Stripped Down

(Warning:  This post includes graphic imagery and an oh-so-uncomfortable topic.  I hope you’ll stick with me, but I won’t judge if you can’t.)

I made one of the hardest decisions of my life last week.  I had surgery, and about 50 stitches and two drains later, I am not even flat-chested; I am concave.  I don’t have the words to describe how butchered I feel, so I’m sharing a photo, much to my eight-year-old’s chagrin.  She says, “Mom, you can’t show everyone your boobs!”  But I stressed to her that I must, that I’ve committed to truth and this is part of it, that it is in our vulnerability that we help others.  So here goes.

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Traumatic, right?  Let me explain.

My left breast has been plagued with infections since my double mastectomy in January.  The surgeon had placed tissue expanders, a hard plastic balloon-like implant inserted to delay breast reconstruction to stretch skin and chest wall muscles.  They essentially hold the breast pocket until after radiation, a process that often shrinks skin.  Expanders, for me, were extremely uncomfortable.  Even after the initial pain of the surgery, I felt like something heavy was constantly applying pressure to my chest.  It hurt to take a deep breath.  It always felt tight, like I was wearing a bra two sizes too small every second of every day.

Yet I endured those expanders for over five months largely because of vanity.  There’s no other way to put it.  I didn’t want to be flat-chested.  I wanted to appear “normal.”  Looking back, it was as if I needed those five months to come to terms with the idea of a life without breasts.

Over those months, I pondered why we, as a society, are obsessed with them.  From commercials to clothing options, so much centers around cleavage.  When one is pondering amputating a body part, that part is everywhere, especially during the summer months when less fabric is condoned.  Heck, even my daily scripture reading bombarded me with breasts.  Did you know the Bible uses the word breast or breasts over 100 times?

I’ve thought about my own journey.  About reading Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.  About being an A-cup most of high school and wishing for cleavage.  About how nursing my babies changed the shape and sensitivity of my breasts.  About needle biopsies and mammograms.  Lumpectomies, reconstruction and augmentation.  A breast cancer diagnosis. I’ve come to the conclusion I am deeply rooted in this attachment to breasts.

The biggest factor in my decision though was a powerful conviction.  I just knew that in order to grow beyond this season of my life, I needed to give everything to God.  It’s a terrifying prospect.  Sure, we ask Him for our daily bread, but it’s tough to truly give Him our children, to trust that His way is best, to let go and surrender all to Him.  I’ve never thought of myself as very vain, especially lately with no hair and no makeup.  But when this infection took over my body and I had to make a decision, I realized that this shouldn’t be a dilemma.  My breasts have been making me sick for a long time now, so why was I holding onto them?  At this point, they had no sensation and no purpose; why then was this even a debate?

It boiled down to this question.  Who am I when everything is stripped away?  Cancer took my femininity.  Lyme took my career.  I look in a mirror, only long enough to brush my teeth, and most of the time I barely recognize this person.

Yet there are moments when I think, “There you are.”  With every loss, the real me has ultimately emerged stronger.  The real me is screaming, “It’s just hair, your cup size doesn’t matter, and be proud of how far you’ve come.  You are still you, except now you are even more passionate, more appreciative, more resilient.”

I refuse to allow sickness to make me less.  Sure, it has done so physically –less hair, fewer eyelashes, zero breast tissue.  But in all the ways that matter, this journey has made me so much more.

More aware.  More empathetic.  More moved.

Chronic illness can take our breath away, but once we are stripped of our insecurities, we realize that, amazingly enough, we are still breathing.  When the moment of pain or fear or anxiety passes, we marvel that we are still standing, still inhaling, still fighting.  And really that’s what it boils down to –getting through one right step after another.

Each day there are new challenges.  Two surgeries in a one month span have left me unbelievably tired.  Hot flashes from hysterectomy -induced menopause are no joke, and the Lyme joint paint still hovers. Every part of my body seems to be attached to my chest muscles and nothing in my closet fits right.  I avoid mirrors at all costs, not yet able to even look down in the shower.  I’m far from accepting this “new” body, but I have accepted that this was the right next step for me.

