It wasn't until I was diagnosed that I learned how to truly love myself, unconditionally.
The most unlikely and important love affair of my life began with me lying half-naked on an examination table.
“How long has this been here?” my doctor asked as she probed a sensitive area near the nipple on my left breast.
I told her I’d noticed the lump about four months earlier, during a massage. But that was a lie. I couldn’t bring myself to tell her I’d actually felt it over a year ago.
A wave of panic flooded me at the admission. I’d been keeping a number of symptoms secret (frequent sinus infections, recurring cases of pink eye, losing weight), refusing to acknowledge them even to myself. A master in magical thinking, I had convinced myself they were all nothing.
As I lay on the exam table, I had a momentary flashback: I had spent my early teens praying I would one day get boobs, and then much to my surprise, the summer I was 16 my breasts and I blossomed into a somewhat shocking fullness. While my prayers had been answered, I didn’t know what to make of my new voluptuous breasts. So I spent the next few years trying to minimize their existence, uneducated in how to appreciate and accentuate them—until I went to college and met a group of girls who were equally well endowed.
We and our DD breasts became the best of friends. We received nicknames from our male peers, like “the rack”—which at the time we thought was funny, but in reality required us to navigate a precarious line between feeling objectified and appreciating the fullness of our bodies. We celebrated many life events in the years that followed college, getting together for milestones like weddings, the births of children, and big birthdays. There were eight of us ... eight.
While my doctor ordered a mammogram, I kept hearing the statistic “1 in 8 women” in my head. I thought of my best friend Courtney. But that would make two of us. It didn't add up.
Courtney had been diagnosed with breast cancer just a couple years prior. Before then, I hadn’t been the best at keeping in touch. Courtney lived in Washington, D.C. while I was in Austin. But when I heard about her diagnosis, I’d sent care packages in an attempt to rekindle our friendship and provide support. I visited Courtney while she was in the midst of chemotherapy. I’d expected her to be frail and weak, but instead she’d taken me to a hot yoga class.
“Gotta move the chemo toxins through,” she’d quipped. She was amazing and inspiring. We stayed up all night talking, laughing, and crying. It was just like in college, only instead of smoking pot before a Phish concert, we smoked in her living room to ease the side effects of the chemo.
She exhibited such grace, strength, and humor, without denying the hardship of her reality. I found myself almost jealous of her experience, which felt odd. I walked away from that trip and took a long hard look at my own life. All was good. I had a successful business, an amazing family, a new boyfriend. But I was a master at internalizing my stress and unhappiness. Inside I knew I was on the verge of burnout, and felt like I was disappointing everyone around me, including myself.
Almost two years after my visit to Courtney, on Valentine’s Day 2013, my breast cancer diagnosis was confirmed. After initial texts and calls with my family, I called Courtney. We sat in silence for a few moments, where no words were needed. She knows what only someone else who has heard the word "cancer" in direct relation to themselves knows. And I hate that she knows.
“How is this happening?” she finally said. It seemed impossible to find ourselves entangled in this reality, in which two of us from our group of eight had breast cancer.
Nine months prior to my diagnosis I had adopted a formal meditation practice in an effort to reduce stress and feel more connected in my life. It was working. Meditation soothed my nervous system. I was sleeping better, and felt better able to cope in high-demand situations. In the midst of learning the overwhelming details of my diagnosis, I experienced so many unexpected moments of peacefulness that I remember thinking to myself, Oh, this is why people meditate.
My meditation practice coupled with Courtney’s practical guidance helped me believe that I could get through the multiple surgeries and six months of chemotherapy it would take to heal my body and spirit.
Courtney embodied a strength, practicality, and honesty that was assuring. She became my mentor in so many ways, like my big sister at Camp Cancer. Preparing for my bilateral mastectomy, it was Courtney who provided the most helpful advice: get safety pins for the drains; this pillow from Relax The Back; cozy flannels, like we used to wear in college. She knew I wouldn’t be able to lift my arms for six weeks.
Towards the end of chemo, when my present-moment awareness and positive attitude were waning, Courtney provided the perspective I needed. She knew in a way no one else could how it felt to lose one’s taste buds and eyelashes simultaneously. We let our hearts break open together as we shared our fears and died laughing at the ridiculous moments we found ourselves in. Oops, poor choice of words—cancer humor.
Once I finished treatment, I found myself in the unknown waters of survivorship. This is the time that's most challenging for many women, my oncologist warned. This period where we enter the world as survivors, and are expected to behave as if nothing has changed when everything has. Regardless of whether you're told you're in remission, free from evidence of disease, or need to be closely monitored, the realities of "scanxiety" and frequent follow-up appointments are a constant reminder that there are no certainties.
I experienced a lot of frustration when my recovery and reconstruction took longer than I had anticipated. I was careful not to over share my experience with Courtney, who was further along in her recovery and moving on with her life as mine was seemingly falling apart. But I could tell that being there for me helped her to reclaim some part of herself too. Bearing witness to others going through a shared experience reminds us of how far we’ve come, and the unimaginable strength we possess, as well as the importance of both receiving and giving support.
Neither Courtney nor I really connected with the word “survivor.” It was a technicality that neither one of us could rely upon with any certainty—only time would tell. We decided “thriver” was a better depiction of our realities.
Together we discovered new ways of coping. I shared feng shui tips I had used to make my once cancer-centric home into a space of health and vibrancy. Courtney shared new medical protocols and integrative practices. We compared blood work and new genetic tests we’d heard about.
When she told me about the USA show Playing House, about two best friends, one of whom gets cancer, we binge-watched it virtually together, and grew obsessed with trying to meet the actresses. It was as if they had hijacked some of our conversations and put them into their dramady. We felt grateful for the camaraderie, and for the release that laughter provided. Throughout all of it, our friendship continued to blossom.
Cancer cracked my heart wide open. It stripped me down physically and emotionally, helping me to discover my genuine spirit—innocent, tender, and vulnerable. There is a picture that someone captured of me laughing about something after one of my chemotherapy treatments. When I look at that image, I don’t recognize myself.
My bald head is surrounded by an aura of light—technically it was just good lighting, but there is something more potent in that image. I see a magical blend of joy, love, and open-heartedness pouring out of me. It feels like I was awake and seeing myself for the first time in my life. I look at that picture and know: that’s the moment I started to fall in love with myself. The kind of love that isn’t based on externals, but on a deep connection within. A love that is unconditional and inherent to us all. I like to think of Courtney as my Cupid, her arrow full of love, support, and the reminder of the importance of connection and friendship through the ups and downs of life.
In many ways, it is fitting that my cancerversary falls on Valentine’s Day, for it marks the ultimate love story. I’ve fallen head over heels with myself, and gained an even greater and loving bond with so many special people in my life. Especially with Courtney—my bosom buddy and breast friend forever.
Paige Davis is a mindfulness and meditation teacher. Her book Here We Grow: Mindfulness Through Cancer and Beyond will be published in May 2018 (She Writes Press). Follow Paige at hellopaigedavis.com and on Instagram @hellopaigedavis.