I Am Not the Woman You Used to Know

The following is a public service announcement. Ignore at your own risk.

I am not the same. I knew that I wouldn’t be. Somewhere under the shock, grief, and anger of my breast cancer diagnosis, there was curiosity. Who will I be when I emerge from this experience? Because I knew that I would emerge. And I knew that I would be different.

Many of my friends, colleagues, and students may be surprised at some of the changes. My family probably won’t. They already knew what stock I came from. The same genes are there. It’s just that the Greene family sweetness has taken a back seat to the Walker and Allen frankness. That Johnson sass has turned all the way up. Plus, I’m borrowing some of that “Don’t come for me ‘less I send for you” from those Barnes and Evans clans. Yeah, I’m finally living into the nickname that my grandfather gave me: Mess.Breast cancer journey

In the past 421 days, I have been through four surgeries and four rounds of chemotherapy. I have spent nine months with temporary implants the size and weight of baseballs in my chest (and no, there was never a moment where I wasn’t aware of them). I have had more needles stuck in me than I can count. I lay on a doctor’s table fully awake while he made a one-inch incision in my chest to remove my chemo port.

You better believe that I am not the same. I have looked a potentially fatal disease in the face and told it, “F*** you all the way back to the pit of hell that you came from, and when you get there, tell Satan that I said f*** him, too.” And while all that was happening, I celebrated the release of my first book and got tenure. I learned to use my voice on social media to make a clarion call for justice even while I was sequestered from the danger that simple illnesses could pose to my weakened immune system. And even though the battle is not over, I have changed immensely.

I am more confident, more outspoken, less tolerant of excuses and complaints, and less willing to spend time and energy on things that don’t matter. I have less of a filter and I curse in public. I might even be willing to dance in public without really giving a d@%^ if you think I move like a White girl. And I’m only filtering the curse words in this post because I want to make sure all my “good” Christian friends don’t get so caught up on those that they ignore the rest of what I’m saying here. But in real life, there is no backspace, no edit feature. So be forewarned.

I am even more determined to be an agent in God’s mission of justice and reconciliation, not just in the great big world out there, but in the spaces that I inhabit on a daily basis. If this is my “for such a time as this” moment, I am going to use every bit of it.

I am also more committed than ever to loving myself fiercely. I have ended my decades-old war against my body. I love every bit of my flab, every one of the 11 surgical scars that mark my torso. And no, I do not want to let my hair grow out to see if the texture has changed because I had learned to love that wiry hair with no discernible curl pattern. Even more than that, I love not letting my hair define how I feel about myself.

I am committed to enjoying as much time as possible with my husband and son. Ironically that means that we’ll probably never get furniture for our living room because we’d rather spend that money traveling. Plus, that leaves more room for train sets and dog races and folding tables for family dinners. We like all those things better than rooms with nice furniture that people never sit on.

This is me now. I am not the same. But, hopefully, I’m better.

A Time to Grieve

It was effortless, really, the way the tears rolled down my face. In the six days since my breast cancer diagnosis, I have not really cried. I have been a StrongBlackWoman in recovery for nearly twelve years.  And even though I vowed not to play the role of the superhuman sister who hides her emotions behind a brick wall, old habits are hard to break.  I’ve had a hard time connecting to the grief that I knew was there.  I shed a few tears here and there, but never for more than a minute or two.

In part, it was because I was still in shock. But there was something else:  I don’t want to be comforted.  I don’t want anyone trying to staunch the flow of my tears once they start.  Grief tends to make other people intensely uncomfortable.  And often they try to deal with their discomfort by shutting down its source. I don’t want anyone trying to cheer me up so that they could feel better, especially not with meaningless cliches like “God won’t give you more than you can bear.”

I need to grieve, and not because I feel hopeless.  My mother is a 20-year survivor of a Stage IVB breast cancer.  Mine was caught much earlier and I have no doubts that I will fully recover.  I’m already picking out the soundtrack that I will dance to when my doctor pronounces me cancer free. But the path to being cancer free is a really arduous one. It is going to disrupt every facet of my life and at a time when life seemed to be on the upswing after several years of major losses and transitions. It will be physical and emotional hell, not only for me, but for my family as well. And for that I need to grieve.

