When something that causes us pain is hidden away for so long, its depth and intensity deepens. Covered under layers of emotion, physical and psychological scars left untreated, can take root in such a way that they develop a pain all of their own, one that’s driven by a longing to be set free. The process of peeling back our layers to expose what’s underneath, takes courage and willpower but it’s the first step towards true healing.
Our ability to try and understand somebody else’s pain is a human skill that requires compassion, and the ability to wear a set of shoes we call Empathy. Putting on those shoes and finding that they fit, gives an insight into how another person is feeling; the ability to sense and tune into another person’s emotions. Developing empathy, in a world where often it can be lacking, I think is one of the best life tools we can possess.
I took part in a photography session last month which came about through kindness and compassion shown to me by two very special women. I experienced a day where, through their ability to show true empathy, not only in their personal attributes but in their professional skills, I was able to make peace with parts of me that on a daily basis cause actual physical pain coupled with the ball and chain effect of emotional pain.
Like many people, I have scars on my body. A few are from childhood accidents resulting in a couple of stitches here and there. A few more are from later stages in life involving childbirth but lots of the scars are there as a result of surgeries to extend my life, performed by surgeons whose job description involves removing malignant tumours. It’s those scars which cause me the most pain.
The removal of my right breast in 2004, followed immediately by reconstructive surgery using part of the latissimus dorsi muscle on the right side of my back to create a new breast, sits up there with my most important surgical procedures. This type of operation involves intricate surgery, in my case lasting 8 hours, performed by a highly skilled surgeon who reconnected nerve tissue and blood vessels from my back to my chest, to create something that resembled a new breast (minus the nipple and every piece of existing breast tissue that he could cut away). Creating a new breast for a cancer patient from absolutely nothing and using muscle and tissue from another part of the body, is a special kind of surgery requiring empathy in bucketfuls and skill levels to match.
Plastic surgeons who perform this type of surgery on women with breast cancer do so with a huge proviso: that they will do their very best but it will be nowhere near an exact replica of our old breast/s. That is impossible to achieve but at age 37 and having already have said ‘hi’ to cancer once before aged 34 , many patients like me just want to be as near to ‘normal’ as possible (whatever normal is) and as far away from cancer as possible, so we nod and give consent to anything resembling our old form. We agree to undergo this kind of surgery in an attempt to be like the old us, the one before breast cancer took hold: in my case, a busy working Mum, with two young children and the rest of my life ahead of me……and two breasts.
N.B. Many women in my position, following a mastectomy choose to remain, what is termed in the breast cancer community, ‘flat’, and I totally respect that choice.
Breast cancer surgery is a practical and integral aspect of removing breast cancer from the body but I learned very quickly, at a relatively young age and the hard way, that cancer doesn’t just waltz in to your life and dance away again, leaving no trace of its existence. I learned that it can bring pain – physical and emotional, a permanent fear of reoccurrence and leaves you a very different kind of person to the one you were before. One who is forced to face their own mortality when really all you want to be thinking about is every day stuff like, what the kids are going to have for tea that night, where to go on hoilday next year and what to wear the following day that doesn’t need ironing. Anything really but the prospect of dying from cancer.
I digress, but looking at my scars has that effect on me. They transport me to fear, and are a daily reminder of my back and chest pain; old scar tissue that keeps wanting to talk to me with a grip that’s really tight, especially on cold, damp days, like this one.
Six weeks ago today was a very different Tuesday. It was warm and I was bathed in natural sunlight, providing the perfect backdrop to my photography session with Aphrodite Photography. The way that Deborah McDonnell and Emma Poole work has empathy central to its core. Together, they create something magical, made to look easy to achieve but in reality, like all the best magic does, needing a certain type of skill set to be performed correctly. Together, Deborah and Emma create an environment in which the stresses and strains of life are put on hold for a few hours, enabling you to lose yourself in the essence of who you really are.
They took pictures of parts of me that I thought were ugly, reminders of pain and fear but the natural light photographs of my scars have helped me to remember what they really are: a statement of survivorship and the beauty of life itself. Through the lens, Deborah and Emma spoke to me with empathy and encouragement enabling me to see what they could see: old scars being given new life with every click, every angle showering sunlight onto parts of me that normally remain covered.
Today I want to say ‘thank you’ to Deborah and Emma. You have helped me to heal. You have helped me to see what you can see: scars filled with life and love and hope.
A special thank you also to my fellow breast cancer survivor, my lovely friend Angela. Hand holding is needed so very much through cancer treatment. Thank you for holding my hand, the day of the shoot and always. xxxxx