My bald head was covered with a baseball cap. I was out with no makeup to cover my chemo-grayed complexion as I pushed my baby girl on the swing.
She giggled and squealed, catching the attention of a young man passing by.
“She has a beautiful laugh,” he said. “Are you her grand… parent?” He stumbled over grandparent as we both realized that, not only had he grossly overestimated my age, he had no idea whether I was a man or a woman.
That wasn’t my low point.
The real punch to the gut came a few years later when I was getting my little girl ready for a bath and she casually asked me how old she will be when they cut off her nipples. No tears, no fear, just matter-of-fact assumption that somewhere along the line, her breasts get hacked off.
I felt like my body betrayed me
Cancer didn’t just take my health, it also made off with my breasts, hair, femininity, strength, and a good deal of my confidence. I felt like my body betrayed me. And now, in this hypothetical but not unlikely scenario, my daughter’s body would someday betray her as well.
I helped her into the tub and watched her pretend to be a mermaid. Her movements are fluid and unfettered by notions of shame or inadequacy. Her future is wide open – she can be and do anything, but at this early age, my life is her template.
I knew, sitting there on that bathroom floor, that I needed to wrap my head around this cancer and my body image before my issues became her issues. But first, I had to answer this big question from the little girl in the water.
“Not everyone gets cancer,” I told her. “I hope you don’t, but you might. It will be 34 years before you are the age I was when I got cancer, and that’s lots of time for someone to invent a cure or even a way to prevent it.”
By the time I finished those three sentences, the tub was full of toys and Poseidon was mediating a battle between a narwhal and a walrus. She had moved on and wasn’t listening, but I was stuck in my head trying to define what a healthy body image means, how to make that a reality in my life, how to convey that to my daughter, and how cancer complicates everything.
My body image issues started long before cancer.
At seventeen I was touring Washington D.C. with a group of 200 high school students from around the country. As we walked through the Mall, I overheard two of the other students discussing my appearance. “Judy’s legs are so ugly,” one of the guys said.
“Give her a break, she just got out of the hospital,” the other replied. (No, my health issues did not start with cancer.)
A small part of my brain acknowledged that the second student had jumped to my defense. Thank you, by the way. A much larger part of my brain registered that HE DID NOT DISAGREE with the first student’s assessment of my legs.
In the court of high school social politics, the issue of the ugliness of my legs was raised, and swiftly seconded. That was all I needed. The verdict stuck with me, and I kept my legs covered with tights or long pants for nearly two decades.
Even today, in my mid-forties, each time I leave the house in shorts or a skirt without tights, it is an act of courage that requires a deep breath before stepping through the door.
Why do they have so much impact?
I can’t remember their names. I would not be able to pick them out from a police lineup. I have not seen those boys (men, now) since 1987, and I bear them no ill will. Why do they have so much impact over the way I prepare to leave the house most sunny summer mornings?
It’s not even about them. It’s about me, and my willingness to cling to the derogatory comments and ignore the many more flattering comments I’ve received over the years. A large part of this is about me devaluing my own needs and comfort, and assuming that I owe the world something that I don’t.
After my first mastectomy, I agonized each time before going to the gym.
Sweat made the prosthetic breast slip around, and even fall out of my clothes. Yeah, that was embarrassing. I could stuff my bra with socks and they’d stay a little better, but as I pumped my arms on the treadmill, they’d pile up in the middle of my chest, making me look more Picasso than if I’d just shown up single-breasted.
It was all so inconvenient and awkward, and I contemplated not returning to the gym.
To what extent am I obliged to present myself as a double breasted woman?
Is it offensive to the other people if I show up with one breast?
I struggled with this question. I lost sleep over it. I imagined people who’d had arms or limbs amputated; I wouldn’t expect them to wear a prosthesis if they didn’t want to. Why did I apply a different standard to myself with an amputated breast? And then, I worked up the courage and took a deep breath before stepping through the door single-breasted.
I noticed a motivational poster hanging in the gym showing a woman drenched in sweat with the words, “If you look good working out, you’re doing it wrong.” Ha! Despite the fact that I know women who do kick ass while looking amazing, there is a great deal of truth to that poster.
