Almost 30 years ago, we learned my motherin- law Margaret had been diagnosed with breast cancer. The story was an all too familiar one. She had felt a lump and gone to see her doctor who sent her to get a mammogram and a biopsy which confirmed her worst fear. The doctor scheduled the surgery to remove her breast and check her lymph nodes.
A few days after her mastectomy, my husband and I drove up to Chattanooga to visit her and help his father with errands and household chores. Stiff and sore, Margaret was still recovering from her surgery. She needed some assistance dressing, and I volunteered to help her.
A few minutes later, we were upstairs in her bedroom picking out clothes she would wear for the day, when she asked, “Do you want to see what it looks like?”
Margaret was a very proud, private person, and she and I had not grown very close at that point in our relationship. Her question threw me off guard a bit.
Then without a response from me, she lifted her gown and turned toward me, showing me a long, red scar and flattened flesh where once there had been a breast and a nipple.
“It’s odd that there isn’t a breast there any more,” she said matter-of-factly. “I thought about getting breast reconstruction, but George and I have talked about it, and I think I’ll just wear a prosthesis.”
I didn’t know what to say. I finally pushed out a very awkward comment. “It looks like it is healing well,” I said.
“I’ll share a secret with you, Amber,” she said in an almost whisper. “The scar on my chest is healing, but you can’t see all the scars I have from losing my breast. Those don’t seem to be healing as well.”
In that single moment, Margaret shared something deep and profound with me — from one woman to another. She felt compelled to tell another female about the emotional toll she was experiencing, and it gave me insight into what she was going through. Through her openness, Margaret was helping to prepare me, in case I ever found myself battling breast cancer. I’ve been fortunate so far — no breast cancer. But I’ve endured another type of challenge.
In my thirties, I experienced several miscarriages. Even though the doctor told me that 20 percent of all pregnancies end in miscarriage, I only knew one other woman who had lost a pregnancy, and so I found myself isolated and alone in a sad, dark time. A month after my first miscarriage, a coworker entered my office and closed the door behind her. She told me that she, too, had lost a pregnancy, but she didn’t want others to know saying that she didn’t “want anyone’s pity.” We talked for a while, and our conversation helped me feel less alone.
A few days later, another coworker revealed she had also experienced a miscarriage several years before. She said, “I just don’t talk about it because it’s so hard to think about it.”
In the following year, I learned that I had family members who had been through what I had. I was surrounded by women who had been through the same traumatic thing, but because none of them spoke openly about it, I had no reference point and no one to talk to when I needed “understanding” the most.
So listen up, women — we need to do better. We need to talk about cancer. We need to talk about mastectomies and hysterectomies. We need to talk about miscarriages. We need to talk about menopause. We need to talk about the death of beloved spouses and children. We need to talk about being raped. We need to talk about being beaten by abusive spouses. We need to talk about infidelity. We need to talk about mental health issues. We need to stop showing the world our perfect, polished lives on Facebook and Instagram and share all of the really bad stuff — warts and all — with one another.
Let’s learn from my mother-in-law, Margaret (God rest her soul). Let’s lift our gowns, expose our ugliest scars, and speak openly about our pain, sense of loss and healing. In doing so, it will help others understand and endure whatever comes their way. Our friends and the next generation of women don’t have to feel so alone if or when tragedy comes knocking. We can help ease their pain. We can make a difference in the lives of others — just by talking a little more.