I first found the lump 16 years ago. I was living in New York; I had
a mammogram, and was told: Nothing to worry about, probably cystic.
Six years later, after the deaths of my closest college friend, my
mother, my favorite uncle, and my husband of 11 years, and after moving
to the desert with my seven-year-old son, the presence in my left
breast began to grow perceptibly. For three months I drank violet
infusion and used violet leaf poultices externally on the lump. And,
when the lentil-sized lump in the inner right quadrant of my left
breast did not stabilize or get smaller, echinacea tincture internally.
Knowing very little about breast cancer (although I remembered that
my father’s mother, Bessie, after whom I am named, died of it),
I had the lump biopsied, and did some preliminary research in local
libraries and bookstores. By then I knew that it was cancer, it was
growing, and I needed to do something more aggressive than violet,
and soon. I do believe that violet, my slimy friend, helped to keep
my cancer in check, giving me time I very much needed. Time to do
research, time to deal with the tricky elements of single-parenting
my son, and time to prepare for the removal of my front porch.
In August of 1989 I gave both breasts to the first surgeon I encountered.
Both, because statistically, the type of cancer I had, infiltrating
lobular, had a 74 percent chance of appearing in my other breast within
14 months. Releasing my consciousness to anesthesia was the most stressful
part of the surgery. I recovered quickly and went home as soon as
allowed, to begin processing what it was to be a woman in her forties
with no breasts. I learned much about being merciful to myself during
this time; Stephen and Ondrea Levine’s meditation tapes were
helpful and reassuring. Family and friends gave me a center, a cup
of tea, a tender hug, laughs, feedback, tears, comfort.
The pathology report after the bilateral mastectomy indicated that
the lymph nodes were clear—no sign of metastasis—and that
my cancer was estrogen-positive. Tamoxifen, among the most benign
of the hormone therapies, was prescribed, 10 mg twice a day. It blocks
estrogen by mimicking it at the receptor sites. I read about the drug,
prayed at the pharmaceutical altar that I would survive its (for me,
minimal) side effects, and took it. And still do, after a hiatus described
Breastless and well healed, I sought comfort in the bosom of cleavage.
The first reconstructive surgeon I visited sat back in an elegant
office, gracefully gesticulating with his hand about the perfection
of “his” nipples. My heart started beating wildly, my
mouth went dry. I left abruptly and never returned. This had occurred
with the first oncologist I saw, too: I wouldn’t let him examine
me after we’d talked for about 15 minutes, and I left shaking
and perspiring profusely. I thought I was playing some kind of wretched
game with myself about not wanting to resolve this medical crisis
I was facing, but I know now that it was gut-level politics, and that
the choices I made were based on my body’s reactions.
The second surgeon looked directly into my eyes when he addressed
me. He wanted to know how I felt, what I thought, what my ideas were
about the procedure, my expectations, my fears. He welcomed three
intense half-hour sessions with friends and family; he was as patiently
abiding and informative with them as he was with me.
After lengthy consideration of the options, I chose insertion of silicone
bags directly into my chestwall muscles, which were developed and
stretched from years of yoga. The doc said I would be sore—a
rare understatement from a Texan. I was multicolored, from my clavicles
to my waist, for weeks, and I cried that first night after the anesthesia
wore off for every abused human on the face of the planet. But, the
surgery accomplished in one operation what usually takes at least
two, and I didn’t get nauseous thanks to lengthy discussions
before the operation with the compassionate anesthesiologist (not
Five months later the same surgeon flensed my groin, stripping off
patches of skin to make nipples with. The flesh there is just enough
darker than chest flesh to create a contrast. He took two small slices,
put a hole in one of them, and pulled the other one, bunched up, partially
through the hole. Sounds gruesome, but it actually was the easiest
and most painless of all the surgeries, and my skin healed very fast.
The acquisition of nipples for me was solely aesthetic. When you lose
your nipples, you lose much of the early warning system for cold;
the reconstructed ones have no such sensitive temperature receptors.
By this time—about five months after reconstruction—I
was again doing yoga, working to encourage the rearranged muscles
to do the right thing.
