How Breast Cancer Changed Me

Cancer forced her to reconsider everything: her values, sexuality, and the meaning of life itself.  

by Valerie Williams-Sanchez • More.com Member { View Profile }

My return to the shop had been a while in the doing. The neuropathy I had experienced during chemo made me think twice before allowing any clipper or pumice-wielding beauty operator anywhere near my still numb extremities. The lack of feeling would make me susceptible to cuts, scratches or other injuries, typically warded off by the sense of touch.

“Uh, please don’t cut my cuticle,” I said firmly on this day. “Just push them back. And don’t cut, just file my nails, please, on that hand,” I said nodding toward my left hand. The woman doing my nails nodded in tacit compliance, dropping the metal clippers and taking up an emery board instead.

Now, following the lymph node dissection I had endured prior to chemotherapy, the threat of lymphedema – a clinical term for swelling of the limbs cause by blockage in the lymphatic system -- made cutting my cuticles a risk I’d been advised never again, in my life, to take. Yeah, things were different, inside my body and out.

Sitting in the salon chair, wearing my wig with feet dangling in the warm whirlpool, I relaxed further into awareness of the conspicuousness of my still imperfect form. My breast reconstruction was still incomplete. Instead, I bore a soft tissue expander at my left, which now fully expanded with saline, created weird, almost cubist asymmetry to my physique. On one side I had a rounded, ballooned and raised breast mound paired alongside my natural, softened and curved breast. My frame appeared adolescent on the left, middle-aged on the right.

In like fashion, the expansion process had left me with feelings something akin to the pubescent awkwardness and embarrassment of my changing form that I had felt in my youth. Following each session, I left with an ever more slightly filled-out left-breast mound and heightened self-consciousness over my changing appearance.

Day after day, I watched my body change and evolve. Each day, there was a bit less swelling, a sprig or two more hair and a bit less numbness at my fingertips and arches. As my body transformed, it was as if I was growing up again, reliving my transformation from a pudgy, awkward teenager into a woman.

But, I was healing, moving through a process that had given me cause to question everything: how I define myself, my values, my sexuality, my raison d'être, and even the meaning of life itself. 

A collegiate-level athlete in my youth, and still very physically active, I wondered if the illness would change all of that? Would my body be forever destroyed by chemo, leaving me sickly and weak?  Would I still feel womanly after the ordeal? Or, would anyone want me when all of this was through?

Conversely, I thought, why should a few changes to my appearance make me feel so different about myself? Was I being shallow and superficial? Would any of this treatment even be worth it? I mean, what was the point? Was fighting what seemed to be the inevitable, futile?

Life replied to my questions. One answer was the joy of talking with my daughter about her life. She recently had landed her first job at a pizzeria and got her first paycheck. Another answer was feeling the kisses and loving embrace of my ever-supportive boyfriend. Still another answer came in the form of engaging powerful and empowering conversations with other women who were going through or had also gone through the same experiences. Hearing from and seeing the supportive nods of friends, co-workers and even total strangers who spontaneously shared their experiences, giving encouragement, love and knowledge freely seemed still another answer. Even, receiving feedback for my candid and open writing, all of these things were the answers I needed, affirmations of the richness of my life and motivations to fight for it, through treatment.

In hindsight, many aspects of my pre-diagnosis life had turned to drudgery, activities and tasks had blurred into tedium with which I had become disenchanted. Breast cancer was my wake-up call to take nothing — not a breath, a smile, a passing chat with a stranger, even the presence of an eyelash — for granted. Because now, everything was precious, even a hangnail had assumed new urgency and importance.

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