Why had I not seen that before?
My body is a work in progress.
I don’t need a perfect body to have a healthy body image. My thoughts on body image are evolving, even as I write this. I am learning to accept and embrace both my vulnerability and my resilience – both integral parts of what it means to be alive.
I don’t lecture my little girl on these issues, although we talk about them as they come up.
I hope that she will see that ideas can evolve as people learn and grow just as our bodies do – that is also part of what it means to be alive.
Mostly, I put on shorts or a skirt with bare legs and go out side to play with her when it’s sunny. Sometimes, I even go through the door without noticing, and I’m out in the sun before I realize that I didn’t have to stop and brave up first.
I was one of 5 authors reading our work about living with breast cancer at Courage Night.
I was challenged to chronicle just one hour of my life for a blog post, and the results were magical.
I realized that I am still re-learning how to dream after cancer. “I’ve reached the point where I understand what I have been intuitively trying to do, yet simultaneously resisting – to improve the flexibility and range of my imagination, of my ability to re-dream my future.”
Two years after chemo, I finally got my hair back into a ponytail.
Every year, I run away with my girls from the Young Survival Coalition (young women with breast cancer) for a retreat at the Harmony Hill Retreat Center. It’s a slumber party for grownups, but even more important, for a moment, we’re in a place and group where life with cancer is normal, and everyone understands what we’re going through.
I wrote a piece for Survivorship Partners on Cancer and Guilt, when I noticed how much judgement there is around a cancer diagnosis. Nobody deserves cancer, not even me.
I traveled to Indianapolis to attend the Affiliate Summit for the Young Survival Coalition, and to participate in the process of changing much of the structure of that organization. The experience left me with a powerful lesson in change management.
My husband went to Istanbul to present his research at the International Society for Iranian Studies Conference. While he was there, he had a significant health crisis. I didn’t blog about that part, but it was more terrifying to me than my own cancer diagnosis. He’s healthy now, however, and he did manage to get a few great photographs of Istanbul while he was there.
We attended the cutest birthday party ever. Our cousin’s daughter’s 3rd birthday party had a dinosaur ballerina theme. Perfect, as Gem is into dinosaurs and ballerinas, as well. You really can’t go wrong with homemade dinosaur tails and tutus for each of the kids.
My husband and I celebrated our eighth wedding anniversary, and I reminded the universe that the sickness and poorer parts of our vows were not an invitation. I also challenged to universe to remember that there was a richer and health part in there as well.
In Taking Back October, I mourned the loss of one of my favorite months, October, to the Breast Cancer Awareness money making machine, and I discussed the difference between working towards awareness for the most well known cancer, and working towards a cure.
Plans for my second mastectomy and reconstruction surgery started in earnest. My surgery is scheduled for 2/4/13. Mom will be flying down from Alaska to take care of my little one.
“People give you 3 months to mourn, and a year to have cancer, then they expect you to get back to normal.”
I don’t know where I heard this quote first, but I’ve experienced the truth of the statement both in terms of mourning and cancer recovery.
It’s not that I’m faced with the reality of that quote on a daily basis, but it does remind me that while the lingering effects of my cancer still impact every single day of my life, many around me have moved on; my cancer is old news and in their minds, overplayed.
I understand this perspective; I’ve been there myself. I know people whom I’ve avoided because every conversation, for years, involved detailed information about the wellbeing of their bladder or their gout.
It does get old, and frankly, there are some details I just don’t need to know.
I do try to avoid being that person who unloads in that manner, but the fact that cancer is still a part of my present life is depressing to others, as well. People want good news. Something better than “I was able to hold on to my pen long enough to write a whole page,” which is a big deal to me as a writer and avid journal keeper whose dominant arm was significantly impacted by cancer treatment, but not so meaningful to everyone else.
I don’t talk about those things anymore. I swallow my words, and put on a mask, and when people ask how I’m doing, I just say “awesome” and leave it at that.
This is where a group like the Young Survival Coalition, and a retreat like Harmony Hill, are so critical to the wellbeing of a cancer survivor like me. It’s not just a retreat away from the stresses of everyday life, it’s a coming together with other women with similar experiences and battle scars. A three day weekend where we can compare notes, treatments, ongoing issues, what works for me, what doesn’t, and how we’re coping with all of it is not just healing, it’s normalizing – in a good way.
