A reflection on my recent experience of removing the implants I had inserted after breast cancer.
The absurd difficulty of deeply loving myself and offering self-compassion the way I freely offer it to others was laid bare as I recovered from yet another surgery. This time, the implants came out; I did not know this surgery had a special name, “explant” surgery. If I knew then, what I know now, I probably would have opted for a flat chest after a bi-lateral mastectomy for two kinds of breast cancer—Oh yes, I am an over-achiever.
I was not sure twelve years ago, that I would choose additional surgery so that at age forty-six I could continue to look like a “natural woman.” But my daughter was only in fourth grade. What will it be like for her to begin developing what I recently had cut off? Does she understand this? Would it help for her mom to look “normal” in a bathing suit, on family vacations, or when she catches a glimpse through a cracked bathroom door? I cannot make up for the fact that her mom was incapacitated for the better part of nine months of grueling treatment that plastered me to the bed in ways I could not have imagined. Breast implant surgery seemed like one way to re-claim a sense of normal for me, and maybe for everyone. We could not get the time back, but Mom looked closer to how she used to look.
But then, one day, my body decided it had enough of foreign objects inside, and on Palm Sunday, 2019, I woke up to a bright red, inflamed chest on the right side. I felt well enough, so off I went to lead worship at the church where I am the pastor, to wave our palm branches and read the Passion story. I called my oncologist the next day and that week began to schedule an MRI. It appeared as though the implant had ruptured, and the silicone was leaking, or that the scar tissue around the implant had begun to contract, causing it to bulge. I was immediately referred to a plastic surgeon for explant surgery, but it would be six and a half weeks before it happened.
It was not as bad as chemotherapy of course. I could still work, but the inflammation in my body traveled up my neck and caused a chronic headache that did not stop until I was in surgery recovery. I was so pleased and excited to relieve my body of this awful battle, I never even thought about having to grieve the loss of breasts a second time…until the bandages and tape came off. After that, I could not get out of the shower without crying.
My pectoral muscles—damaged by radiation and then stretched to hold an implant—“roller-shaded” up toward my shoulder, leaving nothing but a very thin layer of skin over my rib cage. The ribs do not protrude quite as noticeably on the left side where there was no radiation, but it is still a concave pocket. The grief over my new look surprised me since I was so relieved to feel better—in fact, once I recovered from surgery, I felt better than I had since the implants were inserted.
But as I peered at the new me in the mirror, all I could think was that I looked like Frankenstein and the Grinch in some horror-movie combination. Jagged scars across protruding bones looked as if this part of my body was suffering starvation; this image that was complemented by a concave scoop to my chest curving outward toward the round “mommy pouch” my first OB/GYN told me was my badge of honor for giving birth to three children. Dress me up in a Grinch costume and it would be a perfect fit for Halloween. Who could love this body? I did not. How was I going to get through this grief when I cannot even shower and dress for a new day without tears and a feeling of horror?
I brought my grief and pain to my spiritual director; I needed God to give me a way to cope. I told her my horror-movie Frankenstein-Grinch combo story. She looked at me and asked a question I never, ever would have thought to ask: “What do Frankenstein and the Grinch have to offer you? What gift do they bring?”
What a strange question! This was a negative image, not a positive one for me, so why would she ask that? I pondered her question despite my skepticism. A slow dawning floated up through heaviness of my mind, like bubbles rising in champagne. “They were both loved in the end—and it did not matter what they looked like—those who loved them did not care!”
A clip from the movie, “Young Frankenstein” with Madeline Kahn popped into my head. “You little zipper neck” she said, and "Oh, you men are all alike, seven or eight quick ones and you're off with the boys to boast and brag. You better keep your mouth shut…Oh, I think I love him."
And all the Who’s in Whoville never noticed and did not care that the Grinch had a concave chest and a pot belly—they loved him and let him carve the Christmas roast beast.
It seemed so obvious once I realized this, but my own body made me blind to the images of power I had identified. Those who truly love me, do because of who I am, regardless of how I look—and my husband has even said so, “I will take you any way you come—you are alive!”
Can I take me anyway I come? Can I care for myself with compassion and body-love no matter how misshapen I may look or feel?
But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us. 8 We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; 9 persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; 10 always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies. ~2 Corinthians 4:7-10
Frankenstein and the Grinch have offered me a new view of God’s extraordinary power and love, along with the life of Jesus residing in my freshly cracked clay jar.
This essay is published in the new book, House of Compassion, a publication of Retreat House Spirituality Center in Richardson, Texas. House of Compassion is the third book in a series published this year: House of Love, February, 2019; House of Hope, May, 2019--I have essays in both of those books and hope to have on in the fourth book due out in December, 2019.