When the Body Betrays: Reflections on Breast Cancer Awareness Month
Walking back from the mailbox last week, I stopped cold in my tracks as I eyed the last envelope in the stack of magazines, junk mail, and bills. I knew what it was before I even opened it; a letter informing me it was time for a mammogram. Instantly my mind raced back exactly five years earlier. October 9th was a Tuesday. A week after what I assumed would be a simple screening mammogram led to a more detailed mammogram that led to a biopsy, the phone rang in my office as I was rushing out to chapel…and I stopped to answer.
I still remember the first words the radiologist on the line said. “Mrs. Stovall, it’s for women like you that I do what I do.”
I am one of the lucky ones. They found the cancer in its very early stages.
The next six months involved a partial mastectomy, followed by a second surgery to get clean margins (a.k.a. they didn’t get it all the first time), 6 weeks of radiation, trying to tolerate cancer prevention drugs, then, since my cancer feeds on estrogen, capping it off with a full hysterectomy.
In the midst of all the medical procedures and appointments, one question kept nagging in the back of my mind:
What happens when the body betrays?
That is, what if everything that culture and society claims defines me as a woman is either mutilated, diseased, or removed…what then for a woman?
I have friends whose cancer was found at later stages, have undergone complete mastectomies, have bald heads, losing more of the outer appearance that screams woman than even I. And the question still hangs in the air:
What does it mean to a woman when her body betrays?
Betrayal seems like a strong word, but that is what it felt like. In the midst of my breast cancer journey along with reproductive issues (see my post on infertility), I felt like my body’s betrayal was chipping away at who I was, making me question whether I was less of a woman than ever before.
The problem with this, is that I began to let feelings and emotions replace with lies what I knew to be truth. With focused intention, I had to take those thoughts, feelings, and lies captive, countering them with the truth once again.
I felt like I was losing all that made me feminine.
Society communicates and almost worships the physical aspects that defines one as feminine. The truth is, femininity is not just about body parts. God created me female and being created as a woman is an essential aspect of my identity. My femininity, my womanliness, is not just what I am but also who I am. It is all the characteristics, nuances, crazy emotions, soft touches, and nurturing heart that make me feminine. Neither surgeon’s knife, nor disease, can change what God knitted together from the beginning.
For it was You who created my inward parts;
You knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I felt like I had lost my edge.
A side effect and lingering consequence of the battle my body fought is less stamina, energy that wanes quicker, and a brain that does not think quite as fast on its feet as it once did. For one who always tried to go extra miles and do all with excellence (think overachiever), I felt like I was losing my edge, which made me question my competency. I felt weak. The truth is, I am weak, and whether I live a life of perfect health or not, there will come a time my body will fail me. But God does His best work when I am at His mercy.
My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart,
my portion forever.
When I hung up the phone that October morning and walked on to chapel, my conversation with God ended something like this: “I don’t know what journey we are about to take, but Lord, help me to walk worthy.”
It isn’t always easy. Every day I am reminded of the toll my body has paid. There are days those questions, doubts, fear, and pity begin to creep back in. And then there are days like last week, standing outside, holding the letter.
I try not to live in the “what ifs” or worrying whether the next mammogram will show that this monster has reared its head again. I do know that I am still a frail, weak, woman who will face an anxious day with each trip to the radiologist. But, I am determined, with focused intention, to hold on to the truths that GOD created ME, HE is MY strength, I am HIS GIRL, and MY FATHER has ME tightly wrapped in HIS arms.