Cancer: The Mastectomy


“When we practice dying

We are learning to identify less with

the Ego and more with the soul.” Ram Dass


Holding my burning eyes while sobbing uncontrollably I beg the nurse for eye drops. Ignoring the white band on my wrist stating my allergic reaction to tape, the anesthesiologist had taped my eyes shut during the mastectomy. Unable to give me any form of eye drop relief because the doctor had not ordered them, my husband was hell bent on getting me out of that hospital immediately. He took total control of the situation, clearly distressed at my level of pain.

Precisely four hours after my mastectomy we were parked in front of a drug store. My eyes now soothed with drops, we waited in the Seattle ferry line to begin our two hour journey home. My husband assured me for the hundredth time that he could care less about the absence of one breast. He just wanted me to live.

With palpable tenderness he said, “All you have to do is sit on the couch and just be, I don’t care what you do, I just want you here.”

The next day, foiled in my efforts to hide my body after the mastectomy, I needed his help with the drainage pump and changing of dressings. As the weeks passed, he never flinched as his hands tenderly helped drain and clean the fluids coursing through the pump.

Beyond that I requested that he play golf, have fun and leave me alone. When I am un-well, I want a tray of food, water, medications, a book and the television clicker. I want to pull in and conserve my energy; an idiosyncrasy that frustrated many of my friends, children and clients who wanted so much to help me, to give to me. Yet most of the time it was their fears that I had to deal with.

I found that comforting their fears was exhausting. I simply did not have the energy to engage or reassure them that I was ok, leaving several loved ones feeling shut out of my experience.

For fifty-nine years, mentally, physically, and emotionally, I had run faster than I was capable of running in order to improve my innate brokenness. Like hitting a brick wall, the gift of cancer gave me permission to stop the hustle and bustle. No more running for the sake of self- improvement. I would just have to do as I was, defects, limitations and warts included.

Aside from the anticipatory fear of protracted cancer treatments, the larger part of me was elated at the prospect of having a long period of time just for me. Apparently, I needed a cataclysmic event to re-direct me to the center of my own existence.

I felt like I was given a present and could not wait to open it.

Sam, a revered medicine man in my community, presented me with a beaded leather medicine bag embroidered with a butterfly, which is my totem. This pouch, worn around my neck, carried my drainage tube and served as a visible badge to further validate my right for time alone. A confirmed introvert, now I felt legitimized.

The day that my husband helped me take off the bandages in front of the bathroom sink was both difficult and healing. I didn’t know which scared me more; for my own eyes to look at my mutilated chest or his eyes upon me.

With loving encouragement, he helped me un-bandage my disfigurement. Finally, wrenching up the courage to look at myself in the mirror, my husband tenderly held me as I wept. The long red scar stitched diagonally across my chest was hard to look at. “Oh my sweet chest, I am so sorry for our loss,” I whisper at the mirror.

I allowed myself to mourn that day, saying goodbye to the breast that had struggled heroically to survive which included a benign lump discovered and removed when I was age twenty nine.

Drawing strength, I looked back and compared the mastectomy with the hardest day of my life some thirty five years earlier.

Unable to financially support my children, I signed over custody of my three babies to the care of their father. With tears streaming down my face, my body literally bent in half, I blindly struggled to put pen to paper signing and sealing our fates. While the dark ink of my illegible signature granted me freedom of sorts, my children would become indentured slaves to the cruel whims of an abusive father. We would all suffer the consequences of my choice for years to come.

I recalled the waves of anguish that washed over me that day as I sobbed before my alarmed attorney. “As long as I live, nothing will ever touch me this deeply again.” I swear to God, nothing ever has.

With an abundance of gratitude, support from family and friends and keeping myself from falling into the victim role, nothing sustained me greater than remembering how horrible I felt on that long ago day.

