the most beautiful. I had set out to inspire other women that they could be beautiful after this surgery and I ended up convincing myself.”

As for me, I may or may not decide to have reconstruction surgery at some point in the future. But if I do, it will be after I have learned to accept myself and the new shape of my body – just the way it is.

So if you see me out and about sometime without my prosthesis, then you’ll know that you caught me on a day when I mustered up the courage to simply be “me.”

July 3, 2006 ~ My 48th Birthday