Breast Cancer Might Just Happen, and It Might Just Be a Sacred Journey

In 2003, reeling from a second miscarriage in six months, I picked up a copy of Pema Chodron’s When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times. Chodron’s words reached my heart and moved me deeply. I found an awareness of the rhythms of my life and my place in the Universe that made everything somehow all right. Things were not happening to me; they were simply happening. There was no why. There just was.

One of the most profound realizations this brought was an understanding that there was no Big Plan. There was no Hidden Message. I did not have to try to figure out what some Higher Power was trying to teach me. The situation itself was, at the risk of sounding harsh, meaningless. I was not being punished. I had not done anything wrong. I was not being taught a lesson. There was no divine plan at work. My pregnancies ended because the fetuses had not developed in such a way that life could be sustained. Any meaning beyond the biological processes came solely from myself. I could choose what it all meant.

I chose to see my pregnancies — two losses, followed by the birth of a beautiful living child — as part of my spiritual journey. I learned many things about myself on the path to motherhood. I also learned how fragile and precious life is, how connected we all are, and how each breath is a sacred act. I learned that if I see myself as someone who is a victim, who is being punished, who is at the mercy of a cruel and unfair world, then that is exactly who I am. If I see myself as someone who is on a journey, who is learning and growing all the time, who is made of stardust, who is One with All, then that is exactly who I am.

I choose stardust and Oneness.

I believe this Universe is filled with magic and wondrous things. I believe that each of us is a magical and wondrous being. I believe that everything that happens in our lives — every stranger we meet, every person we fall in love with, every crack in the cement that causes us to stumble — offers an opportunity to see ourselves more clearly, to love ourselves more deeply, to learn, to grow, to deepen our compassion and empathy, to connect, to exist. Life is beautiful, even when it’s also hard and disappointing and annoying and we just want to crawl back into bed and hide under the covers.

Breast cancer has challenged me to look hard at these beliefs. I keep waiting to be angry. All of the books suggest it’s normal to ask “why me?” but I’m not asking that. Do I want this to be happening? No. I’d much rather it wasn’t. I’d much rather be blissfully healthy and keep the breasts that have grown with me, that nourished my infant, that are a pretty significant part of my body and my sensuality. I definitely do not want this to be happening.

Yet, it is happening. I cannot change that. Even so, I still don’t feel that it’s something that is happening to me. It’s nothing personal. Cancer didn’t lie in wait, then pounce on me. Cancer doesn’t have any hard feelings towards me. Cancer does not want to destroy me. The cancer cells simply want to live. We have coexisted for some time. Our relationship has reached the point where that is no longer possible. The cancer is now making me sick. The cancer, unchecked, will kill me. Therefore, the cancer, like the weeds in my garden, must go.

My spiritual beliefs and practices, though, let me see that this is a sacred moment. I am making a choice to live. In exchange for my life, I offer my breasts. They are my sacred sacrifice.

My breasts carry visceral, embodied memories of my life. Their size and shape have changed considerably since they first appeared when I was ten or so. Motherhood especially changed them. They filled with milk, the nipples became more prominent, the little bumps appeared that make latching easier. I can still remember that rushing feeling of the milk letting down or the way they would become hard as rocks when I’d gone too long without feeding my child. I remember my baby’s cheek nuzzling against my bare breast. I remember my toddler’s head resting on my breasts during a nap. My breasts are central to my embodied experience as a mother. My child is now a teenager, but those memories are precious to me. Sacred memories. These memories intertwine with other memories of my breasts— of lovers’ mouths and hands, of the anticipation of impending puberty, of the silliness of middle-aged women laughing about the power of gravity (how far will they fall???).

I will still have the memories.

The breasts, though, will be gone. I don’t know exactly where they will go — a biomedical waste bin or burner, I imagine. I feel they deserve something more dignified. I wish there was a Breast Fairy. I’d place them under my pillow, and she’d come to take them away to her magical castle.

The Divine Feminine is a significant part of my spirituality. I’ve been looking for images and stories to help me make sense of what is happening with my breasts, to help me find meaning in all of this.

I have been thinking of the Amazons, the legendary warrior women who remove their right breasts to better enable their aim with a bow and arrow. I have been thinking of Artemis, the huntress and goddess of the moon and the sign of Cancer. I found an image of Artemis of Ephesus, the goddess covered in orbs that some have thought might be breasts. What if we imagine they are? What if we imagine that she is the Breast Fairy, receiving my offering and holding my breasts in sacred trust? The thought makes me smile. I wish that it were so. I want there to be meaning to this.

I know that there will be. I simply cannot yet know the meaning, the learning, the growing, the wisdom that I will find from my experience with breast cancer. I am in the midst of it; there is no hindsight yet. I do know that this is part of my life journey, that this is a defining moment in my life, that if I treat this as a sacred time, then it will be so.

I must be patient and courageous and take the time to move through this experience in the ways that feel right to me. That is how the meaning will come clear. The breast cancer itself is simply yet another biological process taking place within my life. The sacred, though, is within and all around me. Always.

I relinquish my breasts to the stardust, to the Oneness, to the Universe. I offer them in sacred trust, in exchange for my life. May they be held with love and care and appreciation.

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Herbalist. Historian. Talks to trees. Listens to birds. Believes laughter is medicine. Writes as if no one is reading. Founder of Mamie’s Way Herbs, LLC.

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Carolyn Herbst Lewis

Carolyn Herbst Lewis

Herbalist. Historian. Talks to trees. Listens to birds. Believes laughter is medicine. Writes as if no one is reading. Founder of Mamie’s Way Herbs, LLC.

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