For Richer or Poorer

For Richer or Poorer

From Chicken Soup for the Breast Cancer Survivor's Soul

For Richer or Poorer

We didn’t have a road map for this novel idea of living happily ever after, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health. It was 1971; I was seventeen, and he was eighteen. I was still in high school, and David was barely out of high school, yet we faced the road ahead with blind faith of our undying love for each other. We each had scarce backgrounds financially and academically, but knew we had each other.

Twenty years later, my husband and I had the ideal family life: a daughter and a son, flourishing careers, and a beautiful home. How could life be any better? We felt that indeed we were on the right road to all the goodness that life had to offer—until the morning I was heading to the shower and somehow instinctively reached toward my right breast. Even though I had done breast self-exams periodically, I had never done them with concern, nor had I ever expected to find anything. This time, however, the instinctive move to my breast before I had even stepped into the shower was beyond my conscious effort, and immediately upon finding a large, hard knot, I was alarmed. Later that morning, I made an appointment with the gynecologist I had been seeing for more than twenty years.

My diagnosis was bleak. With a mastectomy forced upon me at the age of thirty-eight, so many fears controlled my thoughts that it was almost impossible to make life-saving decisions with any degree of confidence.

Our picture-perfect life had come to a screeching halt, and I went from a skilled executive-decision-maker to a woman who stumbled with not only life-saving choices, but also any simple, routine choices for daily living. Not only had I lost confidence in myself and in life, I had to try to face the realities of potential death while soothing the fears of our daughter and son. Then there was the element of intimacy with my husband. How was I supposed to make love to him in my remaining days when I didn’t even know how I felt about myself as a woman? It was difficult to face the fact that someday he might want to be with another woman after my death—one who would have real breasts. These fears were almost as haunting as dying. No one discussed these issues with me, nor had I read anything on such a private matter. And it was apparent that I would have to address this soon, as my husband was showing intense interest in lovemaking before my drainage tubes were even removed. I was worried I might not ever want to make love again. And if I ever did, what type of nightgown would I wear—could I even consider not wearing a nightgown?

I continuously questioned why this experience ever happened to me, my husband, my family and our marriage. Would I ever feel that I would be feminine, desirable and alluring again?

Our first few love-making episodes after my mastectomy are ones that I will never, ever forget. I cried throughout those entire moments spent cradled in his arms. I cried for the woman I used to be. I cried for the lovemaking we used to have that would never be again. And I cried uncontrollably in the fear that my marriage would be over and David would never want me again. Yet he held me tenderly, with gentle love and quiet assurances.

It wasn’t that night that I understood the depth of my husband’s love; it wasn’t even the weeks or months following. I still to this day reflect upon the depth of this man’s love for me and marvel at what the experience of breast cancer has continued to teach me about love, and all its varying degrees, year after year since 1992.

My oncologist witnessed my husband’s commitment to my healing process, as David had been at my side for every doctor’s appointment since my surgery. At one follow-up appointment, however, David was not there because he had an urgent business matter to attend to. So when I went alone to the appointment, my oncologist asked me if we were still together after all David and I had been through. This question shocked me, as if the oncologist knew something that I didn’t know. The oncologist then advised me that many marriages break up after breast cancer.

I reflected upon this information for days and was irate, thinking, What is it with men!? And, of course, I prayed that my marriage wouldn’t be one of those statistics.

It took time for me to understand that it wasn’t men I was really angry with for not accepting women as they were. It was me that I was deeply angry with and afraid of. I was fearful that David would see I was no longer seeing myself as a whole woman and hadn’t believed in who I was even before the discovery of breast cancer.

Amazingly, life was teaching me through this journey of breast cancer that I was a whole woman with the young, beautiful breasts I used to have, as well as with the complete removal of one breast and another significantly reduced. I have learned that the more whole I feel about myself, the more whole I feel about my life and my marriage.

Without my “real” breasts, I now feel more whole as a woman than before. I never expected that the journey, which started with the words “for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health,” would eventually lead me to experience richer values, in spite of my health.

Beverly Vote

“I’m past the sexy nightie stage of my life.
I’ve rediscovered my flannel side.”

Reprinted with permission of Stephanie Piro ©2002.

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