Speak Eagle

Goodbyes

As we say goodbye to October, we also say goodbye to Breast Cancer Awareness Month.  I am reminded of two years ago this fall when I wrote an essay as I anticipated a monumental event in my life.  I thought it fitting that I share it here and now.  It’s a little longer than my previous posts and is entitled “Goodbyes.”

 Goodbyes

I hate goodbyes.  No matter how many times I have had to say goodbye, it will always feel wrong and unnatural.  Unless it’s saying goodbye to that extra five pounds.  I’m okay with that.   Or an annoying solicitor.  I’m okay with that, too.

But some goodbyes should never taint the odyssey of a life.  My life.

On Wednesday, I have to say goodbye.  Wednesday is less than three days from now- 57 hours, to be exact.  All the atoms in my world are hurtling at light speed towards Wednesday.  The day when I will walk into a hospital as a perfectly healthy woman, allow an IV to be placed in my arm, and then surrender myself to sleep and to the waiting knife of a surgeon.  I have no disease, no ailment, no physical complaints.  I hate needles, hospitals, and pain.  Yet, I am choosing to say goodbye.

Last year, my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer.  As our hearts broke watching her recover from a bilateral mastectomy, we began to uncover a family history riddled with breast and ovarian cancer.  She was tested for a genetic mutation and her test returned positive for BRCA2.  I was told that, as her daughter, there was a 50% chance that I carried the gene as well.  I decided to take the test.

Three weeks later, my husband and I returned to the doctor’s office.  We waited in the exam room, gripping each other’s hand.  The surgeon opened the door and walked in, holding a sheet of test results.  “Well, you’ve got it!” he exclaimed, as if I had gotten 100% on a spelling test.   I was shocked, but I wasn’t surprised.  With my dark hair and brown eyes, I look exactly like my mother.  It was fitting that I would share this element of her DNA as well.  The surgeon then explained my genetic mutation carries with it an up to 87% chance that I will be a victim of breast cancer in my lifetime.  Since I’m nipping the heels of 40, he strongly recommended a bilateral mastectomy as soon as possible.

Say goodbye to my breasts?  How could I do that?  As a girl, I remember feeling the first thickening circles under my skin, signaling that I was becoming a woman.  I remember my excitement when I wore my first bra, proud that I was finally “developing,” as my mother called it.  My breasts have since provided pleasure in my marriage, fed four hungry babies, and played a leading role in the formation of my identity as a woman.  How can I say goodbye to these “memory” glands?

After the shocking news, Brian and I drove into our driveway, greeted as usual by our four rambunctious boys, ages 7, 5, 3, and 1.  They tackled me on the living room floor, giggling and wrestling like a heap of exuberant puppies.  I love them.  I love the sparkling blue eyes of my oldest and the whimsical freckles that dot his cheeks.  I love the passionate personality of my second-born that matches his wild red hair perfectly.  I love the deep brown eyes and melt-in-your-mouth curls of my 3-year old, and how he tells me all about “Stai Wais” because he can’t say his “r’s” yet.  And I love the unmatched smell of my baby’s neck when he’s fresh out of a Shea butter bath.

As much as I enjoy my breasts, I would choose my boys over them without hesitation.   I don’t want them to see me ravaged by chemo, or worse yet, to be one of the millions of women who have lost their lives to breast cancer.  I don’t want to miss a minute of the richness of being their mommy.  And I don’t want them to ever have to say goodbye to me if I could have done something to prevent it.

Eighty-seven percent chance.  If I were a betting woman, I would say that’s a pretty good bet.  And so, I have made the decision.  The breasts have to go.  They have become a liability, a time bomb ticking loudly, warning me that I need to decide what goodbyes I am willing to welcome.  Given a choice, I will gladly say goodbye to two lumps on my chest in order to live to snuggle the four boys of my heart.

However, parting with something as significant as a body part, or two of them, demands a ceremony.  That ceremony could either be a solemn occasion with candles and a eulogy, or it could be a raucous “pink party.”

Twenty of my girlfriends opted for the raucous “pink party.”  Complete with a buxom bikini-top cake and armloads of thoughtful pink gifts, I was thoroughly showered with love and encouragement.  Three friends performed an original skit involving various types of fruit being stuffed in their shirts- from limes to pointy-stemmed pears and all sizes and textures of fruit in between.  When the third woman grandly waltzed down the stairs with two watermelons in her shirt, we laughed until our faces hurt.  They concluded their performance by singing, “You Lift Me Up” with appropriately revised lyrics.

After the gift-opening bonanza of soft pink socks, jammies, chocolate, tea, art supplies, and precious cards penned with kindness, they prayed over me with scripture, songs, and words of comfort and strength.  We cried until we couldn’t cry anymore.  It was a fitting ceremonial goodbye for my body parts.

Body parts.  I don’t like the sound of that.  A bilateral mastectomy is a scary reality, and I am far from courageous.  I cry when I have to tweeze a splinter out of my hand.  I don’t want to wake up from surgery and peek under my bindings to see two incisions where my breasts used to be.  I don’t want to go home with four drains that suck the remaining fluid out of my chest for two weeks.  I don’t want to refuse to carry my boys for six weeks, or weep because my baby can’t lay on my chest to hold my shirt and suck on his index finger like he loves to do.

But I do want to.   And so, I tearfully welcome Wednesday.  I welcome the hospital and the IV, the knife and the pain.  Because this goodbye isn’t like any other.  This goodbye just might grant me a longer lifetime of hellos.

7 thoughts on “Goodbyes”

  1. Hi Heidi, I have never met you but feel very thankful that in my searching for brca support groups for women going through prophylactic bilateral mastectomy, my search pulled up your blog. I cried through your goodbyes blog post. My surgery is scheduled for this Friday. I have found myself mentally strong yet emotionally weak. Any advise you have? I have peace that God has directed me to this time in my life.

    1. Janelle- I’m so sorry you are facing this. It’s such a hard decision, but you are a courageous woman and you are making the best decision you could possibly make for your future! I have never regretted it. I do think we have to grieve it, though, because it’s a deep loss. So I totally understand it that you are mentally strong knowing you need to do this, but emotionally weak and torn up about it at the same time.

      I have started writing a booklet to help women prepare their hearts and spirits for a mastectomy. I’ve only written 6 chapters so far (they are really short chapters- like 1 or 2 pages each), but I will send them to you.

      My advice is to keep leaning into Jesus- His strong arms will hold you. And you WILL make it through this!

      With love and hugs,
      Heidi

  2. Oh how I remember when you first sent this to me. I reread it because I loved it then and still love your openness and vulnerability. I’m so glad you’re two years past this vs. preparing for this journey.

    I miss you and hope your little goblins had a great day. We had our most fun Halloween yet. My kids are getting older and it’s the best gift I could have received. Does that sound terrible? I’m getting to the point of really being able to enjoy them vs. always just straining everything in me to take care of them. It’s been wonderful and getting better. 🙂

    Love you k  Kelly Stephens Mary Kay Consultant 824 W. Pitcher St. Nevada MO 64772 417-667-5934

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    1. heidi noelle petak

      Thank you, Kelly! Glad you had fun tonight! Yes, I’m totally with you that as our kids get more independent it gets a little easier. I have been told to enjoy it now since the teenage years are coming! ha. We had a ball here in our neighborhood, too and the boys came away with a ridiculous amount of candy 🙂

      I miss you, too! xoxo

  3. Thank you for posting this, Heidi. I knew that you had had surgery, but I never knew what it was for. I’m so glad you had so many special people who were there for you. I’m thankful you have those amazing boys to make your loss so worthwhile.

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