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: