It is an ugly word and scary to deal with, but it is a reality. It doesn't realize we are stronger than it is, even if it doesn't think so.
We. Are. Stronger.
Today, I usually get my kids to post what is on their minds but today we are sharing a special post. I dedicate this to my grandmother, who was a two-time breast cancer survivor, and to all of you out there going through, fighting or have survived cancer.
My Grandma was the 'glue' of my mom's side of the family. She kept us talking, kept us together and made sure that no matter what we we were going through, we fought through it.
When I was asked to contribute to an anthology dedicated to cancer survivors, I dug up this story and submitted it. I'm not sure how my grandmother would feel about me sharing my story, but I do know she would have been proud.
This is the unedited version, so excuse any typos, but this is for all of you out there.
And never give up.
Battlescars (A Tribute to Grandma)
My grandmother was a stubborn, feisty woman who was as fiercely protective of her family as a mother bear is with her cubs. I believe these characteristics fueled her strength to fight and survive breast cancer—twice. And she went through it in the 1950’s. A time when the survival rate wasn’t as high as it is today. Oddly, it was something our family never talked about.
Even as a child I knew something was different. When Grandma got dressed up, she had a womanly figure. But when we she was at home in her casual clothes, her shirts would hang flat. Maybe I wasn’t supposed to notice. Maybe I wasn’t supposed to ask questions. But one day Grandma and I found ourselves in an awkward position where we had to talk about it.
It was the summer I turned thirteen. I loved staying with my grandparents, but it was a distressing time in my young life. All my friends started showing the beginning signs of womanhood while I still looked like a boy with long hair.
“It’ll happen soon enough,” Grandma told me. “Don’t be in such a rush to grow up, Dumplin’. Besides, breasts are just an accessory. Being a woman goes far deeper than what is on the outside. Some day, I’ll tell you about it.”
That day came sooner than both of us expected when I rushed into her bedroom one morning to grab Grandpa’s house keys and surprised Grandma while she was getting dressed.
“Oh…dear…I’m so sorry…,” I started to say.
I wasn’t ready for what I saw.
Grandma stood there, her house dress open to her waist. Her fingertips held the zipper—frozen in their position. For the first time in my life, I understood why everyone always made sure Grandma’s door was shut while she dressed.
“It’s alright, child,” Grandma said softly. “I left the door open. Didn’t think anyone was still in the house. Please…come in.”
I didn’t want to. I felt embarrassed, for her and for me. Grandma removed her hand from her zipper and brought it to her side. My eyes stationed on her chest. In the space where her breasts were supposed to have been were two large dents. The skin was discolored and there were purple lines that extended out, like lines on a map. Some of them were swollen. Some lay flat and disappeared under her house dress towards her armpits. I’d always known something had happened. I’d always wanted to ask but was never brave enough to.
My eyes flooded with tears as I tried to find the right words.
“Oh, Dumplin’,” Grandma said. “Don’t be frightened. Grandma is just fine. I’m glad you came in. Grandpa always shuts the door because he doesn’t want to have to talk about it. He’s still scared, I guess.”
I finally found my voice. “What…what happened?”
Grandma zipped up her house dress and motioned me to sit with her on the bed. “Many years ago, I got sick. Very sick. When they couldn’t figure out why I wasn’t able to shake what I thought was the flu, they ran some tests and found some lumps in my left breast. Well after a lot of other tests, they found out it was cancer. Back in those days, they just removed the breast then gave you lots of medicine. But they didn’t get it all and Grandma had to go back. They took the right breast and some of the tissue under my arms called lymph nodes.”
Lymph nodes? I put my hands in my armpits and hugged myself tight.
“Oh, now, don’t you go worrying about things,” Grandma said, stroking my hair. “It happened a long time ago. I’m not ashamed of it.”
I kept my hands in my armpits.“Will it come back, Grandma? Will you get sick again?”
Grandma tilted her head at me like she always did when I asked something she needed to think about before she could answer me. “I don’t know. I hope not. But I can’t worry about it. These things happen, you know?”
“Is that why you told me ‘breasts are just an accessory’?”
Grandma laughed. “Yes, that’s right. Breasts may make you look like a woman but I don’t feel any less of a woman than I did with them. Maybe I’m even more so because I didn’t truly understand what it was to be one until my breasts were taken away. Doesn’t change who you are, child. Just your form. Women are strong. We’re fighters and still the head of the family, even without our breasts.” She winked at me.
She pointed to her chest and continued, “These are my battlescars, Dumplin’. They are there to remind me I won the battle and I’ll win the war.”
I hugged Grandma hard. It didn’t seem to matter anymore when I finally developed breasts. After our talk, my grandparents’ bedroom door wasn’t shut tight anymore, unless Grandpa was getting dressed.
Even though she’s been gone for over twenty years now, Grandma’s words still sing in my ears whenever I put my hand over the little pink ribbon I proudly wear on my shirt (over my size AA breasts). Being a woman does go far deeper than what is on the outside.
And, someday, we will win this war.