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Carol Smaldino Headshot

When the Earth Goes Back to Being Flat

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Coming down with breast cancer is all too common these days, and it seems to be common knowledge that even with a decent to good prognosis, chemotherapy can be a brutal experience. With a decent to good prognosis, often comes the specter of the operation, lumpectomy, mastectomy, double or bilateral mastectomy. And with that come the varieties of reconstructive surgery. Unless of course one is either scared enough or fortunate enough to come upon a different kind of geography, which involves what is being called "going flat," which of course involves going back to flat.

We are coming upon the full blown springtime which this year heralds Easter overlapping with Passover, the same weekend bestowing me with my 68th birthday right after Ellen De Generes sardonically reminded us at the Academy Awards, that the most important value in America is youth. Over years of coming to terms with the importance to me of being Jewish and of Passover as a special time, over some 30 years the holiday became for me and close friends and family an alternative creative attempt to see us in general as not just celebrating freedom but owning up to our at best becoming free. It involved an opportunity to write something that felt fitting, which included personal tales of struggles, more global struggles, stories about our people's and other's roots, something always mixing with delicious food, the story of the Exodus as a legend which might engage and even fascinate, and yes, the Jewish jokes which just fit in, as contradictory as that might seem.

This year Passover has seemed too ironic and too sad to get into thoroughly. I live in Colorado, closer to the churches on ever corner promising out loud in signs for all to see, salvation and joy and of course God. But what makes it so much rougher is that I have felt so far from free, as I am the one -- and of course, one of many -- struggling with the breast cancer, the chemo and the reconstruction (which can also sound religious in its own way, what with reconstruction having some of the same letters as "resurrection").

Reconstruction of the arena of one's breasts can in fact be a welcome departure from the sentence of cancer and the anticipation of something so radical to the body as mastectomy. It beckons the nauseous person who is hating the lack of hair, and sudden oncoming of a variety of symptoms unwelcome, to look on the bright side, to a getting back of one's breasts in some way or another. And I who know of some people genuinely impassioned by an identification of one's breasts as a symbol of femininity, thought I felt the same way -- until two things happened. One is I have engaged in pondering the notion of having four surgeries with general anesthesia to obtain what is known as fat grafting (taking fat, sometimes conveniently from parts too hefty with it and harvesting new breasts with the advent of stem cells in play as well). I seem to have a wide enough chest wall to make silicone unseemly and besides I don't that much like having a foreign substance in my body. Plus, the idea of a so-called flap involves taking fat and muscle, usually from the abdomen and thus losing some muscles that would dampen life as I know it, namely compromising and possibly ruining my vast enjoyment of Pilates in particular.

The reconstruction lured me, to a future where I could look normal, that is for my age, and feel like I could fit in as normal. While at the same time sitting in any plastic surgeon's office, even the kindest and most concerned, can be a bizarre experience where every blemish of the human condition seems open to rejuvenation, some form of resurrection -- obviously nothing to do with Jesus. And then: an email from my dear friend Lia from Italy begged me to operate, heal, weigh my options and yes, my choices. Wow, that stopped me, and it may seem trite but the words reminded me that this is a choice. I saw my own assumption that anything would be worth having breasts "back", and I pulled back. I began to be open, well, to going "back to flat". Of course, the earth itself wouldn't turn to flat -- just my own earth, my center, my body.

The Internet, which can so mess up our ideas of getting to know a person and make it seem instantaneous and horribly ruined by group pressure, can also open up a host (sounding religious still, I see) of other ways of seeing things. Because we all succumb to prejudice and superstitions: I can have femininity only with breasts, or the semblance of them, is one of these. But then in an instance of worry, came also a yearning to be free of these assumptions, and at least to explore a new way of seeing, about what it might be like to go back to flat. It turns out there are two pretty wonderful web sites, www.breastfree.org, and www.breastcancer.org ,
both empowering women and their partners to have real choice in the decision making process. As it turns out, there are not only negative, scary reasons to opt for flat, but sometimes the sense of freedom and going beyond one aspect of a body to the whole person: imagine that.

I see surprise as trumping superstition, though one can't plan it. Passover is coming, on its own. As vulnerable as I'm feeling, physically and emotionally, I feel a sense of something less enslaving. Yes, it is vulnerable as it is important, to begin to experience that there is much more to me or anyone than the contours of any one part of one's body or any one facet at all.

To the capacity and need then, for empathy which sometimes multiplies and heals in ways we might choose to try to remember.