“Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it.” –Proverbs 4:23
It would have been my friend Janice’s 60th birthday this month. She was a multi-talented artist, a compassionate friend, a devoted mother and a godmother to my first daughter. This year marks the second anniversary of her death, which began with breast cancer. As the pink ribbons fly this month, we all have someone who comes to our hearts, whether in acknowledging their ongoing fight to overcome this most persistent of diseases or in remembering someone who has lost their battle against it. Breast cancer impacts all of us- and even with enhanced and more effective detection and treatment options, the numbers are mind numbing- over one in eight women will be diagnosed this year.
Janice’s breast cancer diagnosis came on the heels of the very painful and difficult years after her husband’s announcement of his affair and intention to leave. Although we don’t track and correlate breast cancer to a woman’s emotional health, I often wonder how our breast tissue, which is literally the muscular shield for our heart center could go unscathed by the weight of the unacknowledged and unnamed grief and sorrow that our hearts carry inside. Not surprisingly, doubling the incidence of breast cancer, a whopping one in four women suffer or die from heart disease.
Our hearts are the center of life. Physically, there are no muscles, which compare to the capacity of the heart, beating 2 billion times in a life time and circulating over 50 million gallons of blood. It has the largest electromagnetic field in the body, sixty times larger than our brain. Our hearts are capable instruments for processing emotion, and rather than weakening us, it is this metabolism of the grief and sorrow that life generates, which exercises and strengthens us. However, our hearts also clearly have their limits when it comes to being a storehouse for all the pain and loss we experience which never sees the light of day. In fact, many women report that the deepest healing, which occurs in the course of both breast cancer and heart disease comes from giving our full attention to the heart connections that have been neglected. We heal as we remove the defensive shield from our heart, allowing us to experience and work through the often messy and painful memories and interactions in our primary relationships. This is a process which actually strengthen our hearts and leads us to forgiveness of self and others.
During my last visit with Janice, she was bloated and her face disfigured by the illness, but her eyes still shined with the same love I had always known in her company. I was feeling guilty and sad about how I had distanced myself from her when I didn’t know how to be her friend at the time of her separation. I told her as much and she called me by the name she always used for me, “Oh honey, I never felt anything but love from you- always…” Her husband had moved back in with her and had become her primary caretaker. I asked her how that was going too and she said simply, “All forgiven.”
Whether brought on by illness or some other turn of fate, when we open to the wisdom of our heart we find the foundation of our healing process. This year, as we honor another season of pink, celebrating both the survival and losses of women to illnesses related to the heart, let’s begin it from the inside out. By focusing our attention on what remains unresolved within our hearts, we learn to soften and feel. Our breast’s shield becomes a magnetic space, which allows us to honor our feelings as the vital source of connection that they are, guiding us toward the intimacy and love that defines a life. I miss Janice and think of her often, especially in this season of Breast Cancer awareness, but I carry the lesson she taught, not only at the end of her life, but all through it- that relationship is everything and it lives in us, waiting only to be heard with every beat of our heart.