Mary Ann Wharry
I have always discovered deeper parts of myself through adverse circumstances and have used imagery as a tool for self-understanding and growth. Cancer has been no exception. Before my breast cancer diagnosis, I must admit I did not often think of women with this condition. The image I had subconsciously developed through the years (with no substantive exposure to anyone impacted by the disease) was of a bald, smiling woman embraced by a warm, sorority atmosphere where sources of encouragement and support could be tapped at will. I knew that most women didn’t die from breast cancer, and the images depicted in popular media and culture seemed to portray a strong, close knit group of women swathed in pink and standing together against a common enemy. I imagined their treatment providers gathered around them like a family of scientists, all of whom were committed to this single individual and working tirelessly with a dedication and a level of compassion that could only be described as love.
Then, in June 2015 I found a lump in my left breast. Six days, two mammograms, an ultrasound and one biopsy later, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I was stunned. I found myself in a whirlwind of appointments and information with very little time to take in the facts. There I was, suddenly thrust to the other side of the pink ribbon with no clear understanding of what was happening or how to prepare. One of the first things I realized was that breast cancer is not an “if A, then B” proposition. Rather, it is a land of choices with terrain made up of clinical data, anecdotes from those encountered during the diagnostic process and personal risk tolerance. These factors set you on your treatment journey and, as with any journey, who and what you choose to take with you are important decisions.
For most of us the path is unmarked, the obstacles are unpredictable, and the destination is unknown. The moments move quickly and sometimes feel disconnected from one another as your body is divided up for the purposes of treatment and then handed off to any number of providers – separate professionals who are now in charge of one piece – one piece of your cancer, one piece of your body, your breasts, your skin, your sickness – one piece of you. This can feel surreal at best and does little to calm the chaos. Of course, nothing stops or yields during this time. The superwoman you might have been last week must somehow rise up and keep moving. There are jobs, chores, children, friends and family for whom you must remain your self – your intact, all pieces on the same page and working together, self. No matter what fearful stillness has been created by the awareness of what is to come, nothing stops or yields.
One of the greatest challenges following diagnosis is how time and space begin to change around you. At first, you may not notice how deeply this process is taking root. Then, you find yourself locked in a moment that you can’t seem to move out of – a moment no bigger than the waiting room, the spot on the wall while they perform a procedure, the tree in your backyard, the space of your breath. These moments become embedded in your spirit, as time takes on new meaning and you struggle to keep pace. For me, it was the image of a clock, sometimes above me, sometimes above my daughter, that captured much of my experience. The hands sometimes moved unnaturally fast, circling around at breakneck speed. Other times, they seemed to sit without motion, as if waiting for me to restart their momentum. The clock became a useful tool for me, as I learned to recognize it’s messages and meanings – to breathe, be still, calm down, move, walk, call a friend, hug my family, lie down, let someone else.
As for the images that come to mind as I begin to gain perspective since being diagnosed and undergoing double mastectomy, chemotherapy and radiation, I am still waiting for a clear picture to emerge. I know that I am walking – sometimes slow and glancing behind me, sometimes fast, straight ahead and with intention. I know that I am grateful for the path even if the destination is not known. Loved ones are sometimes with me though I am most often alone. My daughter walks with me more than anyone else. We are some times in step with one another and other times she is a few steps ahead, caught up in a moment of her own, which is fine. I know that my love moves with her wherever she goes. I take this vague and developing image as a sign of the deep impact my experience has had on my psyche – an impact I will continue to explore for some time to come. I am not afraid – I know that I am strong.