Seriously, cancer, by comparison, has been a cake walk. Six weeks passed and my chest healed perfectly. One part of me felt strong, spiritually fit and ready to proceed with the next phase of treatment. Yet another part of me felt out of control with gripping terror thinking about the dreaded Chemotherapy treatments. How does one prepare for such a thing?

How do you prepare for fearful/terrifying life situations?

Do you ever prioritize or review past difficulties to help you get through current ones?


Permission to use  photo of Beautiful Native American Bag by Debra Little Wing


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  1. Tina Siebel says:

    After meeting you last spring I sent you an email and commented I admired your honesty. Our discussions weren’t even related to breast cancer/mastectomy. Your writing is very inspirational. It humbles me. It is educating me so I’ll be a better friend to those I know going thru breast cancer.
    Looking forward to lunch again!

    • Hi Tina,

      I am excited to hear from you again and look forward to seeing you this winter. Thank you for reading and commenting on my post. Still wondering how in the world you found me. Please keep on coming back. It delights me to know that you are reading my posts. Dawn

  2. Lisa Shindler says:

    Your blogs often make me think of me: how I was raised, what I believe about myself as a woman and human being, the messages and beliefs that were instilled in me and the ones that I have instilled in myself. But today I think of you. Thank you for sharing such a tender part of yourself. There’s so much beauty and realness, tears come to my eyes.

    We all have our moments in life, don’t we? That day and that moment that I know, without a doubt, will always help keep the rest of my life in perspective. An odd little gift of sorts, I suppose. Thank you for inspiring me today.

    • Oh, Dear Lisa,

      Your comment makes me want to keep on blogging forever. Yes Indeed, life gives us “little odd gift’s of sorts” so uniquely individual to each person/situation. My quest is to learn how to lean INTO these odd little gifts vs. turning away. Thank you, Dawn

  3. Dawn, this is an inspiring story which I’m sure will give comfort to so many others. Sharing our own struggles, being willing to be so exposed and vulnerable, is a spiritual path of courage and compassion. The journey through cancer can be such a slap awake, and at the same time terrifying and demanding. It asks that we listen to ourselves in a new way–something that you show very well here and in your other posts.
    Blessings to you as you share your brave story!
    –Linda Joy

    • Hi Linda Joy,

      Sometimes the truth is not pretty but relating to another’s imperfections helps me on difficult journey’s.
      Thank you Linda Joy. Be well my friend. Dawn

  4. This post takes me right beack to the trip I took with my two children ages 5 and 7 leaving their father and my ex-husband in Fresno and coming to Sequim alone to start a single mother life. Wow! Very difficult and terrifying times with lots of responsibility and fear.
    Yet with love of family and community we survived and 16 years later just a memory. Good writing Dawn !

    • Hi Ridelle,

      Sometimes the journey’s are so heartbreaking that it takes awhile to figure out the strength’s and spiritual learning’s gleaned from the experiences. Love, dawn

  5. Dianne Drake says:

    So tender, tears are running down my face.. I need a kleenex..

  6. Dawn, what a moving wonderful blog. today. Today it touched me and stayed with me. I do review the past to fortify my strength in present difficulties. My scars are a road map of where I’ve been, but more than that, the scars help tell me who I am. I’ve learned to love them as a part of my whole. Would I ever want to go back and live the last thirty five years again. No, but I am a better person for living those years. Life is good…. and your blog makes it better. 🙂 Thanks for writing and my Mom says thanks, too

    • Dear Betsy,

      Dear Betsy,

      Thank you for following my posts. When you told me your mother’s reaction after reading my first cancer blog to your 87 year old mother who had a mastectomy 17 years ago, it warmed my heart beyond measure. “Causing her to laugh until tears ran down her cheeks”, because she identified with the vanity part, made all of my writings pertaining to cancer worth the effort. It matters very much to me that other woman can relate to these posts. After you told me about your mom, my wonderings ceased for I knew that my words had mattered to at least one person. Now you tell me that you have also been impacted. You Betsy are the one who has inspired me, thank you and thank you so very much for taking the time to comment. Best always, Dawn

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