In the summer of ’91 I stopped taking tamoxifen; it had been
two years since the mastectomy and I was not aware that recurrence
often occurs when it is stopped. My oncologist was reluctant, but
I was persistent in wanting to be off medication.
In the spring of ’92 I was standing on my head when I realized
my breasts hurt: They were tender, sensitive. That’s funny,
I thought, what I have is silicone, not breast tissue.
Wrong. The subsequent nightmare—discovery of a recurrent lump
in the original site, other lumps, needle biopsy, remastectomy on
the left side and removal of the implant (ciao cleavage) (and all
this weeks before a planned three-week trip to Scotland)—is
mercifully obscured by the mists of time. More than three ounces of
breast tissue was removed from the left breast by another surgeon,
a breast specialist this time around. (The good news is that the first
surgeon has retired. The lesson is: Seek specialists.)
Two lymph nodes out of the ten extracted during this fourth surgery
Back on tamoxifen and six months of chemotherapy.
Menopause was finally wrought upon me during this ordeal by the combination
of drugs and time. It was a bitch, and I never knew what was the specific
cause of the multiple distresses I experienced. It was all I could
do to get through the day and know I was one day closer to being done
with the process. I vacillated between exhaustion and tenacity, a
fierceness overcoming me at times that carried me through the physically
debilitating effects of the chemo and untold, unnameable menopausal
states of being.
Herbal allies were so important to me at this time of chemical assault
from without and within. Trying to prepare a meal for my son with
wave after wave of inability to confront food, the deep retching response
arising, arising: Stick a thumbnail into fresh ginger, or into a lime,
and repeat Mama’s mantra: “Dear God Give Me Strength.”
I used motherwort tincture when wombness was more than I could bear,
and felt the easing of the pulling as blood spiraled inward and stopped
trying to leave on a regular schedule. Nettle and more nettle infusion,
the silken comfort of green nourishment, so simple, so useful, so
strengthening to my nails and hair. Oatstraw infusion helped me get
the goddamn situation of being treated
with life-threatening chemicals into manageable perspective, helped
me into more relaxed states. And the reassuring smell of slippery
elm powder with maple syrup, little balls popped onto a coated tongue
to just sit there, allaying nausea.
I think the most helpful of all the herbal substances that I used
during those six months of chemo-assault was milk thistle seed tincture,
which unfailingly dissipated the dull ache which frequently arose
under my right ribs. Liver? Gall bladder? Don’t know. I took
it as many times a day as the spot ached, and it always brought relief.
And the most helpful food for me during chemotherapy? Mama’s
Marrow Soup, a bone-deep brew. (The recipe is on page 312.)
An interesting aside: I often experienced nasty flashes of nausea,
months after the cessation of treatment, when passing the office where
my chemo had been administered. How many of our reactions in life
are the result of expectation, fear, programming?
The first time through the breast labyrinth the insurance from my
husband’s union paid for 80 percent of everything, right through
the reconstruction. I was given five years after my husband’s
death to continue with the union’s insurance plan; I was aware
that after the five years (which expired in ’91) I would have
to find other insurance.
Hah. There is no insurance that will cover cancer survivors until
you’ve made it seven, or even ten years past the end of the
last treatment. But my oncologist has been clever and generous in
advising me which drug companies offer reductions or deferrals or
elimination of fees for the drugs; and some of the laboratories have
offered blood analyses at greatly reduced cost or gratis. I’m
lucky to live near enough to the Mexican border to get tamoxifen at
less than half the cost of any pharmacy on this side of the border.
Nevertheless, in the year in which I had the remastectomy and chemo,
my medical bills totaled over $14,000, of which I paid 100 percent.
“Always do something,” said Janice Guthrie from the Health
Resource, and—whether it’s vitamins or Essiac or yoga
or prayer or chanting or a thousand other “ors”—I
need to do something that inspires, awakens, fortifies, energizes.
After four surgeries, chemotherapy, and menopause, I emerged pale
and enervated, seeking nothing, yearning for naught but the down comforter.
