Doris's Story                                                                                                                           full version

"With each coming year, fears about recurrence have lessened... The experience                         of cancer never goes away, but it no longer consumes me.                                                                    Each day and each moment is a gift."  

While I was going through chemo treatments, my husband threw me a ‘hat party.’  He had been talking with the receptionist at my oncologist’s office about how difficult it is to go through so many changes at once, and how he wanted to do something especially supportive.  She told him about an article she had read, describing how a ‘hat party’ could do a lot to cheer up a cancer patient.  He and my sister planned the gathering together.  It was a total surprise to me!  I had gone out, and when I came home expecting to find a quiet house, it was filled with my family, friends, and neighbors.  Everyone brought me a hat!  They were so creative—from bandanas to berets, baseball caps to vintage hats.  Each person came with a card, and they had written inside what I meant to them.  It gave me tremendous strength to see all those people there, believing in me.  They all pulled together to help our family during my treatments.  It was a truly beautiful thing!  Reading these cards and wearing my hats filled me with courage.  Whenever I felt weak and afraid throughout my healing journey I would remember everyone who was standing beside me, and I would find the encouragement I needed to manage through another moment or another day.

We have three children, and knew our neighbors through the kids’ friends.  Everyone sent meals to our family.  The woman across the street, who had taught me to sew a year earlier, finished the curtains I was making at the time of my diagnosis.  I can’t say how much it meant to me, the way everyone pulled together to help us during our time of need.

When I was going through chemotherapy treatments, my mother, sister, and sister-in-law came over every day in shifts to help me with the kids and with whatever else I needed.  The hardest part of going through breast cancer for me was being unable to do all the things I usually did with the kids, and around the house.  There was such a deep ache in my heart every time my two-year-old asked me to hold her.  I used do everything with her in my arms.  Because I was unable to pick her up, so someone else had to.  I recognize that this was also one of the gifts that cancer indirectly brought into my life.  There were many others who had open arms for my daughter, cooked us dinner, and stayed with us until my husband came home from work.  I couldn’t have asked for a better or more supportive family!  Being unable to do the things I usually did also motivated me to do whatever I could to get better.  I wanted to be the one to hold my little girl, to fold the laundry, and to play with the boys.

Whenever life presents a challenge it feels all-consuming.  Over time it becomes a part of who you are.  I am in such a vastly different place now, 14 years later, than I was when I was going through all of this.  When women are diagnosed with breast cancer, there is so much pressure in the moment to be strong, to bounce back quickly and to look and act the way we did before our diagnosis.  Yet we are not the same people.  We have changed.  We must find our own way to process and heal from within. The inner, emotional scars take considerably more time to heal than the external ones.  It was a major thing to lose my breast.  While I recovered and was able to do the things I had done before, I had been changed.  The loss was less obvious over time, less paramount, yet still there.

The first five years were the most challenging for me.  The year I was diagnosed was just about surviving.  After my treatments were completed, I had more time to think about the loss of my breast and what it meant to me.  My self-image was strongly affected.  I was uncomfortable taking off my shirt, or even baring my shoulders.  I was afraid someone would see my scar.  So I dressed very modestly with high necklines and sleeves.  I started noticing everyone’s breasts.  I felt the loss of my breast constantly.  Painfully.  I so longed to feel its presence.  I desperately wanted to feel whole and symmetrical again.

My view on this has changed considerably over the years.  With each coming year, fears about recurrence have lessened.  There are still things that worry me today, but with time I have grown more confident in my survivorship.  After about eight years, I felt a deeper sense of letting go.  My greatest wish had been for all of my children to be old enough to have solid memories of our time together.  I began to feel that if I didn’t make it, at least they would have those memories.  This shift in thinking was liberating to me.  It freed me. I began to let go of my anxiety about cancer returning and fears related to keeping my scars hidden.

