This Boob Has Important Lessons to Share
Five years ago, a small sign signaled a ginormous change coming my way.
When I discovered a small, painful lump under my right arm I assumed that I had mastitis and went to see my obstetrician for a solution. As a tired mom with a nursing fourteen-month-old and a five-year old child, I didn’t have time for this. After trying to treat what we thought was an infection for another week, my doctor sent me to radiology for an ultrasound. I was still in a state of denial when the PRN gently held my hand as the calm surgeon injected a biopsy needle into the hard, round lump under my arm. It was confirmed: I had breast cancer.
Fast-forward to now, five years later. My life has changed a great deal in many ways. My health is great and I’ve never felt better. Here’s the thing: as part of my treatment, a single, radical mastectomy, choosing to keep my healthy breast.
I love my one boob, and I want to make sure that I keep it. As I was going through treatment with chemo, surgery and radiation, I somehow knew I’d need to do more than the treatment prescribed by my awesome medical team. I knew I’d need to fundamentally change the way I saw and lived my life if I wanted to completely heal.
Now,it’s October: Breast Cancer Awareness month, and I’ve decided to put down the prosthetic and back away with my hands in the air. It’s a milestone marking my progress on this spiritual journey. I needed to surrender to the woman I am, without the need to hide. I’m a woman with a single breast.
My husband and I have affectionate names for my new status like “half-rack” and “uni-boob.” What’s funny is that I’m a small-breasted woman—I’m not even sure that anyone but me notices this small shift. But even if the asymmetry throws some people off, I’ve never felt more balanced.
Still, this action puts me in a very vulnerable but necessary place. It allows me to honor who I was as well as who I am becoming. In a small way, I’m also honoring all those around me who have either been diagnosed with breast cancer or who have died from the disease. Though we do not invite cancer in to our lives, there are many gifts that can come from a tragic situation.
As women, whether we are single, married, with or without children, we tend to be the more nurturing of the sexes. If not hormonally motivated, there is a significant cultural expectation that we are the caretakers. And while many of us are excellent caretakers of others, we can often fall short when it comes to taking care of ourselves. There is a toxic notion out there that it is not okay for a woman put herself first or appear to be putting herself first, and we become last on our own list of priorities. Society often seems kinder to women who appear to be making sacrifices than women who appear “self-serving.” There are tons of blogs, magazines, and other media outlets that crucify a woman if she appears to be taking too much care of herself to the apparent detriment of those around her.
I was the woman who thought she needed to put sacrifice first, and I almost killed myself in the process. When I was diagnosed with stage III breast cancer—just a few lymph nodes away from stage IV—I realized that I needed to take care of myself first, otherwise I’d end up not being available for anyone else. So, as I began to take care of myself, it became clear that one of the best things I could do to take care of myself was to be okay with being myself.
At a Ted Talk, Brene Brown spoke about an unspoken shame epidemic. This really resonated with me. We all have things about ourselves that we feel badly about. Shame is a very human feeling. The challenge is that shame can become a way of life, trapping us into silence. We are kept from fully expressing ourselves and living our lives to the fullest. When we become motivated by shame, we mute authenticity. We choose to stand down, we choose to be yes-people and we choose to let those around us make our decisions for us. Eventually, we wake up angry, confused and depressed. Hello, mid-life crisis!
I grew up thinking I should put others’ needs in front of mine, and this led to anger, which led to feeling ashamed for this resentment. And shame that I wasn’t able to “do it all.” Thankfully, I came to realize that I needed to stop living my life for others and start living for me.
The first step was granting myself unconditional love. I had to stop the internal monologue of self-criticism. An amazing thing happened when I became aware and moved past the criticism: I felt liberated to begin fulfilling my life purpose.
When I finally started taking care of myself, I was able to get past the self-criticism and go easy on myself. I understood that my greatest strength can lie in asking for help. If we were meant to live this life alone, what on Earth are all these other people here for?
As I look around me with this notion in mind, I’m delighted, touched and saddened by how our society manages the idea of help. My delight comes from the fact that there is help all around us. People hold doors open, let others into traffic, and offer to carry packages. I am deeply touched by groups coming together to make a difference in other people’s lives through fund-raising, building houses for the homeless, and growing gardens for the hungry.
But my sadness comes from realizing how often people are offered random acts of kindness only to not see them or refuse to accept the help out of some fear that accepting help may make them seem weak. Accepting help is a beautiful act of humility. In humility, we recognize that we are only one person, and that our connection with others makes us stronger.
It’s okay to accept help. Accepting help is not a sign of weakness.
If you want to heal, help others heal, and help the world heal, take it from my boob and me: Take care of yourself, love yourself unconditionally, and ask for and accept help when you need it. It’s only in doing these things well for yourself that you’ll be able to do them well for others.