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Challenge: Unlikely Friends

My New BREAST Friends

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As we drive up to The FlopHouze Hotel I can hear and feel the tires crunch the gravel driveway which is lined with large forest green succulents. The sun is shining strong on this sleepy Texas town and this building I’m now standing in front of is calling my name out loud. It is huge, tall, wide and completely made of metal. There are windows so high you would have to strap yourself to a crane to see inside. I feel kinda silly maybe even giddy as I roll my suitcase into a weekend filled with women, every single one a stranger to me. I never went to summer camp as a kid but I can imagine this is what it feels like.

They call it “The Breasties Wellness Retreat”. Wellness that each person has come to find in their own way, in their own time, or if they are anything like me, wellness they didn’t even know was lacking.

This large metal barn of curiosities I walk into is eclectic, random, weird and fantastic. From metal signs to 100 year old barn doors to a stuffed life-size lion and giraffe and buffalo. From alligator skins to army fatigues, quirky sofas and crystal rocks. There is no rhyme or reason to the way things are organized but each area, each room, each collection of things that are so completely unrelated somehow just seem to be made for each other in that space. A gallery of controlled chaos. A showroom of unique unreplicable world treasures. The guest rooms are far from your run-of-the-mill hotel room that comes with electronic keys and cookie cutter doors, beds, TVs and desks. Not even close. My guest room is one of six and is a shipping container on psychedelics. The inside has been remodeled only to the point of functionality. Electric wiring is exposed. The ceiling is raw and original. Rugged, salvaged wood line the metal walls. Large, heavy sliding doors that seem to have come straight from my great grandparents elementary school split the container in three small sections. Vibrant colored sofas and rugs make up the living space with aluminum bins doubling as foot rests. From the dark metal bunk beds to the old wooden floor, from the large bedroom window to the all-in-one bath and kitchen sink mounted in a repurposed bowling alley floor, this compound of sorts is a glamping dream. Yup! Glamorous Camping... it's a thing and I am in love. I would soon find out that Glamping Hub was to thank for sponsoring this stage of creativity and nature where women had equal opportunity to grieve and dream. As if that were not enough, each meal of my wellness weekend would consist of the delicious edible stylings of the famous Chef Monica Pope, the creator and inspiration for cooking and baking “local”.

I am embraced by women I have only seen on Instagram posts and I begin to recognize faces and smiles and personalities. The first evening around a glowing, crackling campfire we share our stories. One by one each women tells her story out loud in the dark. There are 24 of us. It takes several hours and every single one gets her time with no interruption. We have nothing in common and everything in common. There were stories of anxiety, depression and sadness. There were tears shed and a new fog of loss would settle when speaking of mothers that had passed away. There was a story of a young mom with surgery schedule that same week who can’t fathom leaving her babies alone in this world if surgery is not successful. To see, in person and up close, the pain and horror in a mother’s eyes as she fears for her life is one of the most sickening, stomach-turning experiences of my life to date. At the same time you can’t help but feel that the fierceness of her pain and horror only reflects how fiercely she loves her children and her life which is a beauty only comprehended in that moment. There were memories of the way our bodies used to be, used to look, and used to function and respond. There was a story of being pregnant when the diagnosis was made and the enormity of having to decide to keep or abort the baby in order to save this momma’s life. Breast cancer had ruined our lives but saved our lives. Breast cancer had stolen moms but created empowered, intelligent daughters. Breast cancer wiped away every ounce of our self-esteem but then gave us new found confidence that was palpable in that circle. Breast cancer made us feel so incredibly alone but now more connected than ever in our lives.

When it came time for my turn I felt this steamy wave of guilt rush over my face. My story was different. Although I was recovering from a bilateral mastectomy with reconstruction I didn’t have the horrific chemotherapy stories to share. I couldn’t relate with radiation burns, allergic reactions, losing my hair and overpriced itchy wigs. I had no idea what it would be like to lose my eyebrows and eyelashes and feel all of my femininity slip through my fingers within days. My mother is living and healthy and one of my greatest friends. I can’t fathom what it’s like to have to say goodbye to her. For many of these women cancer was unequivocally life-changing and attitude shifting. For many of these women cancer was the “thing” in their life that first dropped them to their knees in fear and grief and prayer. For many of these women cancer was the start of a personal journey towards self-awareness and gratitude but came with equal hardship.

Not for me.

I spent many years dropping to my knees in prayer with fear and grief and it had nothing to do with cancer. My story starts with a diagnosis but it wasn’t my own. It was my daughter’s diagnosis of autism. For me, cancer was an annoyance, inconvenient and plain stupid. It was just something that got in my way for one hot minute and was gone the next. I went to bed that night thinking, “Did I take up someone’s spot that maybe needed this more than me?”

Day 2 brought me that answer. An answer that I didn’t want to hear but I needed to accept.

