The visceral pain that accompanies the discovery of your mother’s cancer when you are 27 years old is unexplainable. It is as if your heart breaks open and you finally understand that it is your turn to care for the very person that made one half of you. I have taken just short of one year to write about this feeling I felt, as I have not been able to fully reach the tools or the processes that would allow me to get the ink on paper. I have laid in bed for what seems like hours turned into days turned into months merely seeking the words to fill my mouth and brain to then string them together in a way that makes sense, or in a way that can fully express the gut feeling that has become the bane of my existence. See, my mom could always sense when I had a feeling like this. My stress has always and still almost always expresses itself through stomach pains and headaches. It’s as though this ball of angst gets stuck inside of me. So, when my mom could sense this feeling, she always told me things were going to be alright. It seemed so simple. While I have never done “simple” well, I always believed her.
When my mom was diagnosed with cancer, I was in the room with her. I think, in her own guts, she knew what that completely ill-mannered nurse was going to say to her, but I didn’t know. My loaded history with my mom intimidated me for 25 years and allowed me to view her with a very different lens the last two years. So, at that point, I saw her as untouchable because she came back to me and wanted to be mine.
How could she get sick now? You know all the crap they tell you about hearing the word cancer and feeling as though you have been pushed up against a wall with the life sucked out of your very lungs? It’s true. I sat there listening to a diagnosis that was not even my own and I felt as though I was being repeatedly punched in the stomach. Typically, in a time like this, when I feel useless, worthless and out of choices, I call my mom to hear her tell me I am good and I will be good and if I won’t be good, she will find a way to make me good. Alas, she was there with me simultaneously getting the metaphorical shit beat out of her. What happens next is a whirlwind. All that other crap about needing to take notes because you won’t remember is also true. I am that person that remembers everything and yet I cannot tell you anything about that entire process unless I wrote it down.
You’ve heard all of this though. I read similar recollections as I poured over millions of words to discover how my mom could have possibly been diagnosed with this beast of a disease. I am writing because no one told me how I was going to be terrified of my own breasts after my mom’s diagnosis, how intimacy would become harder or how I would have to force myself to relearn what it meant to love my physical shell.
All of the other changes and impacts from such a diagnosis given to your mother seemed like they somehow made sense. I know myself well. I knew that my impulsive ADD personality would laugh in my face as I tried to focus at my brand new job. I knew I would have to manage the underlying, never before medicated anxiety and depression, which, until last year, had been successfully kept at bay with an array of other coping mechanisms. I knew all of these parts of me would rear their ugly heads through the hours of chemo and radiation, the dreaded follow up appointments and the lifetime ahead of simply not knowing.
I have always been painfully aware that coming out of trauma has never been my thing. I have always loved my body. Even when I had a flat chest, a horrible haircut and tied for the shortest person in my class. I loved it simply because I attributed that flat chest to gymnastics which I had practiced for years, the horrible haircut because I gave it to myself so I could have the bangs my cousin had on her wedding day (think mid-90’s) and the shortness because it had always been part of who I was.
I moved through those awkward years into my arguably just as awkward teenage years, quit gymnastics, grew a (little) taller, matured in the chest region and as it always does, my hair grew back. See, my parents and those around me always reiterated the importance of being a powerful woman. I knew from the beginning of my life that working hard, being kind and being honest would lead me to success. I hung on to the words from my father, “Take care of you first” and I entered college as a self-declared feminist. I was in touch with myself, I embraced my sexuality and I felt liberated from many of the women who surrounded me that were more concerned with things that I felt mediocre and boring. The men I was with through college and into adulthood knew I was comfortable in my own skin, that I could explore my body without shame and theirs as well. I loved my body.
Fast forward a few years (okay, maybe like ten…) post my mother’s diagnosis when I realized that I had become terrified of the breasts that I once adored. Once my mom was diagnosed with cancer, I, unknowingly started to hide my body a little more.
Simple things like putting lotion on my whole body did not happen any longer because feeling my breasts made my anxious. I felt miserable lying on my stomach on my yoga mat and felt like my breasts were in the way. I felt like they were an entirely removed part of me, almost floating above me and taunting me. I wouldn’t lay in bed with arms around me in fear that hands would touch them and if and when they did, I jumped and moved them elsewhere. I went to the gynecologist twice that first year because I was certain I felt irregularities when I examined my own breasts in the shower.
Finally, one afternoon I sat in a dance class focused on womanhood and sexual expression. After the class started, I began to realize how these fears were manifesting in my life. The instructor of the class invited us to explore our bodies: to touch our skin, to feel our thighs, our neck, our stomachs and even our breasts. I actually moved my hands around my breasts to avoid them. Then something in me broke. I reached for them and started to cry and then began to sob.
I was a 28 year old, sexually aware feminist that loved her breasts and hadn’t touched them in months because of the diagnosis of my mother.
I didn’t believe I had cancer or that I was going to get it that year, but part of my pain manifested in this way. My breasts still irk me some days and I am still occasionally paranoid about touching them or allowing them to be touched, but I am slowly beginning to embrace them once again as part of my whole self. Things look like they are going to be alright.