I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1981, had a radical mastectomy, and was told that if I lasted five more years, I was cured. I survived, but fear of recurrence prevented me from living. Only gradually did I discover my healing journey, from wearing a mountain to becoming mountain, and my life’s work as a spiritual midwife and writer. I live near Depoe Bay, OR, in “paradise” overlooking the Pacific, where I am becoming ocean.
Creative Nonfiction published in Unbearable Uncertainty: Fear of Breast Cancer Recurrence, Massachusetts Breast Cancer Network in 2001. ISBN# 0-9678052-7-9.
Tcha-ti-man-wis,Place Where the Spirit Dwells, Mary’s Peak profile, looks just like my prosthesis:I wear the sacred mountain.
Fear of cancer recurrence — a fear so tight we cannot move or live — is what kills us. Fear kills our rebellious impulses to live, freezes us in postures of desperation, the try-anything, try-nothing modes of subsisting, as we wait for doom.
Fear itself is the killer. It cuts us off from God, the Divine. We feel lost, betrayed, bereft. Trapped in fear, we ask, Why me? Getting free from such fear is a spiritual path. Mine led me to my mountain, Native American ancestors, and healing work with the dying.
I want to share stories about the connection between my silicone Outplant and my mountain, Tcha-ti-man-wis — Place Where the Spirits Dwell — which hovers over and guards Corvallis, Oregon. Part of my spiritual path has been to bring back ceremonies to honor the Kalapuyan ancestors of this place, highest peak in the Coast Range.
Along with discovering landscape as part of my body came discovering my body as part of the landscape: women’s breasts as landscape — titon, tit, tor, pap — birthing goddess mountains. I’ve learned that thinking like a mountain (Aldo Leopold) is not enough; I must become mountain to fully heal.
Once, one in nine women got breast cancer; now we are one in eight. These stories are dedicated to us. May we lead full, fearless lives.
My Life AC–After Cancer
It’s 1981. After the mastectomy, I die of fear for two days until my lymph node results turn out negative. Old Stone Face, my surgeon, wants to take out other organs. Before cancer gets to them. I decline his offer to remove healthy tissue. He says, “Well, then, if you don’t have a recurrence in five years, you’re cured.” It’s clear I must heal myself.
My scar is healing, I do my Reach-for-Recovery exercises. I draw up a Five Year Plan to change my life. What do I want to change? What do I want to do with my life? I cannot think to answer. A more important question blots out everything else: How do I get rid of fear?
Fear because I’ve just seen my sister-in-law, Leona Black Crow, die of metastasized breast cancer. Fear because on Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, cancer is everywhere.
My first step: seek spiritual help. As a loner, I tend to “do it myself.” Now I ask my Lakota relatives to help me put on a four-day doctoring ceremony for cancer-prevention, protection by the spirit people. I need allies, so I surround myself with praying people.
Second step: change my diet. We live on treaty rations — government commodities, full of paraffin and fat. We drink lots of coffee, maybe twenty cups a day. We drink uranium-polluted water. I become vegetarian, grow my own salads, buy bottled water.
Third step: change my stress level. I top out the stress test: I must stop worrying about money, drunks, and the buffalo getting loose. So I get a job at the local archery factory, divorce my alcoholic husband and we sell the buffalo herd. My rush-rush life turns into peaceful days. I sleep eight hours a night. My own healing comes first.
Fourth step: change my friends and lifestyle. I say NO to_everyone, rescue no one but me. I seek fun and laughter,_listen only to positive gossip.
And so I survive my five years. I spend them surviving. I am home free, but I am not free. My only plan has been to survive, and now that I have survived, I have no future.
I’m still bound up in fear. My body feels ugly. No one will want me as I am. Unlike Deena Metzger (Tree), my scar has no meaning. It is not a tree, just a scar. I could not bear a painful tattoo which enhances the scar I’m doing my best to ignore.
I also decline a painful and expensive reconstruction, a silicone implant to leak later and endanger my health, even if my scar turns off any potential lover.
All this time I feel incomplete. My body is half female, half male. I’ve not become a Wounded Healer. I live an imperfect, lopsided life.
I don’t feel strong as an Amazon, for I know that they would never have cut off their breasts to become warriors. I try to feel androgynous, but I’m not brave enough,like Audre Lorde (The Cancer Journals), to wear one-breasted fashions. Instead, I wear a prosthesis.
Prosthesis — the ugliest word in the English language. I hate my slippery gel packed into a thin coating. It lies there inert, heavy and stinky and ugly. I try to befriend it, but I can’t find a comforting nickname, as with my cats, cars or computers.
