A few months ago, I joined an online group of women also dealing with breast cancer. There are five of us in this private group and using an app, similar to walkie-talkies, we post videos to each other to check in, share advice, build each other up, or simply vent. I’d been wanting to connect with others dealing with cancer’s fallout, but I now realize I needed distance from it to reach out, feel as if I’m going to be okay before I opened the gates to talk about all that wasn’t. I’d need a life preserver if I were to willingly jump in. There would be seemingly little risk, like a game of strip poker, but only down to your underwear. I saw my strain of bravery, this vulnerability “lite,” peeking out to see who might be there, and ripe for a connection, I found it.
I’m two years out with this thing they call “survivorship,” and with another recent uneventful bilateral MRI in the books, but these women are in the thick of it as we speak, getting double mastectomies (one bidding adieu, “Ta-ta, ta-tas” with a sugar coated “ta-ta” sculptured cake with chocolate ganache inside), chemo, and with radiation ahead, and their experiences, like my own, are each unique. Ten years older than the oldest of these women, I bring a combination of mother hen, cheerleader and wise sage, and having something to offer is deeply rewarding and an encouraging reminder that I now have perspective behind me, but I didn’t expect the PTSD. You move through all the things, doing what your doctors say, popping the pills you need, showing up where and when things are scheduled, but you never exactly process the scary busyness that takes hold, that it’s YOU going through that thing we all associate with dread, that invasive spreader whose reputation is to run amok with nothing but destruction in mind.
Enter modern medicine and its loving hands which set to work fashioning an impenetrable fence around me–not scary barbed wire, but a charming, strong wooden fence with heart shaped vines climbing its pickets. My body was open to it all, ready for the help, since we’re designed to heal. Today, the shoulder that wouldn’t rotate quite right–a reminder of surgery, biopsies and radiation–with time and a little work, is now cooperating and acting mostly like it used to, a now seamless part of me no longer vying for my attention. The scar tissue that felt like a pierced ear does, little knots from where needles and a knife twirled inside, is smoothing out, no longer a jumbled mess, but becoming part of a whole again, connected like it once was, but with greater intention. The hair on my head, once gone in places and growing in as little sprigs, has returned and no longer ignores the hair brush, but celebrates it, and it’s nearly ready to be collected into a pony tail, which will be the nape of my neck’s hero as heat and humidity get here.
Initially with the news of a diagnosis, there was the, “How could you betray me so? I thought we were on the same team, wanted the same things?” mindset I took on with my body, which, without my permission, had an invader following some appalling set of instructions. I could neither speak the language in which all my cells were surely now fluent, nor could I override the faulty instruction. The waiting for doctors to weigh in, drugs to suffocate these wayward intruders, and some semblance of normal cortisol to return and restore my hijacked endocrine system seemed endless.
Then I got started, did the appointments, took the IV, the radiation beams, accepted the suppers lovingly assembled, and invited friends to go with me to chemo and on walks. It was there during treatments and on those walks that I think I saw things the clearest. There, at your most vulnerable–I mean, you’ve got cancer for God’s sake–people want to be near you, want a part of you and this godawful experience, not to gawk or get closer to the accident on the side of the road, but for the sole purpose of you not having to carry this alone. They are there to pick up the slack, commissioning their time, their listening and their love to quiet the chaos and snuff out the cancer.
It’s there when you’re at your lowest, in the scariest time of your life, in the middle of the cruelest interruption you could imagine, that love, as pure and unconditional as a mother’s, keeps right on flowing as it always has, unopposed and easy. When you’re getting low, there are filling stations everywhere–at the end of a text, an email, a phone call, and just when you need to hide under the covers, your cat sidles up beside you. It’s there in the videos I’ve left for these women and the ones I’ve gotten back, and with each exchange, each giving and taking, there is a recharging of all of us and of love itself. Some are finding since they can vent in this space, they are now able to enjoy conversations with their partners that aren’t about cancer, for a change. It’s freeing to get it out, but also a reminder that when you do, people don’t go away. Everything changes, but the good ones, the people you need by your side, the ones you have attracted, these people, they stick around.
You can fill up anytime, and have seconds, thirds, fourths even. Whenever you want a clean plate to start over, there are plenty of those too. The more you give, the more you make. Like breast milk. Forgive me, but I do love a good circle back.
I wrote this poem for this dear group, but I think it applies to anyone who is struggling with something and feeling scared, separate, or isolated. We are designed to heal and to connect, and we can’t do one without the other.
Across the pond, up east, down south and in between, we’ve formed a bond, an open circle, one none of us could have foreseen. Women, strong, brave and kind, each with hearts of gold, sending each other videos that nourish the fold.
We are daughters, lovers, some of us mothers, too. We’ll mother a stranger and we’ll mother you. Here, though, we are sisters, together locked arm-in-arm. We’ve made a place that fills us up and tears us up, but which can do us no harm.
It’s a love fest, some say, one that appears to lead the way. It’s a fest about breasts, no matter if they go or if they stay. Whatever stage, whatever grade, whatever scans about yourself, you bring your truth, you bring your heart, and for that you, my dear, are top shelf.