“November the 18th”, I casually commented as I stepped into the shower. “It’s a year since my mastectomy and clearance of lymph nodes”
“Oh is it?”, husband Jim responded, not quite awake. “How do you feel about only having one? Do you notice?”
I stepped into the shower and focused on the joy of being enveloped by the strong flow of liquid warmth. After the last couple of months of water-saving frugal washes in the motorhome, this felt like sheer luxuriant bliss. But that comment; “how does it feel only having one … do you notice?”. What should I say? I pretended not to hear those questions.
“Do I notice? Do I notice? Are you kidding me … do I notice? … of COURSE I notice”, I thought.
My soapy fingers explored my right chest and underarm where a breast and 29 lymph nodes resided 12 months ago. This morning just like yesterday and every other day since the surgery, this area felt rubbery, as if feeling through a neoprene wetsuit. It took me several months after my mastectomy to bring myself to rub my flannel properly over my upper inner right arm, armpit and chest. It felt really weird then and it still does now. A one-breasted woman in the bathroom mirror looks back at me each morning reminding me of the surgical excavation to remove aggressive triple negative breast cancer found in two of 29 lymph nodes 12 months ago. The intention of the surgery was curative. I hope it was.
The morning after my radical right mastectomy and clearance of 29 lymph nodes. 19 November 2021
How do I feel about only having one breast? I’d have to say that my response lies on some kind of continuum. At the time of surgery two of my lymph nodes were packed full of TNBC cells but were fully encapsulated. The survival rate at 5 years is about 62-65% but the recurrence rate is high when triple negative breast cancer (TNBC) has spread to lymph nodes. But it seems that not all triple negative breast cancers are the same. My pathology report identifies a “rare” form of TNBC. I don’t know if this is good or bad prognostically. If I allow medical statistics to determine my future, I have a 65% change of being alive and cancer-free in 5 years courtesy of a radical mastectomy, lymph node clearance, and post-operative chemotherapy & radiotherapy. I am glad to find myself on the better side of that statistic. I feel much safer from recurrence knowing that a total clear-out was done. I don’t want the offending breast and lymph nodes taunting me, potentially harboring the cells necessary for recurrence. When I really think about it, I’m not bothered by that one-breasted woman greeting me every morning in the bathroom mirror. Even though her right chest looks cavernous and scarred, I feel safer like this.
An astute observer would clearly see that my hand-made Dacron bra insert rides up higher than the heavier left breast beneath my clothes. I’m not sure why I haven’t had a prosthesis made yet. The extra weight of a heavy prosthesis would sit better and look more balanced. Maybe I don’t really care enough to make it a priority. I am perfectly acceptable to God and my friends as I am. I don’t feel the need to be sexy, photogenic and perfectly proportioned. I will be taking oral and intravenous medications for the next 7 years to prevent recurrence of the breast cancer. In this situation I am not worried about “having only one” breast. It is having only one that may save my life. I will be happy to be who I am with only one breast and live out my life relaxed, alive and cancer-free.
My first lot of stones for my brother in Raglan
All my life I have told myself that I am useless at art. This was borne out by nearly bottom-of-the-class attempts at painting, drawing, lino-cutting, paper mache, design, scrap-booking, creative mirrors … all those formative “arty” skills we did at school. They were all disappointing, dispiriting experiences.
But something has changed during my cancer journey. Something has triggered an ability and a passion in me for painting stones. Maybe the chemotherapy that plundered my brain awakened previously under-utilised creative connections? Or is it that I am retired now, more relaxed and away from relentless demands of professional performance, affording me more time to ‘be’ without the imperative for constantly ‘doing’? I started painting small stones 7 months ago with little colourful images on the front side of the stones and encouraging messages on the back. Within a couple of months of getting started I had people asking how much I charged for my stones, wanting to order more. Lots and lots more ; almost more than I could keep up with. At that point I thought, “OK, maybe I’m not useless at art. Yes, I can paint things that others like and are good enough to pay for”.
