Monday, October 27, 2008

Thankful Me

“Whereas you do not know what will happen tomorrow. For what is your life? It is even a vapor that appears for a little time and then vanishes away.” ~ James 4:14

With October being Breast Cancer Awareness month, we have all been reminded of the impact this dreaded disease has had on countless lives – from celebrities to ordinary people like you and me. Nearly 500 women a day are diagnosed with some form of breast cancer. It is estimated that 40,000 women will lose their lives this year in the United States alone. But the good news is, with early detection, the survival rate is now at 98%.

I am thankful to be able to count myself among these survivors. In my immediate family, four out of seven women have been diagnosed with breast cancer, and my mother lost her seven-year battle to the disease at the age of 63. While family history certainly increases one’s risk for developing breast cancer, according to Kamilia F. Kozlowski, director of the Knoxville Comprehensive Breast Center in Tennessee, “Eighty percent of women who develop breast cancer have no family history.”

The following article is a slightly edited version of the column I wrote for The Prairie Post just six weeks after my surgery in 2006. The column was titled Becoming Me.

Recently 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. But then again, as I think back to my years as a budding pre-teen, I recall doing “bust exercises” with my sister and chanting a cheer: “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 locking myself in the bathroom after my mom bought me my first training bra so I could experiment with “tissue enhancements.” It seems most young girls are programmed to aspire to look like their Barbie dolls. Just look at 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!

Nevertheless, I must admit that adjusting to life without breasts has been very difficult. I would by lying if I said it isn’t 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 I simply cannot bear.

The other day I made a trip 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, my “late breasts” 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 and going without. It’s kind of like deciding whether or not to wear make-up. When I want to dress up, I’ll just strap on my Sunday-go-to-meeting gear. It’s just important for me to feel okay with myself either way.

I guess you could compare it to learning 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 I thought it was important for her to see herself as deserving of a new outfit just the way she was. Then if she wanted to lose weight, fine. Then I bought 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! I am not my breasts, and we are not 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.”

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, my husband and I have both had to grieve the loss of the old me – that is, the former shape of my physical body. There’s nothing easy about seeing two horizontal scars where my breasts used to be. 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 on the road of life.

Having a supportive spouse throughout my journey has been such a precious gift. Keen reassures me that he is still attracted to me – maybe even more so – because of all that we’ve been through together. But one of the most cherished memories from my post-surgery days came when he put his hand on my chest and whispered; “Now I’m closer to your heart.”

While I personally decided against having reconstruction surgery, Geralyn Lucas chose to undergo immediate reconstruction after her mastectomy. Later, she agreed to pose for a special breast cancer survivor’s edition of Self Magazine. She described the 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’ve learned to accept myself and my body – just the way it is. So if you ever happen to see me without my prosthesis, you’ll know that you caught me on a day when I mustered up the courage to simply be “me.”

Note: It’s been two years since my mastectomy and I’m happy and thankful to report that I'm doing well and feel great. Keen and I hike six to nine miles almost every weekend. This past weekend I joined my sisters and sisters-in-law in Des Moines (along with 24,000 others) to participate in the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure. Since my diagnosis, I’ve become acutely aware of the frailty of life and am more determined than ever to live it to the fullest.

“So teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.”

~ Psalm 90:12 (NKJV)

Eileen and sisters at the Race for the Cure

A Music Video of pictures from the Race for the Cure can be seen at:

Monday, October 20, 2008

What Shape Are You In? Part II

“Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you. . . . In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.”

~ I Peter 4:12 and 1:6,7 (NIV)

To illustrate the point I finished with last week regarding the way circumstances in our lives shape us, I’d like to share a personal story.

Some years ago when one of our sons was a sophomore in high school, he was a member of the basketball team. He went to every practice and hustled so much that the coach would point him out to the rest of the team and say that he wished he had more players like him. But for some reason, when the team qualified for the State playoffs the coach decided to replace our son with a freshman and informed him that he’d have to sit on the bench in street clothes during the playoff game. To make matters worse, our son wasn’t even mentioned when they announced the names of the players over the loudspeaker before the big game at Bramlage Coliseum. It was as if he wasn’t even a member of the team, despite the fact that he had contributed to the team’s success throughout the season.