I call it my Outplant. Outplant for Outrage. I am still furious at the way breast cancer victims — yes, victims — are treated. I know I must accept my prosthesis, accept my lot, and get on with life. But I’m afraid.
I hide my fear with an amnesia called denial. I forget I once had cancer. I throw myself into activity, do everything I want — physical labor, no problem.
I pretend I’m just like everyone else. I become an invisible breast cancer survivor. I stand out only in the locker rooms of the gym and pool, where I’m the only one-breasted person.
Silicone Outplant to Mountain Implant: Discovering Landscape as Part of My Body
Before I can change myself, my father has a heart attack and I move to Corvallis, Oregon, to be near him. The Corvallis logo, a profile of Mary’s Peak, the highest mountain in the Coast Range, is everywhere — on city signs and vehicles, on city letterheads – though I barely notice it.
But one day, while sitting on the roof to repair a leak, I look up at the Western horizon. At 4000 feet, the mountain hovers over the city. It’s not a sharp, snowy peak like Mt. Hood, but an undramatic, asymmetric teal green slope.
This haunting mountain looks exactly like my ugly prosthesis. As I stare at the profile, I realize with shock: I am wearing a mountain. This insight changes my life, and I begin my spiritual journey.
When I go to teach at the Chintimini Senior Center, I ask if chintimini is a native word. No one knows for sure, but the director thinks it’s corrupted French for some Indian word.
Finally I learn it’s from the Kalapuyan phrase, tcha-ti-man-wis, the name for the mountain we call Mary’s Peak. Long before the settlers came it was called Place Where the Spirit Dwells.
Can I Pick A Mountain?
Little girl to her mother on Mt. St. Helen’s nature walk: “Mama, can I pick a flower?” “No.” “Well, then, Mama, can I pick the mountain?” “I don’t think so.” “Why not? Why not?” She dances. “At home I have a ladder.”
I find my ladder, pick my mountain and wear her. Tcha-ti- man-wis becomes my mountain. I visit her, driving the ten miles to her top on clear days to see the Pacific Ocean fifty miles away. I hike her trails, work on Forest Service projects, design signage for her native sites.
I join Mary’s Peak Alliance, whose goal is to “Make the Peak a Park.” Together we protest the old growth logging on her flank, and try to save her watershed, Shotpouch Falls and Creek. I hold song and prayer circles on her top. At Easter we gather there to see the first sunrise of the new year.
I study her unique ecosystem, including a rare Caddis fly found only on Tcha-ti-man-wis. Looming high above the Willamette Valley, the mountain remained a refuge during the Ice Age flood of 10,000 years ago when a Montana ice dam broke and destroyed all in its path.
I find an old Kalapuyan story called, “How Cougar Man Married Whale Woman,” telling how they both lived on Tcha-ti-man-wis during the great flood.
Coming Out Story # 1: Can I Wear a Mountain?
Me to group of women at a prayer circle: “Look, here’s my wound. I pull my prosthesis out from under my blouse and lay it on the altar. “What’s that?” one woman asks. “Oh, it’s your breast.” “No, it’s not my breast. My breast is gone.” I point: “It’s my mountain. See, it’s mountain-shaped.” “Ah, I see, a hump sloping down, just like Mary’sPeak.” Yes, but her real name is Tcha-ti-man-wis, Place Where the Spirit Dwells. That’s what I’m wearing.”
My Outplant becomes my mountain, Tcha-ti-man-wis, Place Where the Spirit Dwells. In my spiritual journey, I become a Wounded Healer, one who, through knowing pain, can heal. Wearing a mountain connects me to earth, close to the ancestors of that place. I never forget I am made of earth.
I gain strength from my mountain. I share her with others, help them find strength in their grief. I ask a Northwest Coast medicine man to perform a ceremony on the mountain, a burning for the Kalapuyan and Alsean ancestors of this place.
Afterwards I discover a lost Molalla great-grandmother, written out of my pioneer family history. Now each June we sponsor a burning for our ancestors, in the process retrieving Kalapuyan names and songs. Others bring memorial plates of food for their own ancestors as well.
When my father dies, I call a memorial service and scatter his ashes from the top. This opens the way for other memorials — my cousin, my uncle, a small baby — and when the time comes, for my aunt and myself.
The next year four of us fast, one facing each of the four directions. During that time a song comes to me, a House Mountain Blessing song. I sing it and share it. Years later I hear others still singing it.
Another year a mother has a coming of age ceremony for her son. For four days we keep vigil while the young boy fasts on the mountain. Afterwards we have a feast and give away many blankets to honor this young man.
