I don’t talk about it or write about it or think about it or even remember it, really. It’s buried so deep inside of me that I am often surprised to recall that it is part of my story--one of the puzzle pieces of my life, fitted into me even if I don’t acknowledge its presence. But lately, I’ve begun to suspect that despite its hidden nature, it is a very important, and neglected, part of who I am.
That summer, I experienced depression darker than anything I had ever known, and that depression makes up a very large and very well processed part of me. I can point to that depression and track its influence in who I am now, in how I treat others, in the beat of my soul in every part of my life and the importance of my faith. I can definitively look into the essence of that depression, pick it apart and neatly buttonhole each aspect of me that it influenced. It was hell, but it had a purpose, and a beautiful one. I am grateful for that depression.
So why have I shut out the memories of my cancer scare? Even saying those words--“cancer scare”--makes me pause. It seems much too serious for what it was. No, it was nothing, my mind persists. It was a blip on the radar of your health history. Not even worth remembering while filling out paperwork at the doctors, until you’re already walking up to the desk to hand the clipboard back, and then swiftly sitting back down to add it when it finally surfaces in memory. Surgery. Sedation. Biopsy. A lump. A cancer scare, yes.
I was nineteen years old, and just barely there. It was freshman year of college, and ever since I’d graduated high school I’d had the lump in my left breast. I asked my doctor about it once, but she brushed it off. “It’ll go away,” she said. But when I remembered to do self-exams--which was not often--it remained. A lingering point of unknown in my life, that finally forced me to tell my mother. When I told her, we went back to the doctor. And when I told them I’d had it for over a year, they wanted to do a biopsy.
“It’ll be benign,” they said.
But it might not be.
There’s always that possibility, however slight.
I didn’t google it. Didn’t try to find out how many nineteen year olds develop breast cancer. Or maybe I did. Like most of the experience, I stopped remembering it shortly afterwards. I do remember lying on the table and feeling the pinch of the machine taking a sample of the lump for testing. I remember looking up at the ceiling and thinking about the particularities of a hospital room, and wondering what it would be like to come often. To receive treatment and come to know the doctors and nurses, to be a Patient. To be the only nineteen year old I’d ever heard of with breast cancer.
The situation turned comical and embarrassing quickly. I was home for spring break with my friend Rachel, with whom I barely discussed the entire ordeal. My brother’s friend came into town as well, and wanted to go swing dancing. I wanted to go too, but the doctor had said to take it easy. So my brother told Steve I had had a mystery procedure done, and left it at that. Steve was confused. Rachel thought it was hilarious. I wished it had never happened. At college I had felt free and independent, but I was beginning to feel that trapped, suffocating feeling again that all high school seniors in even the best families and schools experience. I didn’t want it, any of it, ever.
But I’m good at putting things away inside myself. I tucked it on the shelf and went back to school, waiting for the results to come in a week later. And back at my Christian college, I found myself thinking about it in a different light. What if it did come back positive, I thought. It would be okay. I could be strong. I could move back to Pittsburgh and live with my parents, I could go to chemo and write loving notes and have people look up to me. If this was all I got, it had been pretty good. I’d been a Christian since I was twelve, and I had often felt the weight of my eternal heart struggling with the inadequacy of this world. When I died, I would be with God. And that, as Sara Groves put it, “must be pretty good.” The most important thing, I see now, was that I felt I could be prepared. I could find a measure of control.
I shared these thoughts with my mom. She didn’t really want to talk about it, because it scared her, but it didn’t make much difference because the test results came back negative at the end of the week. Benign, just as they’d said. For a day or two, I felt a rush of joy that is a rare and beautiful thing. Life was long. Life was full of health.
But that’s where the story gets muddy. I forgot about the whole ordeal. It was mid-March; I finished the semester and asked out a boy and ate chicken fingers with my roommate and took finals. It was like it had never happened. I went home for the summer and got bored, and during the first week of July I had the lump removed. It was disorienting. I returned--briefly--to the world of the biopsy, and the sterile hospital rooms, and the reality of that itchy, out-of-control feeling of being placed on gurneys and wheeled around and being given an IV. The night before the operation I joked with my parents about making sure the doctors knew this was a lumpectomy and not a mastectomy--I would be needing both my breasts, thank you very much. But when the operation came around and I was lying there in my hospital gown, I did remind my doctor, while he drew on my skin with a pen to mark the spot for surgery. He laughed. I didn’t. I should have felt the excitement of the fact that I was completely healthy and just getting the lump removed to be extra-cautious. But the operation was too scary. It was filled with white corners and tiptoeing into the bathroom while holding my gown closed and waiting for the drugs to make me pass out. Too much uncertainty, too many edges. Too close to whatever it is that actual cancer patients endure.