As a mother, it broke my heart to see the pain in our son’s eyes after he suffered such a devastating disappointment. Then one morning I was sitting at the kitchen table with my Bible and I said a prayer asking God to show me something that would provide comfort. I kid you not; when I flipped open my Bible, my eyes fell on the following verses:

“Do you not know that in a race all the runners compete, but [only] one receives the prize? So run [your race] that you may lay hold [of the prize] and make it yours. Now every athlete who goes into training conducts himself temperately and restricts himself in all things. They do it to win a wreath that will soon wither, but we [do it to receive a crown of eternal blessedness] that cannot wither.”

~ I Corinthians 9:25 (Amplified)

Now that may not seem like a big deal to you, but to me it was a very personal miracle. The verses spoke to my heart in such a significant way and immediately helped to ease the pain and sadness I felt for our son. And when I shared it with him, it helped him, too. Those verses put everything into perspective by reminding us that even though it’s fun to compete in sports and win, none of that is nearly as important as playing the game of life to win the ultimate prize that lasts for all eternity – Heaven.

“In my Father's house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you.”

~ John 14:2

And the best part is that Jesus already won the prize for us when he sacrificed His life on the cross for all of our sins. It doesn’t matter whether you’re Catholic or Presbyterian, Baptist or Lutheran – the price has been paid, the victory has been won. To claim our prize, all we have to do is believe in Him and accept the forgiveness of our sins.

“Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?’”

~ John 11:25-26

In conclusion, if we’ll put our trust in God during times of difficulty, sorrow and disappointment, He will provide the grace, strength and wisdom we need to persevere.

“Trials are not enemies of faith but rather opportunities to prove God's faithfulness.”

~Author Unknown

Then the process of going through those times will stretch us and make us stronger so we’ll be in a little better “shape” for the next trial.

“Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything. Blessed is the man who perseveres under trial, because when he has stood the test, he will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love him.”

~ James 1:2-4, 12 (NIV)

Monday, October 13, 2008

What Shape Are You In?

“So much has been said and sung of beautiful young girls, why doesn’t somebody wake up to the beauty of old women?”

~ Harriet Beecher Stowe

My ego has been dealt several severe blows in the past couple of years, but I think the most damaging one came just before Keen’s swearing-in ceremony in 2005. I had just asked one of his law school colleagues to take a picture of us, and as I was walking back to my seat in the auditorium I overheard her ask him, “Is that your mother?” Now I know I have gray hair and all, but please! Do I honestly look old enough to be my own husband’s mother?!

September 30, 2005 ~ Keen's swearing in ceremony, Topeka, Kansas

Losing my breasts to a mastectomy two years ago didn’t enhance my self-image much either, but I’ve never regretted choosing my life over my breasts. But then I packed on twenty plus pounds, making my tummy bigger than my chest, which didn’t exactly create an “hour glass” figure. Nevertheless, I'm just so grateful for every day that I have to enjoy this wonderful gift of life.

The Endless Journey

By Eileen Umbehr

My waistline, it seems to increase
Right along with my age
I wish I could reverse the process
Or find a way to turn back the page!

But woe is me, gone are the days
When I was just pencil thin
Now when I look in the mirror
I see an extra chin!

And what happened to my arms?
They used to fit into all of my shirts
Now it seems like they’ve doubled in size
I didn’t think I ate that much dessert!

And don’t even talk about thighs
Cellulite is my middle name
Finding clothes that are flattering is hard
At least capri pants are in style again!

My old jeans – well, just forget it
They won't budge an inch or bend
So now I just put on my new pair –
Stretch denim has become my best friend!

Like many others, I continually ponder
How will the pounds ever be removed?
And each year I make the same resolution
Resolving to resolve to improve!

Of course the solution is not rocket science
I must eat less and exercise more
I just have so many things I would much rather do
But then again, I want to fit through the door!

