Have you ever been trapped in a well with a crocodile?
Captive in a limited space, confined and confused by the darkness, unable to gain a foothold because you can’t see through the dense thunderhead all around you. Making sense of this foreboding abyss with its slippery walls, isolating silence and icey cold waters is petrifying… and that’s not all. Somewhere in the well lives a crocodile. It’s in there but you have no idea exactly where it might be. It might be far below or about to break the surface. It might be about to seize you in a death-roll or look you straight in the eye. It might bite you once then leave you alone. You know you need to get out and all the while you imagine how powerful that crocodile is, you sense its huge mouth and razor-sharp teeth. You want to break free yet you know the crocodile might just as easily swallow you whole.
When I was diagnosed with an aggressive cancer in 2012 my relationship with my body changed. Instead of seeing it as a safe haven, a place where my sentience could frolic, it became the well. I was trapped inside and in there with me was a crocodile called cancer. I knew there was no way out of the well and I knew a death-roll with a crocodile was a bad idea. Losing part of my body was better than losing my life and so, for me, the journey through surgery and chemotherapy was better than letting cancer swallow me whole.
Whenever I could I tried to turn any negative thoughts into more positive ones. Having surgery meant removing the obvious signs of cancer from my body and that was a good thing. Undergoing chemotherapy (something that frightened me because I’d witnessed my Mother’s experience) meant targeting any remnant – rogue cells that lurked in my body as yet unseen. Although the side effects were unpleasant, the chance to stop cancer biting me again made treatment worth the time, effort and side effects I encountered.
We all have different views on our bodies, on our femininity or masculinity (because men get breast cancer too). We all have different views on what makes us who we are, which pieces of ourselves we love or loathe, the things that make us ‘normal’ or ‘a freak.’ In Western society it seems so much of who we are becomes entangled with how we look that any affront to our physical wholeness becomes an assault on the very essence of our being.
When faced with cancer the prospect of surgery means facing the prospect of never again being physically whole. Keeping a sense of perspective when nothing much makes sense is important. I realised quite quickly that my life would not depend on physical wholeness, but it would depend on eradicating the cancer that had taken root in my breast. Viewed in this way the prospect of mastectomy also became an opportunity to prolong my life.
As it turned out, mastectomy was the correct choice. Aside from the cancer I’d discovered for myself there were areas of high grade DCIS and atypical hyperplasia, both of which had the potential to become new cancers in time. Having exchanged one cancer containing breast for a silicon fake it seemed counter-intuitive to retain the “good” breast in the hope that the cancer crocodile would only bite me once.
Two year’s after my initial cancer encounter I was able to complete risk-reducing surgery – mastectomy and replacement of the remaining breast with another silicon fake. I can honestly say I’m glad I did. As research progresses we learn more and more and it seems DNA changes are already present in the healthy breast tissue of women with cancer. My family history made having breasts a game of Russian roulette. If anything, I wish I’d fought the system more rigorously to undergo risk-reducing surgery before finding myself facing cancer head on.
Its been a long journey. This summer will be four years since my original diagnosis and my trips to the operating theatre are still not quite complete. In a few weeks I’ll be in for some revision work, things that need to be taken care of following the original surgery of 2012. In the grand scheme of things it’s very trivial, a small price to pay for the four years of life I’ve enjoyed so far. I’ve learnt that my body is not invincible, that hidden dangers may lurk beneath the surface and things go wrong even if we do our best to adopt a fit and healthy lifestyle. I’ve also learnt that I don’t really care about my fake breasts, my Herceptin damaged joints, or my lack of physical strength, I can exist quite happily with all those little niggles. The things I care for most – my family and friends – can only be taken care of if I’m here so preserving my life was always going to be more important than preserving physically beauty, ‘normal’ femininity or bodily wholeness.