Mugs and Cups: A Cancer Survivor's Memoir


A survivor remembers as a pottery class sparks memories of her experiences with breast cancer.

A few weeks ago, I decided to sign up for a pottery class. I’d wanted to learn pottery for a long time and thought finally, now that I was starting to feel normal again, it would be the perfect time to begin. I also thought it might help with my lymphedema.

The first class was in hand building. Hand building is a pottery-making technique that involves creating forms without the use of a pottery wheel. As I stood in front of the classroom counter, a large lump of brown clay lay before me. My job, the instructor said, was to wedge the clay. Wedging the clay is a process to rid the clay of air bubbles which could cause problems in firing. I listened as she explained the process and then watched as she showed me how to manipulate the clay. She worked for a few minutes and then turned the clay over to me. I picked up the brown lump and slammed it down on the counter as my teacher had done. The clay was heavy and dense. After slamming it hard on the counter, I began kneading it. Pushing and pulling the clay, I felt like I was in the process of making bread, only this was more difficult. Slam, turn, knead, press and repeat. Over and over again, I wedged the clay. Finally, my instructor said I’d done a good job and now it was time to begin working on my project.

I moved to the work area and held the massive blob of clay in my hands. The coolness of the damp clay against my skin was comforting. As I began to roll out the clay and feed it into a large slab roller, my thoughts drifted. Just a few years ago, everything in my life was out of control. Breast cancer consumed me.

Sliding the clay between two sheets of canvas, I began the process of cranking it through the machine to flatten it. I watched as the mound of clay was pressed and compacted. I knew how that felt. It wasn’t too long ago that my breast was being squeezed tightly during a mammogram. It was so uncomfortable, it hurt.

When I’d rolled the clay to the proper depth, I gently carried the canvas sheet that was holding the clay to my table. Now the fun would begin. I could mold and shape the clay into anything I wanted it to be. The power was in my hands. I decided to make a mug. Pressing and molding the clay, I watched as it began to take form. Next, it was time to trim. I picked up the knife and gently pressed it into the clay. As I moved the knife through the clay, my mind shifted once again. I was being wheeled into the operating room to have my breasts removed. The surgeon was skilled and promised to do a good job. Still, I’d hoped to keep my breasts, but she assured me it was best to remove them based on my diagnosis.

I continued trimming the clay. Working around the sides of the mug, I removed the excess. Gathering all the clay trimmings, I walked toward the trashcan. I stood over it looking down. Thoughts continued to swirl inside my head. I wondered if my breasts had been thrown away after they’d been removed. I shook my head to clear my mind and went back to complete my work.

Why was I struggling so? I was supposed to be enjoying the art of pottery, but instead, I was thinking back to my cancer days. Lately, it seemed that no matter where I was or what I was doing, I was reminded of breast cancer. Maybe I’d been so focused on breast cancer because this is Pinktober, the celebratory month for breast cancer awareness.

My mug was complete. Now it was time to place it underneath a plastic covering so it could dry to the leather hard stage. On my next class, the instructor said, I’d learn the art embellishment. I smiled as she said I could decorate the mug as ornately as I wanted. Once again, I thought back to my breasts. My breast surgeon had basically said the same thing to me as we discussed the possibility of reconstruction. She said, “The world is your oyster. You can be any size you choose.” Although I’d chosen not to go the reconstruction route, I knew if I had made that choice, I could have been any size I’d wanted.

Mugs and cups. They didn’t really go together, but then again, they did. Making a ceramic mug reminded me of my missing breasts. As I thought about adding embellishments to my pottery, I had been reminded of the opportunity to increase my cup size.

My hands are dry and cracked from working with the clay. Those wounds will heal quickly and won’t leave any visible scars, but my breast cancer scars did the opposite. I’ve learned to face the fact that breast cancer is always going to be part of my life. Mundane things surprise me by sparking memories taking me back to my cancer days. It’s hard to accept those memories, but it's important I do remember. Paul Greengrass, a writer and film producer, said, “Remembering is painful, it's difficult, but it can be inspiring and it can give wisdom.”

Sometimes, when I think about the difficult road I’ve traveled, I can’t help but relate my life to pottery. The hard things have shaped and molded me just as I shaped and molded the clay.

My newly created mug will sit for a week on the counter as it dries enough for the next steps -glazing and firing. Those steps will give the mug a beautiful sheen and hardness. Breast cancer has done the same for me. Over time, it’s given me a new outlook on life and it’s helped me become resilient.

I’m glad I took the pottery class. It was a lot of fun but it was also a lot of hard work. Slamming and kneading the clay to wedge it was tough. I realized my upper body strength has weakened due to surgery and lymphedema, but I pushed through. I wanted to learn this new skill and was willing to do whatever necessary to do it.

I can’t wait to see my finished mug! I’m sure, when I hold it in my hands, I’ll be proud of the work that went into creating it. And if I get the opportunity, I might just make another. On my next mug, I think I’ll add a little pink ribbon embellishment to remind me of the lesson I learned about mugs and cups.

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