Thursday, September 27, 2007

The First Time I Saw A Mastectomy Scar

Soon a movie will be airing on Lifetime Television entitled: "Matters of Life and Dating". The film stars Ricki Lake as a cancer survivor who has had a mastectomy and must wrestle with how to negotiate the dating world.

The first time I saw a mastectomy scar was in 1999, and it stands out as one of the most impactful experiences I've had to date.

*Jane was a member of the spiritual group I belong to and I had known her for about three years. We were not close friends but we did have a very friendly acquaintance. We would have extended conversations after the monthly meetings which were sometimes held at her home. Suddenly, we were not having meetings at her home and she wasn't present at meetings held elsewhere. I inquired as to her whereabouts, "Jane has breast cancer", I was told.

At that point in my life, I hadn't ever known anyone with cancer and it hit me hard. How was that possible? I had seen her not that long ago, just a couple of months really. Could she have gotten sick in so short a time? And breast cancer? Breast cancer is frightening, and strikes on all levels, physical, mental, emotional, spiritual and because you never know if it could happen to you.

We all got updates on Jane's condition, we were told she was going to have a mastectomy, we were told when it was to be, we sent extra prayers and good energy for her healing. And then one day she was there again, just like that!

"How are you?" I asked, "I'm fine" she replied, and she looked great, happy even. Of course we were all full of questions and we asked them. All except one. That one question was like the elephant in the living room, its presence was tangible, as if it was sitting at the table with us.
"Do you want to see it?"she asked, and of course we all did.

There in her dining room, with eight women sitting around the table, she lifted her sweater over her head, unbuttoned her shirt, and stood, while we stared silently. No one said a word for some time. I didn't want to be the first to say anything for fear that it might seem disrespectful because what I was thinking was: "that's not what I expected".

I didn't really know what to expect, the only frames of reference I had to use were some made for tv movies, and whatever my imagination could create. I couldn't fathom what breasts would look like if one were missing, it was territory my imagination couldn't or wouldn't, pass into.

Sometimes when dealing with the unknown, what you can create in your mind is far worse than the reality. I knew what my breasts meant to me, the currency they'd been and sometimes the source of my self esteem and I was horrified at the idea of being "maimed" and "not a woman".

And there stood Jane, gloriously showing us the reality. After some moments had passed she said, "It's not that bad, huh?" That broke the tension and we were like chattering magpies, because the cancer was bad, the sickness she'd felt was bad, the chemo was bad, but the scar the actual place where her breast used to be- not that bad. She was still whole, missing a breast but by no means maimed, and still very much a woman.

That was a great gift that Jane gave us that day, and I will forever be grateful. That was the first time I saw a mastectomy scar; the second time was yesterday in a magazine. The young woman was standing in the photograph with her breast bared and mastectomy scar proudly showing; she'd adorned it with a beautiful flowering vine.

She looked victorious, just like Jane.

*name changed.