Alissa Diagnosed at 39
When I was diagnosed with breast cancer and thyroid cancer at age 39, I was already in the midst of fighting a soul crushing battle. Only a few months prior, my husband had made a shocking confession that ended our relationship overnight. The devastating blow forced me to stare down years of denial. I felt the emotional pain of heartbreak on a physical level. Rebuilding my life as a single mom, while questioning every life decision I’d ever made, had already sent me into deep grief and a profound identity crisis. But cancer?
I found myself in the eye of the proverbial perfect storm. It was oddly quiet. I had no control. The only relief I felt was a strange awareness that the magnitude of it all was happening around me - not to me. The situation was bigger than me. Scary as it was, curiosity slightly outweighed fear. Life had my attention and I knew there was only one choice: to sit down and listen, or to fall into a state of powerlessness and victimhood from which I would never recover. If I could stay at center, holding faith while the wild destruction of my life rearranged itself, maybe I could find greater meaning. Maybe if I allowed all the pieces to crumble, I could see them better individually and use them to create something magnificent. Maybe. . . After all, what choice did I have? From that perspective, cancer came to me in a different way than most. It felt like an invitation, a permission slip of sorts. I didn’t want to kick its ass, fight it like a girl, or tell it to go f**k itself. I wanted to love my cancer, to listen to it and understand its pain. Why did my body need to scream at me this way? How could I make things right in my system? Cancer woke me up with an absolute, non-negotiable truth: I had to show up for myself.
With the divorce, I needed to recover privately. With breast cancer, I called out far and wide. Posting the following message to Facebook was way out of my comfort zone. It was the first of many courageous moves I’d make toward a braver sense of self:
“FB is not my usual route, but in this case, it's the fastest, most efficient way for me to surround myself with love. Yesterday I learned there is a blessing in my boob. They call it cancer and the plan is to scoop it out. I call it a blessing because it's already giving me power - to share, to ask for support, to choose my attitude and perspective, and to live in a way I've never had the balls to do. I know you love me. I love you too. Thanks in advance for any kind words, thoughts, prayers, jokes, and whatever else you got. I'm wide open to receiving and I feel grateful for each and every one of you!”
As it turns out - being open to receive is Step #1. The flood gates opened and more support came through than I could have imagined. How did I not realize how much I was loved? How are we all so oblivious to the love all around us all the time? If my curiosity wasn’t enough, I now had the generous support of family, friends, and community to hold on to. My growing confidence and optimistic attitude were incredibly helpful. However, I soon found the road ahead would require new tools and tricks at every turn. I had to consume an overwhelming amount of medical information, while waiting in complete uncertainty for test results and if-this-then-that scenarios. I had to make really hard choices, all of which carried their own risks and offered no guarantees. There were unexpected setbacks, surprises, insurance glitches, complications, and worst of all - an infection that landed me in the critical care unit.
By no means was I bullet-proof. I was newly single and facing the loss of my breasts and hair. Would I ever be desirable again? Co-parenting schedules had to make way for chemotherapy and unexpected trips to the ER. Would my daughters understand? Often I couldn’t shake the feeling that maybe I’d done something to deserve cancer. Did I not wear the right deodorant? Eat the right foods? Maybe something awful in my past - anything. Even with the support from loved ones, much of the physical and emotional pain was mine alone to endure. I held tight, mostly to my Mom and three daughters. Together we carved out a sacred space to cultivate the strength and wisdom of a higher power. A place where we could grow through adversity and become true warrior goddesses.
Which brings me to Step #2 - go within and get creative. Just before my first surgery, which would remove all breast and nipple tissue on both sides, my mom introduced me to the world of mastectomy tattoo art. “It’s a thing”, she said casually. “You can do whatever you want… flowers, hearts, etc.” Never heard of it. She later told me that from my expression, she couldn’t tell if I was excited or massively offended. I was excited, beyond excited - inspired. This was the way I’d put the pieces back together. This was going to be my magnificent reclamation. My way of taking creative control, of turning lemons into lemonade - or implants into a canvas for my heart. I began to collect images and ideas. I recognized and began to fall in love with the piece of me that could never be taken away. Not abandoned, not removed, not by anyone or anything else. Not without my permission. And so it went.
My treatment started with a bilateral prophylactic mastectomy with tissue expanders. Clear lymph-nodes indicated stage 1 breast cancer. Although I tested negative for the BRCA gene (and all subsequent genetic markings), my tumor proved high risk on genomic testing. Therefore, I received four rounds of chemotherapy. The following surgeries included, expander removal and implant placement, removal of an infected implant, thyroidectomy combined with implant replacement, oophorectomy (removal of ovaries), and fat grafting surgery. I was diagnosed on June 6th of 2017 and “done” around the end of 2018. Finding a word for “done” is difficult, if not impossible. There was never a moment when a doctor said “that’s it”, “you’re done”, “you’re cancer free”. And certainly not a moment when I looked in the mirror and said “Great! All better now!”.
There were only small moments throughout the journey where I decided to tell my story in a way that was empowering, not crippling. And when the dust settled, when post traumatic stress and the abrupt symptoms of surgical menopause started to wain, there I was - facing the same choice I had in the beginning. Sink or swim. Love or fear. The truth is, I’ll never be done because my body is not invulnerable to disease. I’ll never have natural breasts, and my family will never be the same. But, by choice, I’m done with being a victim. I’ve recognized where my power lies and have committed to loving myself unconditionally. Scarred, disfigured, imperfect, and rocking a serious chemo-curls afro, in the end - just as in the beginning - there was only one choice: Own it!
Step #3 - come what may - Own your story. And rock it like a radiant warrior goddess. I’ve never felt stronger, more beautiful, or more connected. I get to make my parents proud, inspire my daughters, and create a life beyond my wildest dreams. The library of tattoo and body art ideas I collected along the way was too vast to reduce to a single permanent design. Instead, in the spirit of playfulness, sensuality, and celebration - the idea for Tattoobie, temporary mastectomy tattoos, was born. I honor my journey by accepting the invitation to LIVE. We are here to create and to express who we truly are. Whatever we decide that is. You are strong enough, smart enough, creative and resilient enough. Here’s to giving our angels something to celebrate!
Are you a survivor, spouse, friend, or caretaker with a story to tell? We'd love to hear from you.