An Expose (to lay bare) on Breast Cancer

by Ann Pederson

“There’s no release from reality, no ‘outside’ or ‘beyond’ from which some transforming touch might come. But what a relief it can be to befriend contingency, to meet God right here in the havoc of change, to feel love like a stroke of pure luck.” (17) My Bright Abyss, by Christian Wiman

There is nothing quite so alarming like hearing my doctor call and being told that my pathology report indicates that my tumor is malignant to make the word contingency come to life. Mind you, the tumor was really, really small—stage 0. Some don’t even consider that worthy to be called cancer. But for me, it meant changes that came suddenly, though not without some weird, buried sense that the phone call would reveal the news it did. My breast cancer has a family history—my mother had it, her mother and her mother’s sister died from breast cancer. I never knew my grandmother—she died from the breast cancer when I was two. What I have found is that while I don’t really know her, I do know her at another level. I have a small sense now of the anxiety she must have felt, the loneliness she waited with, and the pain from early treatments that left burn marks. Somewhere in my cells I can feel hers; it’s a different way of knowing someone.

I can honestly say that befriending contingency was not my first reaction to the news that I’d needed surgery (a lumpectomy), followed by radiation, and several years of Tamoxifen. I was relieved in ways that words cannot express that the cancer had not spread, that it was local, that it was small. But with the diagnosis came the experience of feeling vulnerable that I have not known in quite this way. All of a sudden the very private part of you that you are told to keep covered is exposed to all kinds of eyes, hands, radiation treatments, and ongoing mammograms. The news from my doctor was an expose: a bringing out what was hidden, an uncovering of what was protected.

Not that the exposure that I experienced wasn’t necessary or even accompanied by friendly staff, excellent physicians, and kind aides. To expose oneself is to become vulnerable, like the way I see my dog turn on his back to get affection. But the dog’s turning toward me is born out of a relationship of trust, one that is already established. He has befriended the contingency of our relationship; it’s no longer one of pure luck but of pure and deep friendship between companion species. Like Wiman, I felt no “outside” or “beyond” transforming touch from God. It didn’t happen that way at all. What did happen came while I waited in the radiation changing area, when along with two other women, we started talking about our experience with cancer. I saw these same women day after day. I never knew their names; for some reason that didn’t seem necessary. But I did know their cancer stories, the condition of their skin, their fear and anxieties expressed in small stories. I wasn’t the only one who experienced the havoc of change, the anxiety of what the future would hold, and the deep, deep somewhere down deep fatigue that the whole process brought. And knowing that I was not alone, that these women knew exactly what I felt brought relief from my sense of isolation. I found friends, with no names, whose experience of contingency led me to a kind of transformation that wasn’t about “outside” or “beyond” but deep within my body. I’m so grateful for these unnamed women. I’m in the process now of becoming a friend to this thing called cancer—brought about by chance, a stroke of “pure luck.” This will take time.