It was only a couple of weeks ago when I was sitting in the waiting room, having been called back for another magnified view of my mammogram and an ultrasound for some suspicious lumps in my left breast. Something similar had happened several years before when I first began the yearly mammogram rite of passage, so I tried to assuage my fear that it was probably nothing. This is true for many women, getting called back in and frequently it is a false alarm – but, not always. The rate of illness in this part of the body is mind-boggling. Breast cancer affects one in eight and heart disease kills one in four women.
Since my last near miss, one of my dearest friends has passed away from breast cancer and it seems like at almost every gathering of women I attend someone is sharing about recent treatments as not only a memory but an entirely new path that life had carved out for them. Indeed, cancer statistics become more glaring with each passing decade, and I am conscious of the unexpected ways that our health goes from being fine to not fine, overnight.
As I was awaiting the nurse to call my name, I was chanting my mantra which was proving itself to be a protection from my own mind as I had been taught. And I was praying that I might walk out of this place with my life intact. But most of the previous week, since I got the call a week before, I have been reflecting on all of fear and grief I have been carrying around instead of feeling it. I wondered and then tried to push aside the fears of whether this was enough to create a mass in my chest?
I know that the pain I refuse to feel doesn’t evaporate because I ignore it. Instead as I have witnessed in myself and my friends, our “pain body” literally becomes our body and no more potently than around the place where we are most shielded: in our breasts which cover our hearts. This practice of protecting our heart by denying our feelings can become such a deep and prolonged habit that we walk around encased in armor we don’t even know we are wearing. That day as I sat waiting for the results of my tests, I was suddenly acutely aware of all that I had not let myself feel.
Tragically, it is usually significant illness that wakes us up from our numb disconnect. Many people report that the deepest healing in their lives happens in the course of treating their illnesses, when the truth of the heart finally receives our full attention. As we replace the barriers that have deprived us from the intimate interactions we long for, even those that are heart breaking, we actually make our hearts stronger and wiser.
I was also acutely conscious that day of the wonder of my breasts, like the rest of our body that is so easy to take for granted until we can’t. All of the many years as a nursing mother taught me the miracle of how my breasts could literally sustain a new life. My breasts not only nourished my babies, but also charged my body with hormones to keep me going. And at the same time, they have always been a remarkable source of erotic joy (which was sometimes confusing when I was nursing a toddler…). Our breasts, when we feel them, are hardwired into the erotic pathway of our brains and the source of deep sensual response and pleasure.
Gratefully, I stepped over the crack under my feet again and learned that my old fibroids had morphed but remained harmless. As my heart slowed its pace and the fear subsided, I vowed to feel more. To not hold or disguise my grief, but let it have the space and time it needed to express itself. I also promised myself to really appreciate the workings of this aging body and to give myself more time to not only focus on health, but enjoy it.