Rebuilding Your Dignity in the Aftermath of Cancer Wreckage

A cancer survivor writes about the traumatizing experience of undergoing mastectomy, dealing with her partner’s hurtful comments about her body and how she was able to rebuild her dignity.

I was just returning from a job interview and my best friend, who had been staying at my apartment relayed, “Oh you got a phone call from your doctor while you were out.” I instantly felt my heart freeze in the middle of its beat. A week earlier I had gotten the good news that my breast biopsy had come back benign. The diagnosis was scarring from radiation treatment 12 years earlier to treat my stage 2A Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. But as a survivor there are no definites; there are no sure things. You may be able to breathe a sigh of relief, but you quickly begin to hold your breath again. I ran to the phone as if I didn’t call back instantly it would blow up. My pediatric oncologist was on the other end of the call – one of two docs that I credit with saving my life when I was 12.

“At first….” his words seemed to trail off into a muddled auditory haze for me after that as I knew the first two words signified there was a new wrinkle in the results.

I was 25 and the next word I could clearly make out was “mastectomy.” A word I thought they used for “old women”. Old women got breast cancer, right? Not a 25-year-old? I wasn’t even thinking about my mortality as he was talking. I just screamed into the phone “I’m going to lose my breast?!”

I knew as a Hodgkin’s survivor who had heavy radiation to the chest that I was at a higher risk for breast cancer, but time is a funny thing. Sometimes we want it to go by as fast as possible and other times we ignore it so we don’t stress about when something might creep up on us. Had it really been enough time for the radiation to cause this kind of damage? How was I going to live with one breast as a 25-year-old? Hell, I didn’t know any woman my age who had or was going to have a mastectomy.

Years and years ago all cancers were lumped into just one word, cancer. “What happened to him/her?” “They got the cancer.” “How did he/she pass?” “Cancer.” The old form of treatment was cut/slash/burn – pretty barbaric stuff. My grandma had breast cancer and passed from it in 1975. My dad said in the last few months they just kept offering to remove things out of her body to get rid of the cancer. He finally told her surgeons, “No more.”

I look at my body now and I liken it to the game of Operation. I have cuts and slashes and scars all over. All I’m missing is the red nose that lights up when you take something out or off. The real struggle is the psychological piece. Remove the bad part to let the healthy entity survive. But what if that “bad” part defines your femininity? What if that part makes you feel whole? What if that part gives you a sense of beauty and pride? What if you lose your sense of worth and dignity in the process? It’s an easy decision to say, “Do whatever you need to do to help me survive,” but when you are left with the visuals and the aftermath of the storm that you battled through, putting your pieces back together is a little like watching the scarecrow in “The Wizard of Oz” after the monkeys get him… “There’s some of me over there and they threw some of me over there….”

I walked out of the shower after my first breast cancer and was still healing from my right breast reconstruction. My new scar, which was horizontal across my right pec, was angry and red. I had no nipple and my expander under the breast skin was only half filled. My husband looked at me with disgust and anger. “Could you cover yourself? You know I can’t stand looking at scars. It makes me sick.” Ashamed, I pulled my towel around myself but my feisty fighter side which had helped me so long pushed back. Inside I was crumbling. I felt ugly and alone and sorry for myself. Why did someone I loved look at me like this? I missed my breast. I missed how I looked before all the scars. My fingers trailed the scar. It was ugly, but my partner only reinforced that. As our marriage declined, he would use my battles and surgery scars as a source of cutting me down. It was easy because any woman or man who must undergo surgery to remove a body part is going to look and feel different and have to adjust and accept the new him or her, and I know I have never fully come to 100% acceptance. “No one is going to want to be around you Frankentits,” he would say to me with a demeaning inflection when we would argue. Yes, he likened me and my breasts to Frankenstein, and I felt like I was the monster or at least looked like him.

We pull our energy from all sorts of places or we drown in the quicksand. My surge of reawakening and love for myself came through my children as my husband’s drinking issues became more and more dangerous and his verbal abuse grew. I knew it was time to save everyone…including me. I left him in 2007 (he subsequently passed in a drinking and driving accident two years later) and decided to get back into water fitness (I now have my own business, Jet Water Fitness LLC, and work with several different populations with medical challenges), and I use my story to inspire others that it’s possible to rebuild when the wall crumbles, when you are dissected, when you somehow don’t feel whole. You can reclaim your dignity and stitch the cuts. They heal.

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