The most outwardly feminine part of myself, I took to the altar and offered up to the gods. I bargained for my life. When I could finally form words into a semblance of prayer, it was “Take my breasts, but let me live to see my boy grow into a man. Please!”
I was the first woman in my line to benefit from the advances in genome mapping, the first to test positive for the BRCA 1 gene mutation. The “Angelina Jolie gene” as people have come to think of it. Grandma had died before I was born, not long before I was conceived. She was ravaged by breast cancer and lost the battle at the age of 58, one year older than my Mother is now, and nearly the same age Mom learned that she too caries this ticking explosive in her coding. Viola was her name, and in 1973, the butchery done to her bore no resemblance to modern day reconstruction.
I grew up hearing, “Cancer often skips a generation,” and like prophecy I found that lump in my left breast at the age of 36. I told no one, but I was sure I would die. A curtain had dropped somewhere between diagnosis and the third opinion. When I tried to imagine life after surgery, there was just blackness, a void of absolute nothing. I wore my best poker face that morning in pre-op, chatting bravely for Mom and for my husband, Joey, for I could never let them consider this was a one way trip to the hospital. Inside I felt I had been led to slaughter.
I went in there and let them lop off and scrape away every last bit of breast tissue. Then like Frankenstein’s whore, implants were crammed in on top of freshly scraped ribs. They were sandwiched between pectoral muscles that were pried up like thick clams to hold the implants in place. Surely going for aesthetic, as is a plastic surgeon’s job, his calculation for pain held little thought. No measure of research or soul search could prepare me for the searing reality of nerves severed, of nipples excised. My brain could not compute as all the signals flashed red, an angry train of phantom feelings, the demonic ghost baby sinking teeth for the well gone dry. In morphine addled delirium, I cried, “I told him I was fine with the B cup! He did whatever he wanted!” The swelling and tightness was more than I could manage, morphine and later oxycodone barely floating me through each crashing wave.
I am one year a survivor now. It has been one year since that July 15th double mastectomy which included removal of three sentinel lymph nodes, confirming the Triple Negative tumor had not breached the lymphatic system. I was “lucky” to have found it in an early and treatable Stage 1 the previous winter. Julian was using me as jungle gym, and I felt a stab of pain right over my heart when he climbed on my chest. I brushed it off for 2 or 3 months as just a swollen lymph gland. Although I am sure I have changed, surgery and the chemotherapy that followed could not stop the force of who I am.
If only there was a way to have reached through that inky black uncertainty, to have touched myself on the arm with a sisterly stroke of reassurance. I would go specifically to the day right before surgery, when I lost my shit and punched a hole through the bathroom wall, my rage parting drywall like soft cream cheese. I would sit on the edge of my bed that sleepless night before my first chemo treatment and show her the scar where the port used to be. I would let her run her fingers through my crazy thick hair when she is at her most bald, the eyebrows and eyelashes jumping ship too.
Slogging through each painful, exhausting day, there is a momentum forward that can only be appreciated from the top of the mountain. Now I pause on the adjacent peak, just one version of my future self that was unknowable to me while I marched straight into my terror and uncertainty. The view, which was obscured entirely at the start of this journey, stretches in panoramic possibility.
This June I resumed the Life Coach training program I had embarked on just 3 weeks before that shattering diagnosis. I wasn’t sure I had it in me to navigate New York City. I felt like I was barely formed and far too soft for such a hard world. Sweat poured from my face as I dragged that wheelie suitcase from Port Authority into the subway going the wrong direction. Pinched for time, I jumped into a cab, and soon we were gridlocked by a manhole fire, just before the cabbie clipped an SUV. While the two drivers screamed at each other, while I was feeling pathetic for getting lost and being late, I nearly gave up on my dream. After all I had been through, it was my deep shame at showing up late, at feeling like a complete farce that almost turned me around.
In spite of having the rug ripped out the year prior, the minute I sat back in that circle of classmates, and reconnected to this transformative work, I knew this was my path. My heart grew in resilience and pumped up fresh wisdom from a well of compassion previously unknown to me. I found a direct line to the eternal part of myself that, although obscured, had pounded the drum to deliver me here. By the end of the seminar I had rededicated myself to this vision. I had fully emerged from the chrysalis and kicked off that remaining bit of identity of, “Melissa the cancer patient”.
Returning to the city last weekend, I chuckled to myself in realizing Port Authority is really only 5 blocks or so from the hotel where we meet. I remembered too that I have GPS capabilities on my phone to fall back on and began to relax in the stream of people flowing all around me, life in its varied colors, smells and dialects carrying me forward.