I am not a skier. My husband and our older children ski for the sense of adventure and thrill of the trails. I love being in nature and am a strong believer in positive family activities. Yet I find myself lurking behind on even the simplest trails, nervous about other skiers or snowboarders, and convinced that trees are going to jump out at me. I somehow muddled through years of ski vacations before I discovered snowshoeing, after our youngest daughter was born. It was the perfect fit for me. I was finally able to hike along in the snow, enjoying the outdoors and moving along at what could be a strenuous, yet safer-feeling speed.
I had just gotten my snowshoes secured and my little one bundled up in my carrier backpack—a small feat in and of itself—when she began saying, “milk, milk!” I settled down on the ground with my daughter in my arms and began to nurse. It was a beautiful, clear day. I noticed scattered people wearing pink. The numbers grew quickly: dozens and soon hundreds of men and women—mostly women—clad in all shades of pink. Many were wearing tutus, fluffy boas, or wild and crazy pink hats. I watched a particularly pink group of young women pose for a picture. One said, “say titties!” and they all tittered, echoing her words joyously. Their snowshoeing fundraiser had just ended.
I found myself longing to run right up and join them—after dashing into the nearest phone booth and pulling a pink tutu of my own out of thin air! I felt such a need to join in their camaraderie, their sisterhood. I was filled with gratitude for each and every one of them. I have one breast—and scars where the other one used to be, before my journey with breast cancer.
I go to the woods for solitude. To connect with the beauty of the land and to regain a sense of self. For renewal. Yet this day, amidst the stands of beech and hemlock trees, I was also filled with a strong and unexpected sense of community. I normally take the most solitary, least-trodden trail whenever I hike or snowshoe. On this day, however, I found myself drawn to follow the pink multitude that had gone before me. I pictured them all snowshoeing just ahead of me: their conversations and laughter faintly echoed in the crunch of my snowshoes upon the Earth.
In my county, there is a breast cancer fundraising walk every year by the beach. This was the fourth year that my family participated. It has been nearly four years since my cancer diagnosis. The breast cancer walk is always a strange time for me. Most people in my day-to-day life, outside of our family, don’t know that I am a survivor. It’s not that I am secretive about it. It just generally doesn’t come up. That’s one of the things about breast cancer—most of the world never sees your scars. Whether or not a woman chooses reconstruction, most women decide to be or at least appear to be symmetrical to the outside world … and so grows the assumption that we are. Once a year, at the breast cancer walk, I wear a pink t-shirt that says “survivor” on the back in big letters. I feel awkward wearing it. Some people in the crowd cheer for those with “survivor” shirts. It makes me shrink back, wanting to blend in. Yet on this day I wished to be bold. Part of me yearned for a feeling of recognition; for a medal or a pink tutu of my own to behold.
The next day, while snowshoeing again, I continued thinking about the women in pink. As I meandered through trails of birch and maple, my thoughts drifted. Where do I fit in? Not with other young mothers, when thoughts of my mortality are often lurking in the back (and sometimes the foreground) of my mind. After losing one part of my body in order to preserve the longevity of the whole, my breast was replaced by a looming shadow of fear. Would the cancer return? Might it be fiercer than before, throwing my life in an even greater tailspin?
Yet, when I am among other survivors, I feel out of place too. I am often the youngest, dealing with different issues than middle-aged or older survivors deal with. Even in the company of survivors who are in my age bracket, I feel I remain an outsider. I am the only one I know that has had a child after recovery and been able to breastfeed. There is great uneasiness, even in the medical world, about such choices. Each person and situation is unique. There is no one right decision for all of us. I learned through research and advice from my medical team that there were risks involved with conceiving and carrying a child. I also discovered recent studies, which indicated that hormones released during pregnancy and lactation can actually help prevent breast cancer recurrence. My doctors knew how much we wanted another child. We were advised to conceive as soon as possible following my treatment. We were blessed with a healthy baby girl. Despite some early complications (unrelated to milk supply), I have been successfully and happily breast-feeding my daughter with one breast.
As I trekked through the woods, I thought about my future plan to remove my other breast once my daughter has weaned. The BRCA-1 genetic mutation runs in my family—I am hereditarily predisposed to breast and ovarian cancer. In the quiet space around me, I considered my options: reconstruction with implants, my own transplanted tissue, or nothing—flat scars across my chest. I thought of my husband recently asking if we should have one more child…
Uncertain of my future, I continued my ascent across the mountain trail. My daughter was lulled to sleep by the rhythmic sway of my steps and crunch of the snow. Filled with gratitude, I paused to kiss her lightly on the head. She is my pink tutu. My silver lining.
© Rebecca Pine 2012