During more circle time and soul-searching activities there were two young women that I could not stop staring at and thinking of. They were the two women in the group that were the youngest, had never been diagnosed with cancer but their mom’s were. Their mother’s were still living but had had breast cancer in their lifetime and they both tested positive for the BRCA gene which increased their chance of breast cancer exponentially. Their risk was so high they were now contemplating a preventative/prophylactic bilateral mastectomy to save their life and preserve their sanity. They were now considering IVF to freeze their eggs and remove the BRCA component of the saved eggs to prevent passing it along to their unborn children. They were now processing that they may never have the opportunity to breastfeed their infants. They were in their early 20s. They were researching, proactive, fit and smart. They were also uncertain and confused about when is too late or too early to do this big thing and they sought refuge in this community that understood them. They sought out guidance from several other women in the group that already went through with this big thing and were healing. These two young women were my June and my Isla in just a few short years. It was as if their faces were right there staring back at me. These were my daughters speaking bravely into the night. My daughters are 10 and 6 and they are already breasties. During an exercise that lasted hours I couldn’t speak a single word because the realization was so dramatic and violent in my head and my heart. I couldn’t help but picture June in that circle. It will be my gorgeous, sweet June sharing her heart and fears. June will probably have to maneuver this mess alone because Isla may not understand or be conscious of her reality and risk. My girls. My babies. Mammograms and ultrasounds and CT scans and surgery? And Isla? How will I do that? She won’t understand. How will I explain? She won’t be able to tell me things she feels or do self exams and I guess, I will? I will have to continue bathing and checking her breasts at 20, 30, 40 for lumps and self care? Will I have to put my special needs daughter through a bilateral mastectomy that I decide is right because she can’t decide for herself? I was floored. Emotionally and mentally mauled. Just when I thought I had composed myself enough to actively listen again the stories of infertility and dreams of motherhood started to pour in. Just imagine for a second that you are in your mid 20s or early 30s. You are living your best life. You have plans and dreams and goals and although you have not found “the one” you know the universe or God will send the right person at the right time and you will have babies and a house and each other and a career… you know… no rush. Then you get the call. You have cancer and it’s bad. It will require your beautiful young self to go through rounds and rounds of chemotherapy that will remove every piece of hair from your body, it will ruin your nails, it will devastate your libido and the medications that come with the chemotherapy may cause weight gain and swelling. You will now be single, have no hair, look sick to the world, feel sick most days, maybe be at a weight you aren’t comfortable with and then you will lose your breasts to an extreme surgery. Your self confidence will be at an all time low and before all that you will consider freezing some eggs if you can afford it. What now? How in the world do you even begin to navigate this ridiculous dating world with all these perceived disadvantages? You must now find a partner who will ignore all of the above, be able to see you for you, be able to accept that reoccurrence is a monster that may rear it’s nasty head at anytime, be willing to get married knowing they may be widowed, be able to accept not having children naturally or maybe actually having children but taking a risk those children may not have a mother for most of their life. WHAT THE HELL. I fidgeted in my chair so much for how uncomfortable this was making my soul. Anger never set up residence in any part of my personal cancer story and now, I was freakin enraged. The stories were too much to process and I felt so completely empathetic it made my body ache. Again, I thought of my daughters. My babies. Not them losing me, but them having to deal with this crap storm. Some women were able to freeze their eggs for when the time was right, some were not. Some women had opportunities in their life before cancer to have a child but declined because their circumstances weren’t right at the time. Now, looking back at that decision the pain and guilt and self-directed anger was intense. But yet here they were, making comments towards the three women in the group that had children already, saying things like…. “ I don’t know how you do it with children and having to go through this crap and be a mom too.” Or “I just feel so sad for you and your kids to have to deal with this mess.” The whole time I knew that actually the opposite was true for me. My children saved me. My children were the perfect, welcomed distraction to cancer and all that it brought into my life. I have my children and they are beautiful and bring a richness to my life that nothing else could. I have a husband that has loved me fiercely through every season of my life and I have loved him since we were fifteen years old. I have my career established, my dreams attainable with very little of my life left to question. These women… these young women that live in the uncertain every day of their lives but SHOW UP ANYWAY… they are the ultimate role models for my daughters. They are terrified but dance and sing to Cardi B anyway. They are filled with anxiety but laugh and joke and drink too much in hot tubs anyway. They are uncertain and scared but love with all they have anyway. They are sad and grieving but lift everyone up around them anyway. Almost at the same speed that I felt ripped apart I felt peace. My daughters will have these women to turn to, these women leading the way, these women setting an example. My daughters will grow up with me sharing these stories of young women just like them who have moms just like them. Women who will not allow the fear they feel of the unknown to cripple them but use the fear to propel them to be well-informed. Women who instead of living terrified of the inevitable, live empowered, educating themselves daily, surrounding themselves with important resources to help guide them to the biggest decisions they will make about their lives and their bodies.

I will never be the same. I would have never admitted before this weekend that cancer changed me but I was changed this weekend by 23 women I had never met in my life.

Perhaps our venue was just a metaphor for our lives. We were a group of unlikely friends; eclectic, random, weird and fantastic. There was no rhyme or reason to the way we were placed in this group because we are all so completely unrelated but somehow just seemed to be made for each other in that space. WE were the gallery of controlled chaos. WE were the unique unreplicable world treasures.

To all my new BREAST friends, you have collectively and legitimately changed my life, my perspective, my heart.

I will forever share your stories and you will never be alone. I will keep manifesting and dreaming and screaming to God to give you so many children that you have to send me an IG message saying “Lisa, seriously, STOP PRAYING.” And when you do have children you will find that there is such strong similarity between a breast cancer survivor mom and a special needs mom in that NOTHING is taken for granted. For every word they speak you will rejoice, for every giggle you hear you will weep, for every hug you receive you will give thanks. Every feeling, emotion, experience and milestone will be that much more amplified and you are worthy of it all.

PS... in case your wondering... the pregnant momma decided to keep her baby. She went through chemotherapy and all of the crappy side effects WHILE PREGNANT and now has a healthy 8 month old little boy.

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