By Deb Baer Becker
Irony is the word I think of when I look back ten years to my first column for Woman. I was a novice writer then with my first real writing gig, and I felt all of the wonder and fear of doing something brave with my words. At that very same time I was completely unaware that I had a cancerous tumor growing in my left breast, spinning its darkness, while I so earnestly wrote right into the heart of authenticity and vulnerability about breasts and bodies and love. Soon after I was diagnosed with breast cancer, a tumor in my left breast, a trace of cancer found in the lymph node next door. I thought my life was going to end. I never dreamed that my life would begin anew.
“Look, you’ll have a shitty year, but then you’ll get old your life back,” my oncologist said brightly, after she delivered her diagnosis and treatment protocols: chemo, extensive surgery, radiation, and reconstruction. I cried what felt like a flood of tears, a dozen snotty tissues in my lap—the ugly cry to go along with the ugly diagnosis.
I remember the murky uncertainty that shrouded those treatment days. I don’t handle uncertainty well, what with my trust issues and white-knuckled need for control. I thought a nervous wreck like me really should not get cancer; I’m totally ill-equipped to face such staggering adversity.
It was in a Yoga class specific to trauma when I finally made friends with my own vulnerability. I summoned all of my fear, which was scary as hell. Then I looked it in the face (I swear it has fangs) and acknowledged it. And then I let go. Or I passed out. I’m not sure. But I felt a little more at ease in my life.
I learned that vulnerability is the essence of what makes us really good humans. The path to empathy and gratitude starts in accepting our powerlessness. I realize now my cancer was a journey to my best self; a moderate-to-difficult hike, where you’re exhausted and tripping over rocks and afraid you’re not going to make it back to your car, but even so, the views are worth it.
I wrote my way through cancer, through the chemo hangovers, with clouded vision and a foggy brain. I wrote a blog, a diary of my cancer journey, where I shared personal thoughts on the many phases of cancer and treatment. All of this persistence made me a better writer.
Yes, shitty moments were plentiful during that year, but I have so many good memories, too. On Mother’s day, after I’d survived eight rounds of chemo, the Hubster drove my kiddos and me to a restaurant for a lunch. Out of nowhere a bee took flight inside our car, buzzing our heads, banging into windows, flying erratically. The kids and I screamed and ducked and swatted, flailing, as if a grizzly bear was scampering over us. All this commotion panicked my always-steady Hubster and in his rush to open the car windows, he jerked the steering wheel. Our car swerved wildly on the busy highway. And then it was gone, the bee.
“Holy crap, Dad, we could have died!” my son Matt yelled.
“No, I had it under control,” the Hubster said.
“Oh my god, Dad, we almost crashed! Over a bumble bee!” my daughter Kay said, and then she started laughing. And then we all laughed, hysterically, pee-your-pants laughing, still howling as we entered the restaurant, and giggling during our meal, which made my Mother’s day so beautiful and unforgettable.
Today, the two horizontal lines on my chest, mastectomy scars, are faded and pink. A week or so after my surgery, when I could bear it, I looked at my naked body in the bathroom’s mirror. I studied the train-track incision lines on my chest, one on each side, still red and swollen. My mind sort of flinched. I felt panic and grief. I felt sorry for my body. I took a deep breath in, exhaled, and I told my reflection, “I am more now, not less.”
This is radical acceptance.
What this is not is that crazy term “new normal.” There is no normal, old or new. Normal is the lie that diminishes our humanity. The insistence that we have to be normal robs us of our creative power and our purpose here. I am so much more than normal.
Oh, I never got my old life back. And I’m so happy about that! I felt a divine shift in my spirit, which softened my little calloused heart. There just isn’t enough time for ruminating and fingernail chewing over past transgressions. Resentments and bitterness are relics from our past, which only clutter our lives. Today, I have more room in my emotional life to just…breathe.
Ten years ago I wrote a thoughtful article about breasts and how their shape outlines our femininity, our nurturing nature, and it’s our love that holds us. I had no idea my life was about to be rocked by a cancer experience. I also had no idea my life would be transformed by said experience Breast cancer is a sinister beast, which deserves no credit for empowerment. But suffering elevates the soul. My journey through cancer taught me how to live and love freely. Every day of my life begins anew.