When I got breast cancer, I resolved to approach it as my mother had, thirty years earlier: all by myself. Of course, I welcomed my doctors’ skill. But my situation was Need To Know.
That meant my husband and pre-teen sons, my sister and my mother. And eventually my boss and a handful of co-workers, because my absences from work would accumulate.
And, of course, once I was chemo-bald, I would graciously answer questions.
I would experience cancer My Way and emerge unchanged, minus a breast or two. Exactly as my mother had.
A dear friend scheduled our annual lunch date, and I decided to tell her. And at work, I faced a quandary. Having arrived recently as the new temporary leader of a small group, I wanted to cultivate trust. Now I had a secret I planned to share selectively — and not with them.
Trust required vulnerability. So I told them. Having told those 12 people, I realized I needed to tell the 24 people in my “home” office down the hall. I did. Then, with a third of the people in my larger office knowing my “secret,” I scrapped my reserve entirely and just started Sharing.
Immediately, love pelted me like pumice from a volcano. Not pity-love, but you-got-this-love. The kind of love that mirrored back to me my confidence, grit and joy. The kind of love that prompted one colleague to give me flowers before my first surgery and another to cheer me on as I passed by (while carrying the flowers).
Seeing how well this Sharing was going at work, I told a neighbor. She promptly organized meals for my family after each chemo treatment. Arriving like the enchanted broomsticks and water buckets in Fantasia, the food flooded us with support and community. And I was on prayer lists in churches across the country. This powerful loving energy was beyond my imagining.
After my husband shaved my head, I chose to wear a scarf instead of a wig, and sometimes in a hot conference room I chose no scarf at all. I treasure a photo of my pastor, a church elder and me, all smiles and shiny bald heads.
All this openness smashed my Do It Myself strategies. I discovered that in my self-contained self-sufficiency I was far smaller and less equipped than I believed myself to be.
I discovered that every time I reached out, a dozen people reached back at me. When I wobbled, others held me steady.
By being so darn public about the breast cancer thing, I was suddenly a source of hope in others, a resource for others’ breast cancer experiences, an inspiration — me, of all people! — for the powerful unity that galvanizes a community who decide to love so fiercely.
I read somewhere early in my breast cancer days that cancer gives other people the chance to say “I love you.”
But there I was, prepared to forgo that love because the Supergirl in me demanded independence and self-reliance. But my temporary work situation — and my sense of what leadership required — shoved me to an entirely different square of the board in the game I was playing. The square that had the ladder, the bonus, the treasure chest. The square where love goes to work when it’s invited in.
You, dear reader, know this already. But for me, it was a revelation. My hands were clamped across my chest before my breast cancer. Breast cancer pried them loose. Grudgingly I extended them a bit, in obligation, expecting nothing in return. The love I received wrenched my arms from my sides and flung them outward. Like a powerful blast, it propelled me forward and pushed me into a way of living that I have tried to sustain since.
If given the choice, I would do it all again — the shots, the surgeries, the chemo, even the inconvenient recovery. But then, of course, I was one of the lucky ones.
Thanks to my cancer, I saw the abundance of love in people’s hearts. Love that simply waits for an invitation. Love that renews and multiplies. I learned that everything given in love is significant. Every word, every gesture, every action, every prayer — they all matter, even if individually they seem too small to count for much.
I learned the difference I can make in another’s life, because dozens and dozens of people made a difference in mine. I am now much better at giving love.
And thanks to my breast cancer, I am also much better at receiving love. Now I fling my arms wide to gather it in, and it just keeps coming.
Certainly a very fair trade for a breast or two.