The initial focus was to support my brother’s church ministry in Raglan, a beautiful coastal town in the North Island. Thousands of people live in or visit Raglan during the summer holidays. I wondered if I could make something that would be free to the finders, attractive, and with an encouraging message for people to find. My Internet searches for easy ideas that I thought I could replicate were exciting. I painted about 100 stones with different designs and messages and took them up to my brother in August, also offering a free rock-painting opportunity for anyone in his church who might be interested while I was there. Ten people showed up to my ‘workshop’ that day and we all really enjoyed it. I surprised myself with this. As a professional nurse and lecturer I have always striven to achieve very high standards. Yet here I was in Raglan, an absolute novice at rock painting, believing that I had something fun and helpful to share with others. It was exciting to just trust it would be fine and fun, and not worry about how perfect it needed to be.
Running a free rock-painting workshop in Raglan, August 2022
I took quite a few stones and a small selection of acrylic paints, paint pens and rock-painting equipment with us on our recent 7-week exploration in the motor home. To my amazement, as quickly as I could paint the stones people who saw them wanted to buy them, either for themselves, as gifts, or to ‘plant’ somewhere for someone to find. I am pretty much booked up now until early next year to fulfil requests for more stones. What a thrill and surprise to see this fledgling ability grow and be so well received. I believe this is one of the gifts that God has given and is developing in me through the vulnerable experience of my cancer journey.
I enjoy painting stones in the motorhome
Click on “The Gift” below to read about the gifts Marie has identified…
Thanks to this cancer journey, I now have a very different perspective on my life. I am not concerned about the number of years I have left. I don’t aspire to make it to 70 or 80 or any particular age. My mum died when she was 46. My brother died when he was 33. My father died when he was 65. I have now lived longer than all three. I look back on their lives and reflect on the people they were and the legacies that they left behind. Now I am in a potentially life-limiting position myself, I am motivated to reflect on my own life and legacy. I want my life to be worthwhile and impactful in positive ways.
Jim & I are enjoying our beautiful environment , “being” and “living” while we both have the ability to do so. Cycling to Tawhiti Museum 2022.
I could worry about a 62-65% chance of being alive and cancer-free in 5 years. I could worry about the outcome of Jim’s diagnoses of Alzheimers Disease and Lewy Body Dementia over the next couple of years. I could worry about having a significantly smaller income now that I am retired and how we will manage financially. But why rob ourselves of the joy of being fully present in each day and exploring the gifts and opportunities presented to us during each day?
I recently shared some more of my story with the Bay of Plenty Good News Vanners during our recent motorhome safari with them. I told them about the many people who see my enjoyment of life and positive attitude saying things like, “You are such a strong person”; “I wish I could be as accepting as you are”; “What do you really think … is this how things really are for you?”.
No, I am not physically strong but I am choosing to be a strong joy-filled person every day. One definition of strength is ”the endurance to walk forward even during times of difficulty”. Jim and I are doing just that; consciously embracing these difficult cancer and dementia-related experiences and looking for opportunities to make the best of our lives.
In Isaiah 41:10 God says “fear not for I am with you. Don’t be dismayed for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you. I will uphold you with my righteous right hand”. In Nehemiah 8:10 God says, “Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength”. Consciously cultivating joy is proving to be really effective for us both. We are not afraid of the future because we know that God will help us through whatever is coming. Each day we focus on being thankful, positive and hopeful.
We really enjoy the comradery and shared experiences with other motor-homers. It was so enjoyable to relax and chat with others at Lake Whakamaru Reserve, October 2022.
I have already shared in previous blogs that Psalm 139 says that God already had a plan for my life before I was born. I am motivated to discover what this plan is and to be receptive to what God is saying to me. There are so many self-help books these days that, like the Bible, speak of the many health benefits of being joyful, positive and mindful. It makes total sense for Jim and I to be mindful of the provision and goodness of God and to actively pursue joy every day. Getting out & exploring our beautiful country in our motorhome is life-enhancing. Sharing and worshipping God with others is powerful. Reading and believing God’s words in the Bible is life-giving. Painting little stones with encouraging messages is something that I can do to share joy and purpose with others. Their positive impact on others will be part of my life legacy.