Photo: Carol Sternkopf
For most of my life I was terrified of being weak, and scars are the manifestation of weakness. They mean that there was something beyond my control that harmed me. As a Marine, I had to portray strength. I was charged with protecting my country and its way of life. People looked to me for unwavering courage and steadfast devotion to honor and duty. I now need my mastectomy scars to serve as my new uniform of strength. They are not a sign of weakness, but the markers of resilience, and a choice to not let my life be dictated by fear. They are my new sense of duty and honor, to myself and to resilient women everywhere.
Instagram: @yulady | PHOTOGRAPHY: SHERRY SUTTON
As I opened my eyes, slowly waking from the anesthesia, I saw my husband standing over me like he always did when I had one of my surgeries. He held my hand and he was warm. He leaned down and kissed my face. When our eyes met, I knew something was terribly wrong. “How did it go?” I asked him, already knowing the answer. “Honey, you have breast cancer” were his words. “I do? Really?” I said, hoping I was still asleep. “Yes, my love, really.”
It’s amazing the strength you can find when you must. At the age of 32, I was in for the fight of my life and I needed strength. Some of my strength came from the outside. My family and friends were all there for me, but everyone treats you differently when you have cancer. They whisper the word “cancer” like it only has four letters, thinking you can’t hear. When they look at you, they try to hide their fear, but their eyes betray them. As much as I would like to tell you I found my strength from their support, I cannot. I am married to the love of my life. Together we are raising six amazing children. I found my strength inside of me. I found my strength because I refused to allow cancer to change the way I loved. I found so much strength I didn’t know what to do. Of course, there were such terrible lows during the whole process of surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation. However, the worse I felt physically from the treatments, the stronger I felt mentally. When my body was so beaten that I could barely move without excruciating pain, I grew even stronger. It felt as if I separated from my body during these times. I finally stopped avoiding it and allowed fear and doubt to wash over me. I opened my heart and let them cleanse me. I burned them in the fire of my soul and was born again stronger and more aware.
I am no one special. I am just like you. I am a mother that loves her kids. I am a wife that loves her husband. I am a teacher that loves her students. This photo was taken after I was given a clean bill of health. The strength and love you see in my face did not come from knowing I had won for now, knowing that I had kicked cancer’s ass. It came the day I burned fear and doubt. It has never left.
Instagram: @kate_bartolotta | katebartolotta.com
Last year, I lost my hair, my ovaries, and a breast while fighting breast cancer. It was also one of the best years of my life. In March 2015, when I couldn’t shake the feeling that something was different or wrong with my left breast, I pushed until I got an appointment with a breast specialist. A few appointments later, and I was sitting in an oncologist’s office talking about PET scans and possible treatment
plans. Not how I expected to be spending a typical Tuesday afternoon. It was unexpected, to say the least. Wellness has been a huge focus for me, for my entire adult life. At 39, I was too young for breast cancer. Right? This is what happened to other people. People who didn’t take care of themselves. This wasn’t for me.
I remember walking around Target—crying—after one of the first few appointments before the diagnosis was official. I ended up buying some glitter and kombucha, because, you know, what else do you buy when you might have cancer? I remember those days waiting for the biopsy results to come back. I remember praying. And if you want to know the reality of praying without ceasing, it’s what happens when you’re waiting on biopsy results. I wanted a miracle. I wanted the results to be wrong. I wanted to go back and have them find that the tumor had miraculously gone. I did every good thing I could think of, and I prayed—without ceasing—for a miracle.
And what I learned was this: When we open up, and we ask for a miracle, we always get a miracle. But while we hope or pray for our situation to change, sometimes the bigger miracle is that we change. And so I dove in. I started journaling my experience on Instagram, partly to keep friends and family in the loop, but also to demystify cancer a little. I found that so many people who wanted to talk to me about cancer and give advice were really just looking for a place to share their fears and how cancer had touched their lives. I shared pictures of my first day of chemo, shaving my head, playing with wigs, my first day post-mastectomy, first day of radiation. I wanted to let people know that loving your life can include loving the hard parts, the dark and twisty parts, the parts that society tells us are unlovable. But perhaps the biggest gift of cancer was learning how to truly and deeply receive.
Each chemo day, I dressed up—sundress, my favorite earrings, and plenty of lip gloss—and made a day of it. I treated it like my date with cancer. And then I’d come home and let family and friends wait on me and take care of me. Post-surgery, I had to have help with nearly everything for a few weeks. And while radiation was one of the “easiest” parts of treatment, there were days when it took all the energy I had just to get dressed. And in a deeper way than I ever had before, I let people take care of me. My commitment to self-care as a spiritual practice went from an idea in my head to a bone-deep knowledge. If my life was going to be of any benefit to anyone, I had to take care of myself, first.
People often talk about “battling” cancer, or cancer “warriors.” For me, this hasn’t been a big fight. It’s been a big learning to surrender. Surrender to healing. Surrender to being loved and taken care of by my family and friends. Surrender to rest, grace, and letting go of my need to control everything. When the things we fear the most happen—and we survive—we finally get to the end of caution. When we finally surrender to loving all of what comes, we can begin to live.