It was around this time that I had heard about a body-painting project.  I saw some images of another breast cancer survivor who was painted with colorful flowers.  The beauty of the image struck me, and I wanted to be a part of this project.  The idea of being covered in paint made me feel that I could transform into a piece of art.  To have my scarred body become something beautiful gave me a tremendous sense of hope.  However, my own depiction became more about revealing exactly what I had been hiding.  It was close to Halloween and I had been working at a haunted house, where I dressed up as a sort of “demented doll,” a job I immensely enjoyed.  Michael, the photographer decided to incorporate this idea into my portrait.  He suggested that I be painted like a pincushion.  I had gone into the project assuming that my scars would be covered up, and transformed into something else.  Instead, I was painted black, with small scars all over the place, and words were written on my body with what looked like little pins attaching them.  These words described some of the obstacles I had faced during my cancer treatments, such as suffering, loss, despair, and fear.

When the painter got up to the mastectomy scar, Michael asked me if I thought they should paint a breast over the scar, continue the pincushion design there, or do something else.  The photographer and I both said it felt right to have a scar painted right on top of my scar.  No flowers!  I was surprised at how right it seemed to emphasize, rather than conceal my scar.  When I looked in the mirror afterward, I knew this was exactly why I was there.  It was a very emotional experience.  Although it was extremely difficult to open up and make myself vulnerable, the most empowering part of the project for me was letting my scars be viewed.  After the project, I was no longer the same person I had been before.

This was an incredible part of my journey.  I don’t feel that there’s ever a time in life when people can say they are completely healed.  It’s an evolving process.  I feel so much more positive about who I am today, and being a part of the body painting project helped me with that immensely.  I began to feel more comfortable wearing tank tops, and other clothes that showed my shoulders.  I decided that if someone did see my scars, the world would not come to a complete standstill.

I struggled with bulimia in college, and have had trouble accepting my self-image for as long as I can remember.  After this project, I had more peace with my body than ever before.

I was nervous about having my portrait seen, especially by those who know me.  When I realized that everyone I knew could be touched by breast cancer in some way—if not themselves, perhaps a loved one of theirs had been diagnosed—it became less personal to me, and I began to see it as a way to potentially help someone.  This aspect of helping others with similar difficulties has been tremendously rewarding for me.

Michael exhibits the project images, and tells me that my portrait has a powerful impact on women, especially those who do not have reconstructive surgery.  He once saw a woman standing in front of my picture crying, with her hands on her own mastectomy scars.  I told him that woman is the reason I did this project.

There was no family history of breast cancer.  I found several small lumps in my breast one day while I was showering.  I was 38.  My mother and sister had previously found cysts, and I couldn’t imagine that what I found could be anything serious.  My gynecologist said that if they were cysts then they would change throughout my menstrual cycle.  We were doing some work on our house, and with three small children, I kept forgetting to check how the lumps felt at different parts of my cycle.  Several months passed, and then I had a mammogram, which revealed nothing.  I was told after an ultrasound that the masses were likely to be benign.  I could see a breast surgeon or wait six months to see if there were any changes.  I was ready to go along with the wait-and-see approach, but this didn’t sit well with my husband and my mother, who pressed me to make an appointment with the breast surgeon, who promptly scheduled a surgical biopsy.

I knew from the look on my doctor’s face, before he even said anything to me after the biopsy that I had breast cancer.  A mastectomy was scheduled for the following day. The tumors were near my chest wall.  My doctor suggested I meet with a plastic surgeon right away to talk about reconstructive options, but it was too much for me to deal with at that time.  I hadn’t wanted to lose breast tissue through the surgical biopsy, but after hearing that it was cancer, everything changed.

I remember gazing at my breast in the mirror and feeling grateful that I had been able to nurse my kids.  I gave thanks for my breast, and was able to let it go.  It all happened so fast.  It wasn’t until all my treatment for cancer had ended that the loss of my breast hit me fully.

I never made a conscious decision to stay flat.  My doctor suggested an expander before radiation, but I didn’t want to have any more medical procedures.  I just wanted to get through the cancer treatments and then make a decision.  I’ve thought about it considerably over the years, but have not had further operations.  I’m glad I didn’t have procedures that I was unsure about, that I trusted my intuition about this.  I know many women who have had complications related to reconstructive surgery.

I was never into wigs when I lost my hair.  I wore only my beautiful hats.  Fourteen years later, I still have every one.  Each is a memory that I will treasure, telling the story of love, friendship, community, and survival.