We’re not alone in this experience. We can share without the fear of being perceived as complaining. We can make fun of our condition and laugh at cancer in a way that often makes others uncomfortable. It’s summer camp crossed with a slumber party, plus booze and minus the curfew. It’s yoga, meditation, labyrinth walking, beach combing, flower smelling, and lawn napping, followed by good food, good conversation, and tearing the best parts out of magazines for each of us to make something uniquely our own.
And it’s research. I’m looking forward to another surgery in the next few months. This one will involve 12 hours under the knife – that’s a long time – plus six weeks of recovery. It’s not something to take lightly. But I spent a weekend with 23 other cancer survivors, most of whom have already endured this surgery. I got better information on what to expect and how to prepare from these women who already went through it than from the doctor who has performed this procedure hundreds of times. And that’s to be expected. As much as these doctors know about performing this procedure, they haven’t experienced it.
I’m so thankful I have this group of survivors in my life. That we got to get away together, away from all the other stresses and demands of life for a couple days seems like a miracle. I know it took a lot of work to pull it together, but it was so worth it. I love you girls.
I like to joke that no one really knows what I look like without a camera in front of my face. I’m THAT girl at parties: the one who hides behind the camera, capturing moments more than participating. The one who rarely actually appears in photographs…
Put Mom in the Picture
When I was first diagnosed with cancer, this really bothered me. For the first time ever, it was REALLY important to me that I have photos of myself, and photos of myself with my husband and daughter.
I wanted my family to have them – not just in case I died, but also to mark who I am right now, because I’m evolving. My looks are changing daily as my hair grows back. My outlook is changing daily as well; each new day brings a new challenge, and something else at which to marvel.
I’m trying to teach myself photography, and in that process, I spend a lot of time studying the work of some of my favorite photographers. Each has their own unique and identifiable style. What I’m learning is that a picture doesn’t just tell you about the subject matter in the frame, it tells you a whole lot about the photographer. You can see moods, attitude, approach… you can see respect, affection, and love.
The photograph is a record of the world as I see it
That realization eased my mind a bit about my absence from the photographs. I understand now, that I am in all those photographs that I have taken.
The photograph is a record of the world as I see it. It’s an opportunity to look at life through my eyes, to see what I see.
My hope is that someday in the future – when my daughter is 13/16/18/whatever, and mad at me because I wouldn’t let her stay up late/take the car/have my credit card/whatever – that she will, every once in a while, glance at one of the millions of photos I’ve taken of her, and see that the person behind the camera loves her with everything she has to give.
I can see my attitudes in the photos I’ve taken. I can see the difference between the photos taken to simply to document a place, thing, or an occasion, and those that seek out the magic of the moment. Mood, attitude, and approach do make a difference.
The camera bag of my dreams
Long before I had a real DSLR camera, I had my eye on a camera bag. Not just any camera bag, a beautiful camera bag from Epiphanie Bags.
After I was finally able to get my good camera this summer (with some help from my mom – THANKS MOM!), I bookmarked my dream bag, and revisited regularly. But purchasing the bag was out of the question. The price was prohibitive.
Not to long ago, I even posted the link on Facebook with the words, “sigh… someday.”
A couple weeks later that bag appeared at my door.
But here’s the thing: I didn’t order it.
I don’t know who sent it to me. It was delivered by the UPS guy with no note attached.
I laughed, I cried, I jumped up and down and squealed, even scaring my baby a bit till I convinced her it was a happy dance. I am completely in awe of this bag, and the kind, anonymous, generosity that caused it to become mine.
A Sense of Gratitude and Magic
I tear up every time I look at the bag, I also stand a little taller with that beautiful braided strap over my shoulder. That kindness now travels with me everywhere. Each time I reach for my camera, I am reminded of this generosity, and as I look through my lens at the world, I do so with a sense of gratitude and magic, and I hope that will show in my photographs.
Thank you my friend, whoever you are. You have given me so much more than a gorgeous bag to cradle my camera. Bless you.