Hearts and Flowers

Hearts and Flowers

From Chicken Soup for the Breast Cancer Survivor's Soul

Hearts and Flowers

I’ve been no more than a medium, as it were.

Henri Matisse

It was June 1988, and my husband was speaking on the phone with my surgeon’s nurse. My mother was with me as my husband confirmed that the breast cancer I had survived six years before had returned.

I had noticed a change in the appearance of my breast. Aware that this was a sign of breast cancer and knowing how important early detection is, I immediately made an appointment with my surgeon. After several tests and confirmation that the cancer had returned, my doctor recommended removal of my right breast and six months of chemotherapy.

I was frightened beyond belief and numbed. I couldn’t believe this was happening. My life had been happy and unmarred by tragedy. I was a devoted daughter and sister, had lots of friends, had gone to college, married a wonderful man, had two beautiful children, a home, hobbies—a blessed life. But breast cancer does not discriminate.

The surgery to remove my breast was uneventful, and breast reconstruction was not recommended for me at that time. Satisfied with my progress after a few days, the doctor was about to send me home. Needing the security of the hospital, I remember taking off my hospital gown in the shower and looking at myself for the first time. For some odd reason, I didn’t cry, and I accepted what I saw. I had lost a breast, but I was alive and going to survive! I went home that day to begin my life again.

I began chemotherapy and had a rough time of it, needing a six-month leave of absence from work. I spent my days reading, writing in a journal, and visiting with family and friends. Between treatments, my husband took me on short vacations and to the movies. By the time Christmas rolled around, my treatments had ended, and I happily attended my husband’s annual holiday party.

One day after showering, it became suddenly and painfully apparent that my right breast was gone. I was devastated! Then I realized that for many months, I had focused exclusively on the loss of my hair, not the loss of my breast. Now all I could see was a horizontal scar running across the right side of my chest. I was alone in my house, and tears flowed freely as I grieved for the loss.

My eighteen-year-old daughter asked if we could go shopping on Balboa Island, a cute little town nearby. We ferried over to the island to spend the day. As we entered the first shop, we noticed a display of paper tattoos of flowers, hearts, fish and seashells. We thought they were cute, purchased some strips of them, and returned to our beach house after several hours. According to the directions, after a few seconds with some warm water, they would be easy to apply, and we decorated our ankles and shoulders. After all, it was summer and a fun thing to do while on vacation.

The next morning transformed my life! I got up early, made some coffee, and sat outside celebrating a new day and looking at the beautiful ocean. Soon I decided to put on a bathing suit for another great day at the beach. Suddenly, seeing a strip of the recently purchased tattoos lying on the counter in the bathroom, I was struck with an idea: why not cut off a tattoo and place it over my mastectomy scar? I followed the simple directions, and, within seconds, my chest was adorned with a peach-colored rose! It was so pretty and feminine. I felt excited beyond belief: I had added a new accessory to my wardrobe and focused on a beautiful flower, not the scar.

Every day, I wore a paper tattoo. I wore flowers in the fall and spring, hearts on Valentine’s Day, seashells on vacations, and even an “I Love You” in November to celebrate my wedding anniversary. For eleven years, I had elected not to undergo breast reconstructive surgery. Even without my breast, I was content to live my life, healthy and happy. It amazed me how paper tattoos changed the way I coped with the loss of my breast.

I still remember driving to a follow-up appointment with my oncologist. Suddenly, I realized that several days before I had applied a new tattoo and, in anticipation of my check-up, had not removed it. What would the doctor think? The moment arrived as he opened the front of the gown.

He broke into a huge smile. “I would never put anything past you! And that’s one of the healthiest coping mechanisms I’ve ever seen! May I share your idea with other breast-cancer patients?” Of course, I was delighted.

I feel blessed to share my journey that began in 1982. Three years ago, I underwent reconstructive surgery and now celebrate a new right breast. I have recently been discharged from my oncologist’s care; he declared me free of breast cancer.

I celebrate every single day of my life. I pray for continued good health and have participated with my daughter in the Revlon Run/Walk for breast and ovarian cancers. The event is held annually in Los Angeles in order to raise money to obliterate this terrible disease. Crossing the finish line was emotional and exhilarating for both of us.

I don’t have the need to wear my paper tattoos anymore, but I have never discarded the ones I never used. I keep them in a special little box in a cabinet, and when I stumble across them, I see hearts and flowers and smile!

Joan Persky

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