The Breast and the Sea
"There beside the roar of the ocean, I found the stillness I needed inside."
An avid nature-lover accustomed to forests and fields, I had just been diagnosed with breast cancer and learned that I carry the BRCA-1 gene. Newly married and transplanted to suburban Long Island, I made an acquaintance with the sea. I was 33. After becoming a mother of three overnight, I wanted to keep things as normal as possible for my newly blended family despite endless doctor’s appointments and late night research.
As I sought medical advice and began preparing for a mastectomy, I discovered that I was rather fond of my breast. It wasn’t that I feared I would be less feminine, or that I needed voluptuous curves to be a woman. My concern was that I might feel less whole, less complete with a part of my body missing. This would be a private loss. One that could be hidden in the curves of reconstruction or a breast-like prosthesis, that those around me might not notice or even know about unless they were told.
I found solace in my quiet moments by the sea. The rhythm of the waves and calls of the shore birds were extremely cathartic for me. I noticed that the water had the ability to transform things. Bits of shells and pebbles were worn smooth over time. Even trash, like broken bottles, became beautiful when churned in the folds of the sea.
Yearning for a transformation of my own, I began to perceive a subtle inner shift. Over the course of countless visits, my own rough spots began to smooth and soften with the rise and fall of the tide. My sorrows, deepest fears, and feelings of inadequacy became offerings to the majestic sea. The water received each of my struggles as precious gifts, gracefully carrying them off with the next undulating surge. I found myself wondering how the sea would change my breast over time. How would it look if the cancer were worn away with the swirling waves, polished like sea glass?
At times I found myself wanting to hold my breast tenderly, like a child clutching a blanket it is not yet ready to give up. A well-meaning friend suggested I think of it only as tissue. Yet this “tissue” had grown with me from a little bump of girlhood through the swells of my adolescence and early adult years. It had known the gentle caresses of love. Plumped and filled with milk, it had nourished and fed my son. My breast had been with me always, traveled wherever I had gone. It had seen forests, mountains, and deserts; bathed in rivers and swam in the sea.
I felt the need for a creative outlet, so when an artist friend gave me a lump of clay, I began working with it right away. It felt good to have my hands full of moist earth and to feel it slowly change shape. Without planning, but also without surprise, I found that it began taking on the form of a breast—my breast. It gave me the opportunity to pour my hopes, fears, and feelings into something tangible. When I took my clay to the beach, I would work small shells, bits of seaweed and sand into my project. Some salt water spilled from my own eyes at times and found its way within my lump of moistened earth.
When the week of my surgery came, it felt important to offer my clay breast to the churning brine, so that it could be remade into something new. I wrapped my handiwork in a piece of cloth and whispered words of thanks as the waves lapped around my feet. I waded out waist-deep and released it as far and as high as I could, watching as it disappeared into the never-ending rush of the mighty sea. I wondered how the ocean would change my creation. Would it wash up smooth on some distant shore? Perhaps it would it become more bumpy, or corroded in time. Or be found as a curiosity some day by another seeking quiet solace at the beach.
In the months to come, my medical team met with the tumor board to discuss treatment options, with the knowledge that my husband and I wanted very much to have another child. Having a baby post breast cancer is a controversial topic, and we were delighted to hear that recent studies appeared more favorable. After weighing out the risks with our hopes and dreams, we decided to go for it. We were blessed with a beautiful baby girl. I was able, with my one breast, to nurse her exclusively for six and a half months and regularly for two years. There was something about coming face to face with my own mortality that made these “ordinary miracles” of life especially extraordinary. I shed many tears of gratitude as I sat rocking my little one to sleep. I realized how truly lucky we were.
In my quest for acceptance of the physical and emotional challenges that breast cancer and the BRCA gene brought into my life, I have found tremendous faith and resilience. I know now in the core of my being that we are whole, with or without breasts. Beautiful, with or without scars. We could never know courage without adversity. Our project is about embracing wholeness, strength, and beauty. Reclaiming these things is an integral part in our healing process. I will readily confess that it is hard to feel beautiful in a society that places so much value on the physical. However, true beauty is not having a “perfect” body. Beauty is about being real. Authentic. Without pretense.
I am not one who would share my most intimate feelings with those I don’t know. Nor would I ordinarily bare my chest, sharing my scars and greatest inner vulnerabilities with the world. My hope is that it will help another on her journey of health and healing. There is an enormous need to hear stories and see images of real women who have gone through breast cancer and are now healthy, as well as women with more advanced stages of disease who have had to learn to live with, but not be defined by their illness—women who have come through these experiences with strength and courage.
Collectively our narratives and photographs are more powerful than any individually can be. Miana’s images speak deeply about each of us and our connection to the waters that surround us—waters that also course through our veins. Every woman has a story to tell. Each “survivor” “overcomer” or “warrior,” as she defines it, has incredible strength and beauty. I am humbled by the many I have come to know since my diagnosis who have been through far more difficult circumstances than I, including those whose time was cut short. All who have shared their journeys through this project have offered precious nuggets of wisdom. We each have our own “sea,” to anchor us during great difficulty. For some it’s the loving support of family, a beloved friend, a newfound spirituality, or a transformative passion such as art or dance. Within each lies tremendous beauty, which grows as the years pass by, and deepens with every challenge we have had to overcome.