This past week, I went back to work full time. It has been nearly 7 weeks since my bilateral prophylactic mastectomy, a surgery to reduce my genetically high risk of cancer from 90% to 1-2%. Some days, I can’t believe it’s been that long; Other days, I struggle to believe it’s happened at all.
Once I hit a certain point in recovery – about 5 weeks post-op – I began to see the horizon of normalcy. Driving, lifting, stretching, cooking, and working began to take shape and my life started to hold the glimmer of a life once passed. Physically, much of the swelling has gone down (though, my doctors both say that it takes a true 4-6 months for recovery) and I’m starting to see these silicone mounds on my chest as actual parts of my new body. Twinges of pain have replaced persistent agony, and I spend more time forgetting than remembering.
When I returned to work, I saw a colleague of mine at a social event. We had not seen each other since I left in November, and it was a friendly greeting. Our eyes met. She quickly looked down at my chest. And, her eyes quickly returned north.
“I saw you!” I chuckled. “You just checked out my boobs, didn’t you?!?”
“No, no, I didn’t. I swear!”
“It’s okay… I was kidding. Who wouldn’t look? I mean, I’ve put my business on full blast, right?” I said trying to ease her obvious pain.
My first week back at work came with an overwhelming daily reception of “Liza, welcome back!” and “It’s so good to see you!” and “You look great!”
They know about my boobs, was all I could think.
When I returned from each of my maternity leaves, it felt very appropriate for people to say, “Liza, welcome back!” or “It’s so good to see you!” and “You look great.” Those statements were usually followed up with “How’s the baby?” or “How are you feeling?” or “Are you exhausted?” I had the same answers as most every new parent: “Good” and “Tired but happy” and “Yes! The baby is up every 2-3 hours!”
Never did I say (nor did anyone ask), “And my uterus has fully contracted” or “My vaginal stitches are healing nicely” or “Wow, my boobs are sore from breastfeeding!” Heh heh heh — Could you imagine??
So, where does the caring end and the awkwardness begin when someone asks about my mastectomy? I’ve found myself pausing, gauging the relationship, when having to answer more in detail.
“I’m still a bit sore, but healing nicely” or “It just feels all numb” or “Yeah, it aches but glad to be alive.”
I feel so vulnerable.
But, then again, isn’t that what this has all been about? The courage to be vulnerable in the face of social norms, acceptability, and façade? The courage to be authentic, live whole-heartedly, and to not hide behind perceptions of who I should be instead of who I want to be.
At a high profile meeting, I happened to be in conversation with a woman who holds a significant amount of power and status. We started talking about physical strength and the conversation led to arm strength. Not wanting to disclose a whole lot, I happened to mention that it was so humbling to once be strong and then lose it all within a few weeks. Vague enough to mask my mastectomy; Specific enough to keep the conversation going.
“Oh, Liza. I know all about you,” she said. “I’ve done my research on who you are and what you’ve been through. You’re name and story is all out there.”
I was completely thrown off guard (which, isn’t usually up, anyways).
I wasn’t quite sure what she meant by that. Was she praising me for engaging in a public journey? Or, was she criticizing my choice of putting my business out there? I’m still unsure.
That’s why this video here was so important for me to see. Find a quiet place to watch it (I had to hide in the car for 10 minutes of peace and quiet!). It’s so worth it. I “Amen’ed!” my way through it. Nodded my head and “That’s right’ed!” my way through it. And, at the end of it, I shut down my phone and said, “Thank you.”
While cancer has taken and affected far too many loved ones in my life, I’m thankful for what it has taught me. Cancer has taught me to be kind, to be thankful, and to live fully. Not live lavishly. But, to to believe that I have just enough. Cancer has taught me simplicity – that life is never as complicated as we think it is. If we simply see life as a journey of gratitude, of understanding and of shared compassion, we can begin to live a life that is whole-heartedly ours. And, by living a life that is whole-heartedly ours, we then lead a life that is whole-heartedly everyone’s.
When we choose to live a life whole-heartedly, we begin to feel heartedly-whole.
Peace and love,