It’s been only recently, exactly a year after I finished radiation therapy, that I have been able to touch my right breast as if nothing had happened, as if nothing was going to break, as it if it weren’t a combustible part of me that could explode at any moment.
For months, every time I reached an upper shelf with my right hand, or took a particularly wide yoga extension, I could feel the muscles that ran from my breast to the right shoulder tighten, trying to accommodate my movement. Whenever I took a shower, the tissues under the skin was a lumpy reminder. Outwardly, other than a darkening of the skin, now mostly gone, nothing much looked amiss. One would have to look hard to notice the right breast is not as full as the left. Everything was happening inside. Including inside my head.
It was as if my right breast had misbehaved, ran away from home and now it has come back and we have made peace again. I don’t think much about cancer anymore, not even when I swallow a pill every morning, with sleep still in my eyes. Not even when I sit in a studio, every Wednesday, as one of the participants in a study trying to correlate movement and improvements to the immune system in breast cancer patients. Actually – I don’t feel like a patient anymore. I closed that door – or left it barely ajar – in the hope I will not have to re-enter that persona any time soon.
I don’t know much about the women sitting in the circle every Wednesday, other that, by default, they had breast cancer. We don’t talk about the disease – not even after class is done, with a cup of coffee, in the kitchen just outside the studio, while I gather my things and prepare to go to work. Some are grandmothers, some are mothers, there is an accountant: snippets of life gathered here and there. Some are chattier than others – we are just a random sample of a disease that strikes too many.
What we do have in common, besides cells gone awry, is the normalcy of our lives, the ability to rebuild, the fierceness of plowing through even in the midst of our fragility. I don’t know these women but I do know they didn’t go to pieces – not for long, at least – instead they took out their tools and set out to do what needed to be done. And then some.
We are not special. This particular group was touched by a particular adversity but life is pretty able to dish out all kinds of calamities for which we need to keep our tools sharpened. Our best tool, often, is other women. Those in our immediate circle and those who have gone through similar experiences.
When we set aside petty criticism, rivalries and jealousy, it is very clear there is strength in numbers, in compassion, in grouping together. We can affect change in ways we can’t even fathom: it was the female population of Liberia, a country torn by a 17-year-old civil war, who elected a woman president because they knew it was their only chance of ridding their environment of brutality. They used every means – legal and otherwise – they could and, twelve years later, they have been proven right.
We are wiser than we give ourselves credit for and our viewpoint, be it on disease or world affairs, carries more weight than we think. But if we are able to support each other on the small scale, we are not great at coalescing together around bigger interests. Too many of us are still too afraid, or unable, to speak up. And yet, as women, we can be the counter balance to the arguments for prevailing policies, we can correct the course of history.
No formal education should be needed to be granted the right to speak up. Each kernel of our own experiences, our own calamities, can be pushed onto a larger stage. Now that I have made peace with my body and my disease, and with the gift of perspective, I am equipped to counsel other women in the same predicament, and even to brief doctors about my anecdotal evidence on what works and what doesn’t in certain situations.
The women of Liberia, even those, mainly those, poorly educated peddling wares at the market, intuitively knew that another woman was the ticket out of violence – they lost husbands and children, they were raped, they were witnesses to despicable acts of violence and wanted no more. They trusted each other and they did it. There is little we cannot do. Trusting each other and our instincts is only the first step.
You can read here about how Liberian women elected one of their own – it’s a great story.