So this Sunday morning, when the tears finally began to flow just moments after I sat in the church pew, I didn’t fight them.  I let their cleansing power work, giving release to the grief and anger that need to escape for my healing journey to begin.

Photo credit: Detail of Mary Magdalene crying in sculpture Entombment of Christ (1672). “Sépulcre Arc-en-Barrois 111008 12” by Vassil – Own work. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Paint the Town Purple (and Pink)!

For as long as I can remember, pink has been my favorite color. Nearly everyday, you can find me sportin’ some shade, even if it’s just my carnation pink leather briefcase. Every once in a while, though, I get so inundated with pink that I need a break. In the year or two after I pledged Alpha Kappa Alpha, almost every gift from my relatives was pink or green – fuchsia suede shorts, emerald leather coat, rose-colored shirts, mauve sweaters, pink…pink…pink. For about 10 years after, I essentially purged my closet of all pink. It was still my favorite color; I was just sick of it.

This year, with Breast Cancer Awareness Month underway, I am starting to feel the same way. The entire city seems adorned with pink, from shopping centers to funeral homes. There was a time that I loved purchasing merchandise with that pink loop. My mother is a breast cancer survivor. She was only 41 when she was diagnosed with stage 4B breast cancer. When I tell that to doctors, they look at me like I’ve got an expiration date stamped on my forehead. That, together with my first lump scare at age 28, has had me going in for a breast smash annually for ten years now. And still, I’m getting tired of seeing the town painted pink.

Maybe it has to do with the commercialization of breast cancer. A few days ago, I passed a Rue 21 store with the display window full of ribbon-adorned shirts that had more to do with breasts than cancer. What percentage of this junk actually goes toward finding a cure? Or perhaps providing aid to the victims of this disease who are poor and lack health insurance? Saving ta-tas is nice, but saving lives is much, much better.

I think, though, that my frustration has more to do with the invisibility of the other symbol for this month. October is also Domestic Violence Awareness Month. The month is almost over, and I’ve yet to see a single purple ribbon (much less a 10-foot-high one mounted in front of a shopping mall). I’ve seen no races, no marches, and no men, women, or children cheerfully declaring their status as survivors. The only acknowledgement that I’ve seen was a spoken word performance at the church my family attends in Birmingham (and I’m deeply grateful for the prophetic ministry of East Lake UMC).

Long before my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer, she was involved in a physically abusive relationship. I saw and heard the abuse on more than one occasion. I have a distinct memory of being about 5-years-old and throwing myself between my mother and her abuser, yelling at him, “Don’t you hit my mommy!” But I was well into my 30s before I thought of it as domestic violence. My mother was not a passive victim. She fought back. She called the police. And when she was overpowered, she grabbed whatever she could to defend herself. She was nothing like those women on Lifetime movies, who cowered and hid behind sunglasses. So for years, I simply did not recognize her victimhood, even as I was a passionate advocate on behalf of women’s issues.

Domestic violence is one of those things we don’t like to talk about. Few people are eager to claim their status as victims or perpetrators. And even though 1 in every 4 women in the United States experiences domestic violence during her lifetime, those experiences often go unnamed as such. This is especially the case in the African American community. Growing up, I often heard African Americans dismiss domestic violence as a white issue: “No sistah is gonna let a man beat her. Black women are too STRONG to be victims. They fight back!” Collectively, we liked to pretend that a woman’s attempt to defend herself against violence actually nullified the existence of that violence, even though the perpetrator was usually larger and stronger. We allowed ourselves to believe the lie that Black women are less likely to be victims of abuse than women of other races, when in fact, approximately 29 percent of Black women have suffered violence at the hands of a romantic partner. We hid our heads in the sand while Black women, who comprise only 8 percent of the U.S. population, accounted for 22 percent of all intimate partner homicide victims.

If those of us who are survivors remain silent, how can we ever expect those who are still victims to find their voices? It’s time to end our silence. Let’s paint the town purple!