(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.
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.