When I woke, as they were taking me from the operating room, I raised a hand and felt to make sure both my breasts were still there. (They were.) Later, I removed the bandages on my chest to reveal an enormous scar. I had to wear a surgical bra for a few days, which was a huge problem when the 4th of July dawned baking hot a few days later. I had to go out and see people, and also wear this awkward surgical bra that had velcro straps. Again I found myself pushing the experience away. I would not tell anyone about it, would not talk about it even with my family. Because it wasn’t a big deal. Really it wasn’t. I was healthy. I had a scar, but not much else.
I know myself better, now, than I did then. I know that I try to be the strong one in every relationship. I know that I try to provide encouragement and counsel to everyone I know, partly because it’s a good thing to do, but also because I want to be perceived as the one who has it all together. It’s so important to me to be capable and able, and to be respected. When I was nineteen I had all the tendencies, but not this insight. So talking about a situation in which I was utterly helpless was not on the agenda. Add to that the fact that it was my breasts we would be discussing--so no, that was definitely not happening. Not even with my closest girlfriends. If any of them asked, I would answer that obviously it wasn’t a big deal. I was totally healthy, so why would it be a big deal? Even now, I doubt more than a handful of my friends know anything about the experience.
I didn’t discuss it with myself, either. Later that summer, when the depression came and I learned what true helplessness felt like, I thought briefly that it might be partially due to the surgery. Someone had mentioned that one of the after effects of surgery could be depression. But I had so much going on in my head that summer, surgery wasn’t the only contributing factor. Until now, I didn’t think of it as a factor at all. That summer was a moment of spiritual, mental and relational crisis, and that was enough to process. The cancer scare and surgery were placed deep in the back of my mind. They were past. Behind me.
As I finally allow myself to remember those moments of fear, I think the lump in my breast opened me up for the changes that took place in my life that summer. It was just one of many factors in a life-changing episode of depression, but it was the first and greatest of those factors. It was a moment of true helplessness and fear, a moment that forced me to question what I was and thought and valued. A moment in which my precious control was taken from me, and my response was panic and compartmentalization. God was gracious with me and used the depression to shape every aspect of who I am now. The cancer scare, however, has remained deeply hidden in my mind until very recently.
I don’t really know why that is. Perhaps because in some ways, it is pretty inconsequential. After all, I didn’t have cancer, I just had a big lump. It was removed and it’s a blip on my health history that doesn’t even need to be mentioned by my doctor. Talking about it, making a big deal about it in some ways seems silly compared to all the women who have had actual breast cancer, and have survived, and have passed away.
And yet it is part of my story, and I can’t pretend it’s not deeply important to me. It’s been hidden from memory and consciousness for so long that I haven’t really processed the experience yet, and I don’t quite know how. In some ways, it seems so long ago now that it may be unnecessary. I was afraid, and out of control, and embarrassed. But those things have been dealt with, in many ways, through other experiences. They continue to be dealt with, because they will always be a part of me. Perhaps acknowledging the experience and recognizing its importance is enough.
I know, though, that the very fact that I have shut myself off from the memories for so many years is telling. I don’t even notice my scar anymore, but when I do look at it, I can finger the reality of that fear and confusion. It’s a big scar, still raised and slightly pink even though it’s been six years. When I put my fingers on it, I can feel the absence of the lump beneath it, and I still acknowledge the tiny thread of relief at that absence. This is a scar I did not choose. But just a few inches away on my body is a scar I did choose--a tattoo of my middle name and the middle names of my siblings. They read in a line down my side: Faith - Justice - Charity - Valor.
Scars are funny things. We hide them or display them, prize them or hate them, feel pain because of them or remember goodness because of their presence. My tattoo and my lumpectomy scar are both parts of me, and both represent integral moments in my life. And I cannot choose to remove either. I should not choose to remove either. I can point to my lumpectomy and see it as a sign of God’s grace just as I can point to my tattoo and remember it as a moment of freedom and joy. They are equally important markers of my journey.
I’ve thought briefly, over the years, about the fact that no one knows this story. I’ve thought about the moment when, perhaps, I show my scar to a husband and tell him the story, and no one else. But instead I’m sharing it now, because I am finally seeing the truth in this story: weakness is just as important as strength. To be truly humble in ones weakness is the stuff of love, and it’s much harder than being strong and self-sufficient, because it means that one must accept the grace of others.
Sometimes you find yourself in a situation that is beyond your control. Sometimes you are on an exam table as a doctor takes a biopsy, or locked in depression and anxiety, or crippled by illness. I’m learning that, in those moments, I don’t have to be the strong one. I’m learning to open myself to the grace of the people in my life, and sit in the squeaky rub and grind of being unable to help myself. For we are human, and we can but breathe and accept the puzzle pieces that are given to us. Whether those pieces ever fit together coherently or not, accepting them and remembering them is life-giving.
~ Notes from the Tilt-A-Whirl, ND Wilson
~ He Held Radical Light, Christian Wiman
~ An American Childhood, Annie Dillard
~ On the Incarnation, Athanasius of Alexandria