Rebecca's Story

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. 

On Bringing the Sea to the Self

 

                      “We are like islands in the sea, separate on the surface                                  but connected in the deep.”

-William James

 

“The sea” for me is truly about connecting with nature. (Click here if you haven't already read how the sea helped me transform my greatest fears when I was facing breast cancer.)  We can watch water journey over time: droplets of vapor in the air gather in clouds and come pouring back down as life-giving rain to replenish the source and then disperse once again. Water very powerfully conveys wisdom about the cycles of life. The more time we spend outdoors, the better able we are to see how deeply entwined these cycles are with our own lives. We come to see that we are not separate from, but are very much a part of the organic world around us.

Someone once asked me, “What if I cannot get to the sea?” Perhaps there is another body of water that is more readily accessible to you. Any source of water will do. You may find that you live quite near to a pond, lake, swamp, marsh, bay, trickling stream, or rushing river. Each source of water has its own qualities, even its own “personality.” Each supports its own unique ecosystem, and provides nourishment for different types of animals and plants. Sitting beside the water can help to quiet our mind. Observing the natural world offers us valuable insights about our own inner wilderness. Soon you will find that even if you live in the desert, you can still visualize and meditate upon your own personal “sea.”

If you cannot journey to a body of water, you can at least get to the water from your own bathtub or shower. Perhaps a bowl of water can be placed somewhere in your home reserved for quiet daily reflection or meditation.   Water (particularly from a natural, flowing source) is a living entity. It has the ability to change us. It can help to transform our emotions. If we’re upset, and we’re open to the healing power of water, we can allow it to cleanse us. It can help take some of our pain away. The change is subtle, especially at first. There is a degree of imagination involved here, which can strengthen in time. Yet the feeling of release is quite tangible. The element of water can be a profound way of helping us transform our personal energy.

Pay attention to what you are drawn to. The positive things you feel pulled toward can be tremendous resources in your life. It matters less what these things specifically are. The importance lies in identifying what is rewarding to you and making regular space in your routine for these activities. Some people find their quiet inner space while repairing cars or making people laugh. For others, it is yoga or gardening. Some find teaching children, sewing, or home improvement projects incredibly enjoyable. There are as many ways of finding and connecting with our deeper inner Self as there are people. That is what “the sea” is for me. What resonates with one may not resonate with another. We each have our own way, and that’s a beautiful thing!

Truly, “the sea” lies within us—and is all around. It is something different for each of us. We are collectively drawn to rewarding activities of one kind or another; we each have something meaningful in our lives that calls to us. Whether it’s dancing, photography, parenting, serving meals at the soup kitchen, or running—it doesn’t much matter what it is—it’s about the space we reach within ourselves during that activity. Where our thoughts and breathing slow, and we feel a sense of wholeness and purpose inside—that is “the sea,” for me. It might be something different for you.

How do you cultivate a deeper sense of purpose? If you feel incomplete or feel that your daily routine no longer leaves you satisfied, look closely at what Life is telling you. It is essential to do what you feel called to do because this will empower you. Take the time to find something that is enjoyable to you, that brings you pleasure and helps you feel truly alive. This doesn’t mean that you need to quit your job—it’s often enough to embrace a new hobby or attitude that carries over into your day-to-day roles and responsibilities.

Click here to learn more about how to find the "sea" in your own personal life!

Post-Surgical Reflections

"Although we cannot control the outer circumstances in our lives, we do have the power and ability to rise up to our difficulties and find our strength."

The day after my 38th birthday, I went into menopause.  Surgical menopause.  Four years after healing from cancer, and two years after losing my mother, it was time to put into action the plan that my healthcare team, my husband, and I had decided after my first mastectomy: when I was finished nursing my daughter, I would remove my remaining breast, ovaries, and fallopian tubes.  This was something in my mother’s final weeks that she also asked of me.  She had fought breast cancer.  Her mother had fought ovarian.  Others in our family had similar stories.

Deciding to remove several parts of my body that are disease-free is something that most people find hard to understand.  It’s something that even I, knowing the statistics and risks full well, have struggled with for some time.  It seems that there must be a better way.  I was never counseled to remove my ankle because there was a risk that I could fall and break it.  Yet being a carrier of the BRCA-1 genetic mutation, the risk of breast cancer recurrence or ovarian cancer is so high that it is more likely a question of when cancer would strike in my life than if.