I was left, two months after the last chemo treatment, directionless.
I was waiting, waiting, scripting deathbed scenes, unable to find
even the enthusiasm to share tea and crumpets with my best friend,
speculating whether my family would need to advise the crematorium
of my silicone implant so I wouldn’t cause an explosion in the
oven when they reduce me to ashes . . . death by unchanneled, uncontrolled
I followed friend Sherry’s suggestion that I get some help and
a good haircut. Counseling, and working out at a club owned by a woman
who also had breast cancer and was giving out passes for a week of
free classes, set me back on the lifetrack. Counseling afforded me
a repository for the parts of my cancer experience which I was unwilling
to deposit with family or friends. I began to recover my physical
being by doing low-impact aerobics, and then moved on to yoga classes,
persistence at which has rejuvenated me with greater strength, stamina
and flexibility than ever before in my life.
I became aware of the healing power of others’ love for me after
the bilateral mastectomy, lying in my hospital bed. I was alone and
feeling sorry for myself, wondering how I would ever get through the
abyss of dis-ease-ness and emerge from it alive, let alone well. And
my son! What had I put him through? Grief seemed endless in our lives.
Rather suddenly, a current coursed through my body in wave after wave,
a hum, reassuring, the physical sensation lasting for several minutes
during which I was absolutely still and at peace. I felt carried by
this current, borne along on the good wishes of loved ones. It left
me refreshed and optimistic and rested, even in that fearsome place.
That feeling of buoyancy in an ocean of love is easier and easier
for me to tune into now as I distance myself from disease. Sometimes
it’s just there, a thread connecting me to a known Good, a quantifiable
inoculation of hope.
The family and friends who supported, guided, helped, and nurtured
me through these experiences were the most influential factor in my
rapid healing, I feel sure. The doctors said that the incisions sealed
up “remarkably” quickly, and indeed my recuperation was
rapid. Maybe I was a healthy specimen to begin with, or maybe I just
couldn’t wait to get out of the hospital (albeit a kind and
not unpleasant one) and back to my own home and hearth.
I figure life’s about an even mix of pain and joy and all the
other dualities we’ve created with Mind. There are, indeed,
times when not only does nothing hurt, everything actually feels whole
and filled with light. I do what feels good as often as possible.
I utilize a lot of herbs to feel my best. Milk thistle tincture, burdock
tincture, usnea tincture; St. Joan’s and wintergreen and arnica
the steamroom. I take the clues as they appear. Yoga has taught me
how to feel better; from that vantage point I am able to discern and
pursue what feels good, as I leave behind the statistics, the poisons,
the fears, the doubts.
All along I’d been aware of and reading about the kind of cancer
I am living with (infiltrating lobular) and its characteristics. For
as long I could, I worked the statistics in my favor, hoping for the
high end of the good news. When I gave up statistic-scanning, as I
did when they were no longer so favorable, the focus turned inward.
Perhaps it was the fear, the inability to face the dread within: Was
it growing, were the chemicals killing those bad guys they found in
the nodes, were they running amok in my lymph system? Perhaps it was
just, at last, time in my life to get serious about actually doing
meditation practice. Not reading about it, not talking about it, not
thinking, or cogitating on meditating. Sit: Turn off the phone, evoke
the power and guidance of a mantra, and don’t fall asleep. Do
it and discover quickly how to get beyond the business menu of the
It is meditation that affords me the most equilibrium. I yearn to
be doing it again, more. And I do. I find that I am so constructing
my life that I may partake of this meditative window at regular intervals.
It has become a glue of my well being, and I am grateful for it. Whether
I cure or heal, I know that this process of cancer is part of my life.
Whether it will be part of my death I can wait to find out. I have
much to live for, and my life is rich with blessings. I continue,
cytologically challenged, humming with the vibrations of life around
and within me. Maybe some of that hum is cancer. Maybe it will eat
Maybe I will eat it.
It’s all idle spec anyway, and trying to figure it out can get
you tied in knots. Better just to sit, to be, to do, doo bee doo bee
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