"Goodbye, girlfriend. Thank you. I love you."
Quite possibly, it’s the most intimate conversation I’ve ever had, saying “Goodbye” to my breast.
My good friend, Lindsey, suggested it. "Talk to your body as though it's one of your closest friends," she said. (She’d recently been through breast cancer surgery and, before going to hospital, took the same advice from a Tauranga-based Healing Facilitator, AmayahGrace).
I initially thought it all sounded ‘a bit alternative,’ and Lindsey, too, said it might seem ‘a bit hippy-dippy,’ but gently urged me to give it a go. As she spoke, I knew immediately I would most-definitely make time to have that difficult conversation.
I was driving home alone in my beloved Mini Cooper when I realised I was in the perfect, most-private place to have that little chat. I turned off the car radio.
“So, my friend … my body,” I started, (feeling excruciatingly self-conscious and mildly silly), “we’re going to hospital in a few days’ time and, well …. this is why …”
I deliberately spoke gently, but tried to sound positive. I told ‘her’ – my body – the surgery was necessary to save her life – our life - and it was perfectly normal and okay to be scared. We would be okay because we’re fit and strong, I assured her, despite that ‘feckin, fuckity-fucker’ lodged in my breast! And, even though ‘we’ would wake up and the breast would be gone forever, it would mean the cancer would be gone, too.
I told her she was beautiful and strong and resilient – and we would absolutely survive this little life-blip. I told her my surgeon, Ros, the registrar, Luke, and my anaesthetist, Katie, - and all the nurses, too - would care for us every hour, every minute. I spoke as if to a younger, less worldly-wise and experienced version of myself, as though my body had never been through surgery. I thanked her for carrying me through an amazing life, so far, and I told her I loved her.
That conversation (or monologue, to be more precise) took just a couple of minutes, maybe just 90 seconds, but by the time I’d run out of things to say, I was crying - sorry for her, sorry for myself, still horrified this could happen to a clean-living, physically fit woman like me. My little chat left me feeling a little brighter – still scared, but stronger, feeling as though I had more control over what was to come (which, of course, I didn’t!), but I am so very happy I took Lindsey’s advice.
Just a week earlier, after an evening shower, I had stared at my naked body in the mirror and I thought: “You know what, boobs, my girls? You’re actually quite beautiful. You’ve fed all my children – more than a year’s breast-feeding for each child, and look! - you still stand up on your own pretty darned well!” During one of my regular mammograms, (eight months before the breast cancer diagnosis), the female radiographer commented on the density of my breast-tissue. I was quite lucky, she said, my breasts were “youthful” for my age!
My breasts.With a mix of vague panic and sadness, I thought of how I was about to be physically changed forever. I should photograph them – have something to look back on. A record. A record of being beautifully whole and normal!
But, to me, the reality of taking a topless ‘selfie’ was not a beautiful concept. I didn’t even attempt it. I felt it would most-likely look very awkward, very unprofessional and, at worst, down-right tacky.
Two days later, my dear friend Bernie, who happens to be a talented photographer, jumped in beside me in the Mini and we drove to a reasonably remote and unpopulated ocean beach.
“Bring your green belt and your (karate) gi pants,” she’d instructed me. “We’re going to show what an emotionally-strong woman you are – a warrior woman! And you always will be!”
Bernie (a Senpai and a second-degree black belt) is a member of my Seido Karate community – my supportive Seido ‘family’ that gathered around me as soon as they heard the news of my awful diagnosis (see the previous blog entry, 'Surrounded By My Herd, Lifted By Love").
I had attained my green belt three weeks before being diagnosed with breast cancer. Wearing it around the elastic waistband of my gi pants, topless, felt rather strange to say the least! But being out there beside the ocean, standing on the rocks, the sun warming my skin – well, I felt strong, empowered. Bernie’s photographs captured that – my determination, my resilience, my bloody-mindedness! These were to be photos I could look back on once I was cancer-free; photographs for me and me only. But as the months have passed by and I have been planning, always, to write this blog, I have wavered between wanting to include a photograph – and just not!
“They’re just boobs! All women have them, in every shape and size, until something like this happens,” Bernie told me. And, I know of other women who have had mastectomies and been brave enough to post photographs of themselves – before their surgery and, even more bravely, after. This ‘before’ photograph, I will always treasure. I have looked at it a few times – surprisingly, without tears. But, mostly, it sits in in my computer in a folder rarely opened. I am including it in this blog with the intention and hope of empowering other breast cancer patients facing this rather drastic surgery. If that’s you, consider having a photograph taken before your surgery, because memories fade. I am so very, very grateful I did.
The other day, Bernie and I drove into the wilderness again – this time to capture the ‘after’ shot.
We did this because I want to help take away the mystery for women who are facing a mastectomy and have not dared Google Search images, for fear of feeling way too much fear and, worse, repulsion. I want to show those women the result does not have to be grotesque, down-right ugly or distressing. I think I just look like a lad – only, on one side and not the other!
But guess what? My anxiety about cancer having another go at me has pushed me to seek elective surgery; another mastectomy. Too many nights I lie awake unable to sleep for worrying, gently feeling for more rogue lumps and bumps and things that just don’t feel like they should be there. Of course, I know cancer could come knocking at other parts of me, but I can remove a substantial amount of risk by taking away all vulnerable breast tissue. As I write this, I am counting down the sleeps. I have no doubts and never have since my diagnosis and my mastectomy in 2016.
Besides, I rather prefer even numbers, balance and symmetry. I am going to be stream-lined. Imagine how fast I will run!
See http://www.amayahgrace.com and type 'hospital' into the search panel.
Please know, I am very much aware an elective mastectomy is not 'right' for everyone who has undergone a mastectomy to remove cancer and, to put it bluntly, to save their life. I am not advocating this measure be taken by others. It simply feels very 'right' for me. But I do urge mastectomy patients to record in photographs their 'before' and 'after' if possible. Even if it feels strange now, I am sure, one day, you'll be quietly pleased you did. Much love - Victoria xo