“Are they real, Mommy?”
My daughter was staring at my bare breasts one morning last month as I got dressed for work. The incisions from my double mastectomy were quiet now, having faded to a mildly aggravated pink over the past six years since my surgeries.
“Well, baby, in a way,” I answered. “Remember when I got implants under my skin after the doctors took out all the cancer. Remember my surgery a long time ago?” Eve was just 3 and a half when I was diagnosed and treated for stage 0 Ductal Carcinoma In Situ. I elected to have a double mastectomy and reconstruction so that I could achieve a complete cure. By aggressively excising the aberrant tissue, I did not have to have chemo or radiation. Basically, I had cancer for less than 7 days after being diagnosed.
“I remember, Mama,” Eve said. “You couldn’t pick me up for along time.” That’s what mattered to her at the time, the loss of our physical connection while my body healed.
Now that Eve is 10 years-old, the concept of “real” is critical. My daughter is navigating her way through a pre-pubescent world brimming with Hannah Montana fantasies and expectations of perfection in all things. The Disney Channel and Nickelodeon seem real to her, and in some ways they are. But, I try to distinguish for her that what appears “real” because it is on television or on the big screen may not be authentic. For her, the connection between what is real and what is authentic is gossamer thin, and I work hard every day to make sure she appreciates the difference. Hannah Montana may be real, but Miley Cyrus is the authentic person behind the character.
Before my cancer diagnosis, I didn’t think much about this issue. Certainly, not as it related to my breasts. I never really had much of a relationship with my mammary glands except as functional tools to keep my blouses from falling down around my waist or to feed Eve when she was born. So, when I was faced with the choice of complete cure via mastectomy or withstanding a chemotherapeutic assault, I chose the former. It was an easy choice for me. Authentic and real because I was committed to being alive for my daughter at whatever the cost.
Breast cancer changed my life in ways I never could have anticipated. Some of these changes have been negative. I have scars where I used to be smooth and unblemished. I occasionally catch myself wondering whether cancer will recur, even though my doctors assure me, with marker tests and statistics, that breast cancer won’t likely be my ultimate demise.
But some of the changes have been positive. I’m acutely aware of every minute of every day. I live my life much more consciously, and I’m fully, unequivocally committed to creating memories with—and for—my daughter. Eve is the sun in my universe. My life—and our life together—seems so much better now, and I’ve defined my priorities with a clarity that has resulted in a simpler yet richer life.
The most dramatic change in my world is my decision to live an authentic life. The cancer made me look at myself objectively, at the impact I have on the world. All of a sudden, every interaction with another human being became an opportunity to lift them up instead of a means to an end. Whatever pretenses I held as defenses in the world fell away like crepe paper the morning after the prom. I have become fearless in sharing who I am at my core.
I finished dressing for work that morning. As I buttoned my blouse, Eve leaned in for a closer look. “So Mama, are they real?” she asked once again.
“Well, honey, they’re real for me,” I responded. “They’re a part of who I am now.” The irony is real: my fake breasts have become an authentic part of who I am. And as I answered Eve, I realized that something else was also very real for me, and that is the absolute joy I experience every morning as I welcome another day as both a cancer survivor and a mother.
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About the author:
Virginia Hardee Silvermanwas born and raised in rural eastern North Carolina. The daughter of a sometime tobacco farmer, she spent her childhood playing on the wooded banks of the Tar River. Since then, she has been a marketing executive with Fortune 100 companies for 25 years, and recently completed her Master of Fine Arts in Creative Non-Fiction at Antioch University in Los Angeles. She is a singer, cancer survivor, and mother of a nine-year-old daughter, Eve. Her essays have appeared in anthologies published by the University of Miami – Ohio and Virginia Commonwealth University, LaChance Publishing, the www.survivorsreview.org and in the April, 2007 issue of Health Magazine.