I’m not saying I’m as big as a barn
But I know I weigh more than I should
I just want to be as healthy as I can be
Not for looks but for my common good.

So I guess I’ll just soldier on
Though the mountain seems so hard to climb
And I’ll remind myself I’m on a journey
Then I’ll take it one step at a time.

Written September 29, 2008


But when I chose the topic for this week’s column, it wasn’t my intention to focus solely on physical shape. In fact, I got the idea for the title from a church billboard I saw along the highway. It read: Everything you go through shapes you. That started me thinking about how the events in our lives – particularly the negative ones – change the shape of who we are as individuals. Although these difficult experiences are unpleasant at the time, in the end we emerge with stronger emotional muscles and tougher skin.

“For the time being no discipline brings joy but seems grievous and painful, but afterwards it yields peaceable fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.”

~ Hebrews 12:11a (Amp)

To be continued . . .

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Eddie Boone by Dr. Jack Casner

(Note: Our friend Jack Casner shared this special story with me some time ago. With his permission, I am happy to be able to share it with you.)

A friend of mine sent me a story about "Special Olympics" and my mind was drawn back to Eureka, Kansas, in the mid to late 1940’s.

I expect that all Eurekans will remember Eddie Boone. Eddie had a nice job where he was his own boss; he delivered "handbills" from door to door. I don't know how much he was paid, but he normally had several different sheets to deliver: always a Princess Theater "Show-bill", usually at least one grocery ad and, often, a mimeographed ad of some kind from one or more real-estate/insurance offices.

Sometimes Eddie had as many as eight different handbills to deliver. He was making a pretty fair wage for Eurekans during the 1940s and his mother (Remember Boone Nursing Home?) helped him save it so he wouldn't be without resources after she died.

I worked for Eddie for several summers - he paid me $1.00 a day. We walked all over Eureka and I doubt he EVER missed a house. He showed me how to fold the packet so we could just sail them up onto a porch – we could make better progress that way. We would cover the east side of Main one day and the West side the next.

I expect everybody who remembers Eddie recalls him making his rounds – as regular as the Postal Service and working harder than a mail carrier at that. Like them, he made his rounds without regard to the weather. He did the same in the winter, even with heavy snow – covering the entire town by himself then.

There's something else: Eddie was very conscientious and honest to a fault. He had a different way of looking at the world; a way that was totally different from anybody else's.

For example, Eddie could mimic the whistle of quite a few different birds. He didn't use the "correct" name for birds, but he used his own: a cardinal was a "Redbird"; a sparrow was a “liddle bird.” It seemed to me that Eddie almost had a personal acquaintance with some birds. He knew several places where one of his redbirds could be found
and as we walked along he would whistle and get an answer. Same for other birds. Damnedest thing I ever saw.

Another thing that struck me was that dogs who had a personal vendetta against mail carriers (why DOES this always happen?) would not bother Eddie. When I was working one side of the street and Eddie the other, I was also safe. If a dog came barking at me, well, Eddie would just yell "Hey, bid dawd!" and the dog would calm down.

I think the best part of working for Eddie was lunchtime. We'd usually get a candy bar and a coke and sit and talk a little. I've said that Eddie had a unique way of viewing the world and I will never tell anybody what we talked about because it's too precious to me, personally. I will say one thing, though: Eddie told me about his "girlfriend" – somebody named Regina. He always perked up when we were approaching her house and she would come out to the porch as often as not. Eddie blushed then - so did Regina. They said "Hi" to each other and I knew that I could sit down for a couple of minutes. Eddie used my lack of movement as a pretext to break away by looking over at me and yelling "Hey! Jat! Ledd go!" Then he'd move off and I was back on duty.

I wasn't aware of Eddie's death, but I happened to be in town, visiting my folks, on the day of his funeral. I was sitting in the Silver Dollar, nursing a beer, and I heard someone sitting several stools down say to Burke: "He was a good boy. He never did nuthin' to hurt anyone.” I looked at Burke and asked who the guy was talking about and he confirmed what I thought. I left that place with tears in my eyes.

Tears are in my eyes now.

Jack Casner