I’ve always wanted a tattoo. It’s been on my bucket list for years. And I knew there needed to be a good story behind it. That’s the most powerful kind of tattoo; a talisman of love lost, love found, of struggle or redemption. I just hadn’t found my story until I heard the words, “You have breast cancer” four months ago.
Little did I know then that I would need to have three small, blue dots tattooed in such a way as to allow my lovely radiation technicians to “line me up” every day with care and assured accuracy. They actually look like freckles and actually, if you are close enough to see them, we must be on really, really good terms!
I sit here today trying to piece together the story behind those tattoos. I know I’m lucky, coming through a whirlwind of treatment. I know I was surrounded by loving, caring teams of health care professionals. I know now this is a story of humility, learning, healing and fierceness.
The humility of asking for help: Cancer is humbling. It put my life in a weird sort of calm crisis. The big things I used to worry about looked small. And the small things of daily care became big. I quickly learned to get over myself when I had to ask my best friend to come over every day during the holidays to help me repack my infected surgical wounds. I was vulnerable, embarrassed, grossed-out, and ultimately grateful beyond words, for the love and care during those “nursing” sessions. And now we can laugh about it, bonded for life over boob bandages.
Learning the facts and learning to be brave: My team at Kaiser was awesome. I felt cared for, fully informed, and “held” in a way that I’m not sure I can describe in words. I also felt compelled to educate myself as much as possible so I could make choices that were right for me. The resources available were slightly overwhelming but oh, so helpful.
Once I had data, I got brave; brave enough to tell people that I had cancer and brave enough to stay to manage their reaction. It became important to tell people, especially women, as a warning and an education, because the statistics are 1 in 8 women will get breast cancer. 1 in 8. Look around at your friends and family, do the calculations, and don’t be shy about asking, “Have you gotten a mammogram? Have you followed up?” Get educated on a preventative, healthy lifestyle. The research is on our side, especially if it’s caught early.
Be patient while healing from the inside out: My friends laugh at this one because this has been the hardest lesson for me. I’m used to getting up and going; deciding on a plan and gettin’ her done. My surgeon kept telling me I needed to take time to heal from the inside out. That became a mantra for my emotional journey as well, because I got this diagnosis shortly after my dad passed away. I’ve come to believe that getting cancer was the Universe’s odd gift; the gift of time, forcing me to slow down, allowing grief to come and go as she pleased (because I couldn’t control it anyway), and feeling gratitude every day. Which leads me to the final chapter of this story.
Getting fierce and living with purpose: The hardest thing about getting cancer was telling my children. Their fierce belief in telling me “We got this, mom” kept me going in those moments when I got scared. Now I’m through the treatments and ready to figure out what the “new normal” is going to be. I don’t know what that will look like. What I do know is that it’s time to get fierce about the rest of my life. It’s time to get passionate every waking minute. It’s time to go out and make a difference. I’m a survivor and intend to stay that way, celebrating each day with gratitude and love.
So, the question remains. Will I still get a tattoo? This time one of my own choosing? Stay tuned!