Fourteen years ago — January 9, 2005, to be precise — I lost two close friends. I’d known them all my life; we’d hung out and even worked together. It was a true loss, and life was not the same without them.
That’s the date when I had my double mastectomy.
Now, this was my second bout with breast cancer. The first had been when I was thirty-nine and my daughters were little. Like many women, I found that first lump myself. It had spread to my lymph nodes, so I had the full regime — lumpectomy, chemo, and radiation.
Denial was my main coping strategy. I wasn’t going to die; that just wasn’t an option. I simply had to get through this, and my life would continue as before. But of course it didn’t.
I learned a lot through those tough months and it was my girlfriends who got me through it. Taking me home after chemo, cooking meals, looking after my daughters, sending me cards and letters saying how much they loved me. I felt enveloped and cocooned in a sea of their love.
But some friends just totally could not handle it. They didn’t know what to say, were scared for me, and for themselves, and just disappeared. I decided that this was their problem, not mine, and I tried not to take it personally.
On the other hand, mere acquaintances just appeared with random acts of kindness. One neighbour would bring dinners for the family on days when I had chemo. My daughters so loved her cooking that they asked if she did breakfasts.
I chose to stay working. It gave our lives some normalcy. I didn’t want to be sitting at home having a pity party, and probably, on reflection, I also didn’t want to spend too much time really thinking about what was happening or, more to the point, what could happen.
But it wasn’t all bad either—it sure changes your attitude and makes you focus on what’s important. I tried not to sweat the small stuff. I also found out how much people loved me.
After fifteen years, I got lulled into believing I was safe. But I had forgotten that once you are a member of the exclusive C Club, your membership never really expires. And sure enough, in 2005, I had to pay my dues again. This time I had decided that I wanted both breasts removed.
Our breasts are very much part of our womanhood. At first I didn’t like seeing myself in the mirror; although, with both gone, I felt less disfigured. But my body is not who I am; it is not my essence.
As someone who works with women, I felt I had a responsibility to speak out and share my news with Company of Women members. I wanted to encourage them to go for the mammograms, do the self-check, and show that having cancer is no longer a death sentence.
Injecting some humour into the situation, I talked about being “upfront,” making a “clean breast” of what was happening to me, and the fact that as a weight-loss strategy it stunk, because they only weighed two pounds at the most.
There was a hush in the room at first, as the women grappled with the news. Some cried; others looked horrified, likely reflecting on how they would feel if they lost their breasts. But there was laughter, too. As I was quick to point out, I was not planning to “check out” as I had too much to do.
I was later flooded with cards and letters of love from people. It was like hearing the eulogies at your funeral without having to die first.
So much of life we take for granted, but when it all could disappear just like that, you learn to enjoy the moment, speak your truth, and be who you are meant to be.
Plus, the really good news — no more mammograms!
Company of Women
I have had an eclectic career from running non-profit organizations and being editor of a national magazine, to working for government on women’s issues. In 2003 I launched Company of Women, an organization that supports women in business. A prolific blogger, I also write for the Huffington Post, and several other online publications. I am the author of five books on women and entrepreneurship, and co-author of Good Enough. Embrace who you are. Unleash your brilliance. which is available on amazon.ca In June, 2016 I launched Full Circle Publishing offering one-stop services to get your words out into the world.