I had already planned on getting my first tattoo before my boyfriend noticed the lump while playfully grabbing a handful of morning boob. “What’s this?” he asked. I froze for an instant. Surely, it couldn’t be cancerous. I didn’t want to think about it, but nothing could stop me from dwelling on the lump’s presence. It leered at me from just beneath my skin while I would countlessly touch and gawk at it in the bathroom mirror. I would turn forty in two weeks.
Two years earlier, my then-husband walked out the front door and never came back. I’d worried myself sick, filing a missing person’s report only to soon discover he’d disappeared to a foreign land with two credit cards and the funds from his 401k in tow. In so many ways, I’d spent years turning a blind eye to his addictions. I’m just one of the millions of spouses who looked the other way for the sake of stability.
Yet his abandonment made it possible to begin gaining clarity on my childhood wounds. Growing up in the shadow of an extraordinarily bipolar and often-hospitalized mother made it almost inevitable that I’d end up with someone like him—someone not entirely present and not quite comfortable in their own skin.
My mother, a woman who didn’t think clearly, was my idea of “normal.” The most significant people in my life never knew how to meet their own wants and needs in healthy ways. As a young girl, I remember trying to reason with my mother when she would get her pills mixed up and confuse day and night. I would come home from school to find a fresh pot of coffee brewing as she geared up to do her morning Jane Fonda routine yet again. I tried to reason with my husband about all the time he spent playing computer games. I once drove a hammer through the screen of an old cathode-ray-tube monitor so he would find it in the garage upon coming home. He only got better at hiding his habits.
During my 40th birthday weekend, I laid face down as “Resilient.” was tattooed in a bold, old-fashioned typewriter font across my upper back. I’d earned that word. The period at the end hadn’t figured consciously into my design, but in retrospect, that tiny mark of punctuation said it all. A stranger-than-fiction life has molded me into someone who gets knocked down repeatedly but grows stronger, because the only choice I allow myself is to keep getting back up again.
I received my diagnosis over the phone on Groundhog Day. I chuckled to myself, thinking maybe it was all a bad dream. Perhaps I’d wake up the next morning and everything would be back to normal. Then came an onslaught of wondering what I might have done to cause those demon cells to grow in my otherwise strong and healthy body, a body I took care of, a body many mistook for being half its age. Could it have been the strong cleaning chemicals I’d mixed when working as a housekeeping manager in Yellowstone? I’d rarely worn rubber gloves. The same goes for the times I’d used gasoline to clean fence stain from paint brushes and siding, and the time I’d bagged up a bunch of loose asbestos insulation from my parents’ attic in middle school to earn a few bucks.
There’s no way to know for sure, but I believe prolonged stress was the likely culprit. My therapist constantly reminded me to “just breathe,” but such a habit isn’t formed overnight. I only knew how to have emotional reactions to what life threw my way. Marathon sessions of uncontrollable crying may have led to inflammation throughout my body. A pit of dread took up residence in my stomach. Stress headaches lasted for days, fed by the tight muscles of my shoulders and neck. The inflammation from stress possibly even resulted in the formation of that feisty triple-negative lump of mine. In the two years before my cancer diagnosis, the shock of losing my husband was merely another tsunami in an ocean of drama.
Prescribed dying woke me up. Slowly killing all of my cells with chemotherapy was a chance to be born anew. I tolerated chemo rather well, but no cancer patient escapes fatigue. At one point, shriveled mucus membranes led to the sensation of feeling the spaces between my cells. This is what it felt like to feel absolutely nothing at all. My body was a mere husk.
A scant amount of cancer remained in the bit of flesh excised from my breast, but luckily, clean margins were shown. This meant no detectable cancer cells were left behind. The fast-growing tumor hadn’t spread to my lymph nodes. Still, a thorough boob cooking via radiation followed, finishing off the most trying year of my life.
In the beginning, a compulsion to immortalize my breasts gripped me. My love and I celebrated Valentine’s Day by covering our naked bodies in paint and making imprints on huge pieces of canvas. Another time, I let him frost my breasts like they were cupcakes. We never got around to making a plaster bust of my chest, but an afternoon photo shoot did ensue where I struck a variety of pin-up girl poses. I needed to say goodbye, just in case. I reveled in adorning my head with a henna crown and going out on the town. I choose to make the most out of being bald. The compulsion to create beauty in a time of great upheaval is how a resilient soul deals with the hand they’ve been dealt. Like all else in life, the condition wasn’t permanent. Things always get better… eventually.
What was the universe trying to teach me? I don’t have a religious or even spiritual bone in my body, but I do believe life has a way of delivering needed nudges. I guess I needed a pretty significant nudge. I am teaching myself to be more appreciative for all I have in life, and I am also learning what it means to pursue my passions as I wean myself off of deeply ingrained patterns of codependency.
My love stayed with me through that harrowing year, but in reality, we should have broken up before I was diagnosed. He was the temple of my familiar—our love was chaotic, but he was there to caress my bald head and call me beautiful, to tell me I was full of grit and grace. He fulfilled many unmet needs during an intense time, but it was never meant to last. There was no way it could.
For the first time in my life, I am truly on my own and learning to be my own person. Were it not for the therapist who has seen me pro-bono for four years, I surely would be in a less stable place. She is 81 years old and a formidable woman. Not only does she specialize in treating the partners of addicts, but her daughter has also been through breast cancer.
I processed all that was happening to me in 2017 by writing 1,200 words a week and posting them to my GoFundMe. While I had great health insurance, the mental impact of dealing with cancer caused a significant dent in my ability to produce income as a freelance editor. Nor was I able to receive significant financial assistance from my family. Writing through the turmoil of treatment served as a much-needed kick in the pants to stop joking about how I helped people write books for a living, but couldn’t seem to finish one of my own.
Growth is hard, but it should not be feared.
The surge of creativity helped me cope in many ways. I have become a more colorful person all around and even donned a purple (and then a pink) mohawk as my hair grew back. I’ve always had an adventurous streak, though I realize more than ever that time and health is never a given. We get the time we get, and I want to eek all I can out of mine.
Abandonment kick-started my road to self-discovery, but it took going through cancer to truly arrive at a starting point for the rest of my life. I’m taking steps toward developing a meditation habit and am in the process of writing a year’s worth of daily gratitude posts. My inner child is slowly learning to be less reactive and more proactive. I am finally putting my needs first and have realized changing myself—and not others—is the path to finding joy.
We are all made of stronger stuff than we tend to give ourselves credit for. My propensity to write has enabled me to embrace vulnerability and accountability. Support from others has its benefits, but getting out of a personal quagmire is mostly a solo process. Growth is hard, but it should not be feared. I am resilient. Period.
Jeri Walker‘s creative nonfiction and short stories have been published in Idaho Magazine and cold-drill. Most recently, she won first place in the 2018 Idaho Writers Guild essay contest.