Beautiful Women Series – Breast Cancer at 30 and She is More Than Surviving
I’ve known my friend Melody since university days in the early 90s. She was several years younger than me, but we seemed to hit it off from the beginning especially as both enjoyed the craft of writing. I still remember the horrible nausea when I read her email that the docs had discovered cancer in both breasts – at the age of 30. I was in England when she went through chemo, had her double mastectomy, and then asked advice of sizes on her new ‘boob job’. She was faithful (and often humorous) in her written accounts of the journey. Melody is one of my heroes, and I hope you enjoy what she is learning.
Tell me a little about what you do and where you live.
I live in the US in the state of Alabama, but I’m really a Texan. These days I’m a freelance editor. I help people with books, dissertations, curricula, all kinds of things. I once helped a non-native English speaker write a legal letter to his wife while they were in divorce proceedings. I’ve also helped with a memoir about Kurdistan and papers on the International Space Station. Sometimes I can’t believe the people I get to work with, and the projects they trust me with.
If you were to list them, what are the most important moments of your life?
a) Resigning from my teaching job. Teaching had been my lifelong dream. What a tiny dream that was. Resigning from that dream freed me to pursue bigger dreams.
b) Surviving cancer, which taught me more about a God who loves me. The experience also led to my freelance career. I never would have chosen to be a freelancer. I sort of fell into it while I was surviving.
One of my favorite quotes for my friends who are facing diseases that leave scars comes from the novel Little Bee:
“I ask you right here please to agree with me that a scar is never ugly. That is what the scar makers want us to think. But you and I, we must make an agreement to defy them. We must see all scars as beauty. Okay? This will be our secret. Because take it from me, a scar does not form on the dying. A scar means, I survived.”
c) The death of my sister. She died only a few weeks before I was diagnosed with cancer.
Describe a humorous event in the midst of your ‘significant event’.
I asked my oncologist for his advice about whether I should have a single or a double mastectomy. He started his response with, “Because you don’t have particularly high-volume breasts….” The rest of his explanation didn’t really matter after that.
After my double mastectomy, I purchased a set of prosthetic breasts and showed them to my friend Emily. Unexpectedly, Emily was more amused with the packaging than with the breasts. Inside each of the two boxes, a rubber breast rested in a plastic mold called a “cradle,” where the instructions said to place the breasts each night. Emily had a better idea for these cradles/molds: Jell-o®. [otherwise known as jelly here in UK]
We laughed at the thought of making Jell-o® boobs, but then we put the cradles back in their boxes and went on with our day. I hid the boxes in a drawer and never remembered to let the breasts rest in their cradles at night.
Months later Emily had a birthday. I pulled the boxes out of their hiding place and presented them to Emily. But this time they held Jell-o® jigglers [shape of jelly boobs]. We celebrated her 26th birthday with strawberry boobs.
Anything on health and/or transformation?
A few years ago I was bald. So when I see all the hair I have on my head now, it reminds me that I’ve been raised from the dead. The physical transformation I’ve undergone since my cancer treatments is the most visible example of new life in me, but there’s much more going on in me that you can’t see. All kinds of ugly things are dying in my heart: the need to measure up, the need to impress people, the need for control, the need for perfection. In the place of my old heart, an astonishingly beautiful heart is being regenerated—a heart that gives grace to others because I know I’d be dead without it.
How do you define beauty?
I crowd-sourced this question. The last time I got my hair cut, I asked my stylist, Kesli, how she defined beauty. Kesli believes everyone who sits in her chair is beautiful, but some people do a better job of presenting themselves. She sees their charisma as beautiful. She reminisced about how her mom used to tell her, “Beauty is as beauty does.”
Kesli asked one of her coworkers at the salon how she defined beauty. The girl stood speechless for a moment and then answered, “Everything.” To her, beauty is everywhere. For this girl, the homeless man on the corner is especially beautiful.
If you were to write an autobiography, what would you call it?
Well, I have written an autobiography, and I titled it More Great. I realize that’s not standard English, but it comes from a conversation I had with a family in Berlin about their experiences with the Berlin Wall. After several stories about trying to help their loved ones escape from East Berlin, the wife explained their surprise when the Wall came down. “We prayed for this, but we don’t believe it,” she said in her broken English. And then she summed up their story, my story, and all of history in one sentence: “God was more great than we believed.”
Anything else you would like to add? Anything that feels a little vulnerable but would be helpful for others?
Most of my life I’ve tried to trick people into liking me. My natural instinct is to show you all the wonderful things I like about myself and disguise my imperfections.
I often aim for esteem instead of love. For in order to love me, you’ll have to forgive me for being less than perfect, and I’m not sure I trust you to do that. So I’ve spent years being a slave to what other people hold in high regard. I’ve worked hard to do and be whatever will earn their esteem because I don’t believe they’ll ever love me.
A few years ago, I was humbled by the idea that I am more flawed than I could ever believe. I’ll never be good enough. I’ll never measure up to other people’s standards—or even my own. My faith has shown me that God loves me even though I’ll never get it together, which frees me from having to measure up. I no longer have to be a slave to other people’s opinions of me. I’m already loved, so I’m free.
Because I am loved even with all my quirks, I no longer have to rise to the top of the right circles. I no longer need a booked social calendar, a distinguished education, an impressive job, extraordinary talents, the right family, an impressive address, a fancy car, a bright future, the most Facebook friends or the right Facebook friends.
I no longer have to wear stylish clothes, use anti-wrinkle cream or teeth whitener, press my top lip down to hide my oversized gums, cover my gray so I’ll look 10 years younger, paint my toenails, eat the right foods and wear contacts. I no longer need laser hair removal, long hair, any hair, a tan, a clear complexion, boobs or ovaries. I no longer have to know pop culture or even what I’m talking about. I’m no longer required to listen to the right music, use the right words, keep perfect records, pray enough, earn anybody’s love or impress anyone into loving me.
And because I don’t have to trick anyone into liking me, I no longer have to be the prettiest girl in the room, gifted with children, a chef, a master homemaker, active and outdoorsy, a social activist, extroverted, smart, wise, kind, compassionate or generous. But because I, in all my failures, have not received shame and condemnation but instead have received immeasurable kindness, compassion and generosity from my Christian spirituality, I am motivated to show others that kindness, compassion and generosity for them—for you.
What do you have a passion for and why?
I have a growing passion for immigrants. I edit for an expert in immigrant religions and for international students who are working on their doctorates. I admire these people and the many ways they change the world as world citizens.
What are the key concerns/events happening in your life now?
I’m getting ready to move to London to work with a global communications team there. I’ve traveled a lot, but this will be my first time to live overseas. I’m grateful for this blog that helps me see what it’s like for an American to live in the UK.
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