I consider myself incredibly lucky that I was able to have a child post-cancer, and that we were able to nurse with one breast for as long as we did.  My husband and I were considering having another baby, and weighing the risks.  So many friends my age were getting pregnant again, and we longed for another.  Something was different this time, however.  I heard many stories of BRCA positive women going for the same preventative surgeries I was supposed to be going for, and finding cancer.  I was afraid, and felt the need to move forward with the preventative surgeries that had been looming in the back of my mind for so long.  After my first breast imaging, my doctor wanted to do a biopsy of a suspicious area.  I told her it was time.  I didn’t want to jump back into the roller coaster of testing and waiting and worrying every six months.  Things moved along very quickly after that.

In some ways I had more time to process my losses with my first mastectomy.  I had quiet time by the sea, and uninterrupted time to write.  This time I had an active toddler who was used to being with me all of the time.  In the weeks before my surgery, she became sick.  She wanted only her mama, and made sure to remind me that she was the most important priority in my life.  I did not find myself tenderly caressing my breast this time, as I had before my first surgery.  It was my little girl who was asking to “hold the nurser” gently and lovingly as she drifted off to sleep.  She was my sea this time.  Her needs and unconditional love were where I found my center.  It is for my children that I was taking these drastic measures.  This was the best-insured way for me to be around to see them grow up.

A dear friend put together a gathering, in celebration of my upcoming life changes.  It was an incredibly beautiful and uplifting experience that literally filled up my spirit with the strength and courage I needed.  I knew that I needed to connect with my support system.  I began talking about this openly with family, with friends, even with people I didn’t know very well.  Reaching out and being open and persistent with my needs was hard for me to do!  I kept remembering how my mother used to call everyone whenever she would go into the hospital.  I used to think this was strange.  Whenever I had a health issue, it tended to be a quiet, introspective time for me.  I would pull inside, and reach out only later to my closest friends when I was feeling better.  I struggled with the reality that unless I told the people who cared about me what my needs were, there was little chance that they would actually be met.  I came to see how brave my mom was by calling on her loved ones when she needed us most.

In reaching out, we take a tremendous risk.  Our needs may not be met.  Yet in not reaching out there is a greater risk.  Feeling connected to community was very important to me.  My experience of cancer had been lonely and isolating.  I did not want to go through that again.  So I followed my mother’s example and began talking about my upcoming surgeries with people from every aspect of my life.  Another close friend organized a system of meal drop-offs, and even people I didn’t know very well signed up to bring us dinner beginning the day before I was released from the hospital, and for several weeks afterward.  I felt incredibly loved and supported.  This carried me far during a time that I needed it most.

I began to settle into a new phase in my life—of insomnia and hot flashes and speaking my mind a bit more clearly and forcefully than I’ve ever done before!  As I work on harnessing the forceful part, I recognize that it is time to welcome this shift of energy into my life.  To shake off my inhibitions and speak my Truth.  Time to find deeper ways of nurturing and caring for myself, as I have nurtured and cared for my family.

(Click here to read the full version of Post-Surgical Reflections!)

 

History and Looking Forward

When I was going through breast cancer, despite a loving family and supportive friends, I often felt isolated and alone. I’m sure that many women that go through breast cancer can relate to this feeling.

I grew up with a strong connection with the earth, a love of books, and a passion for writing. Spending time immersed in nature and writing about my feelings, thoughts, and experiences helped me cope with the myriad of healthcare choices which had to be made, including the loss of my affected breast.

I found many books that addressed the ins and outs of chemotherapy and radiation, but none that truly captured what it means emotionally to be a woman faced with losing all or part of her breasts. I felt I desperately needed to read about other women faced with the same issues; women who found a way to manage despite the pain and suffering that they were going through to come out of their cancer experience with an incredible strength of spirit.

What helped you find a way to thrive despite the difficulties of breast cancer? Perhaps it was gardening or yoga. Maybe it was the blessing of a treasured friendship. Did you turn to art or music for solace and comfort? Was there a spiritual awakening that began stirring deep in your soul? I sense that you, too, have a story that could help bring healing to other women who are going through the trials of breast cancer. Together, we can do so much more!

Let us work together to create a resource that can help make a difference in the lives of other women on their journey toward health and wholeness.