And stripping down –emotionally more so than physically –is part of that step.  This journey is hard, friends, but I have to believe that there is purpose in it, and part of that purpose is helping others understand the multi-faceted magnitude of living with chronic illness.

Even when it leaves us feeling vulnerable.

Yes, especially then.

 

 

 

13 thoughts on “Stripped Down

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  1. While I am not experiencing anything near what you are experiencing, I am living with severe arthritis (and glaucoma) that impact my life on a daily basis. I live with constant pain and the inability to do what I have always done. Recently I have begun to love my broken body tenderly and am grateful for all that it has done for me.

    I am older so I daily watch things slip away, things I always took for granted, but I still thank God that I was given the gift of life. Broken as I am there is still joy and gratitude for all that I have.

    And, like you, I have had to surrender the myth of “invincible me” and admit my weakness and ask for help. It’s often scary, not knowing how disabled (or blind) I may eventually be.

    I thank you for sharing your journey. You are a very brave soul.

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  2. Jena, I have been following your journey for some time now; having had it brought to my Facebook newsfeed when Anna would share your posts. Having been a volunteer for the American Cancer Society for the last 15 years I am constantly amazed by the strength, faith, and spirit of the cancer survivors that we support. I have found you to possess all those qualities as well as your willingness to reach out and help others with their difficult journeys. May God bless you and comfort you knowing how many people your are reaching. 🙏🏻💜

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  3. Thank you so much for sharing this. So raw and honest and exactly what people need to see and hear and FEEL! I wish you all the healing vibes and love 💕

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  4. You are so incredibly brave and you are fighting the fight with God by your side. I pray that not so far in the future, you will feel healed and able to enjoy your life. You are incredible to share this with everyone.

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  5. Your photo and blogs are educating so many women in areas that doctors and “information sources” are reluctant to explain. You are a brave warrior with an exceptional love of God and family. Keep up the good fight! Hugs and prayers for complete healing.

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  6. You are doing what you need to do to live your life again. God’s blessings and strength to you on your journey. You show your beautiful daughters and all of us what courage and grace looks like.

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    1. I had a lumpectomy and reconstruction Nov. 2013. I was bitten by a tick on my wedding day in July 2014. Diagnosed with Lyme disease in Dec 2014 after suffering from Lyme carditis. I’ve battled chronic Lyme since. In Dec 2018 I was diagnosed with breast cancer. It was aggressive and by the time I had a double mastectomy in January, I was Stage 2b/Grade 3/Hormone+.

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  7. Also curious if you had told your surgeon that after explant, you did NOT want any further reconstruction surgeries going forward?
    If so, your surgeon did not grant you a proper “flat closure” and left a lot of extra skin that was not necessary to remain and SHOULD have been removed.
    http://www.FlatClosureNow.org

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    1. A plastic surgeon talked me into expanders with my DMX. I’ve fought infections in the left one from the beginning, so when this infection couldn’t be managed with IV antibiotics, we had to get the infected expander out. I opted to have both removed because they were so painful. I also had been exploring having my implants removed prior to the breast cancer diagnosis because I really felt having those foreign objects in my body was hindering my progress with Lyme. At the time of this last surgery I hadn’t discovered all the amazing women who’ve chosen to go and stay flat. I wish I had. I would’ve known what to request and what to expect. We didn’t discuss staying flat; the surgery was considered life threatening and I just wanted them out. Honestly, I thought I’d wake up flat, not concave. The skin was left for “when” I decided to have reconstruction (in the form of fat transfer). I can’t image yet another surgery. I just want to be well, you know? I’m okay with battle scars if it means I can keep up with my kids again. Thank you for sharing the sites. I’ll definitely check them out. I’m discovering a whole new world of empowered women every single day. I hope I pass that message and strength onto my daughters.

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