In the process I have become the Place Where the Spirit Dwells. Aldo Leopold urges us to Think Like a Mountain; I urge you to Become Mountain.
Can I Be A Mountain?
“Breathing in, I am a mountain. Breathing out, I am solid as the earth.Mountain —–Solid —–”
I practice this part of The Four Pebble Meditation developed by Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Buddhist priest. You can be a mountain.
Go find a pebble that looks like a mountain. Then hold the pebble up, really look at it, and tell yourself that it reminds you of a mountain. Meditate on that pebble saying the chant slowly at least three times.
Soon you will feel like a mountain. You will become mountain. We all are part mountain. Part of the earth, solid, connected, anchored, at peace.
Now that I’m a Mountain, I’m no longer invisible. I come out. Show. Shock. At an androgynous dinner, I wear androgynous clothes, Audre Lorde’s one-breasted fashions. I make myself visible, as the one-breasted model, Matuschka, does on the controversial cover of New York Times Magazine (9/15/93).
Coming-out Story # 2: Goldilocks at the Hot Springs
The Medicine Wheel Hot Springs in Oregon contains four pools, one for each direction. The nearby Red Pool is boiling hot. The White Pool is icy cold. I hear male voices coming from the Black and Yellow Pools. Like Goldlocks, I’m going to find the just-right pool. Unlike her, I’m naked and not alone.
The thick central post has a First Aid kit and emergency button mounted at eye level. I feel like using them. Instead I breathe deeply and take four naked steps to the Black pool and slide in up to my neck. It’s hot and crowded, but I feel safe hidden by water and steam, which soak into my cells. Without a word the males shift away from my feet and ankles.
When I open my eyes, I see only four pre-teen boys dressed in knee- length cut-offs and black T-shirts that cling to their narrow chests. I laugh. They’re more embarrassed by their bodies than I am by mine.
Adults look away–commiserate and look away. Children ask directly: “Grandma, what happened to you? Were you in a car accident?” But adolescent boys stare, too shocked to look away, too polite to ask questions. Which is worse, their direct glances, or their awkward silence?
“Hello,” I say, “I’m Goldilocks, and this is the Just-right Pool!”
The boys reply with nudges and snickers, so I give them a chance to really see me. “Breast Cancer,” I say. “I’m one in eight, boys.” Emerging from the water like Venus, I turn around slowly in front of them.
“Take a good look. Nowadays one in eight women get breast cancer. I’m a survivor, I’m a mountain.”
I’m also too real. Almost immediately all four boys shift, bend their elbows and knees, wiggle and squiggle and spurt out of there.
Whooping and galumphing, they swing around the center post and drop directly into the White Pool. They shriek and leap out, splashing cold water on the tiles in a great burst of energy and diversion.
I call after them, “I could be your mothers or sisters! This could happen to your future wives or daughters!” It feels good to be seen. I’m tired of cringing and hiding. Forward, One-breasted Mountain!
Tor & Titon: Discovering My Body as Part of the Landscape
I move beyond fear. As I continue connecting breasts with mountains, I discover that in many languages, the word for mountain and breast is the same. For example, tor, pap, tit, and titon refer to both breast and mountain.
In the British Isles, Glastonbury Tor, Avebury Tor, and the Paps of Jura are all sites of ancient goddess worship at the Breasts of the Mother. In the United States, we have the Grand Tetons, Squaw Tit (Mt. Washington) and Witches’ Tit (South Sister). I hike amidst the titons, climb breasts and tits.
I look for lost mountain ceremonies. In four places in the world I discover the Birthing Mountain Goddess — her three-peaked nose, breast and belly — on Oahu, Hawaii, on Hornby Island, Canada, at Camuy, Puerto Rico, and on Jura Island, Scotland.
At these ancient birthing sites, I find large circles of standing stones, petroglyphs of women giving birth, ruins of birthing huts, and most important, the Birthing Mountain Goddess hovering over all.
Midwives must have chosen these sites to be near the Birthing Mountain Goddess. And in those days, the same midwives who brought people into this world also took them out of it, so that the peoples’ lives would come full circle.
I Bring You the Gift of My Dying
I move beyond fear of other’s dying. But not at first. When women with breast cancer ask me to pray for them, I smother my own fear and pray. But if they die, I feel as if I’ve failed them. If only I’d prayed harder! If only my faith were stronger!
Then one day a woman comes to me and says, “I bring you the gift of my dying. Please don’t try to cure me, like the doctors, who are afraid to let me die. I want to die. Please don’t make me feel ashamed, just accept me. Dying well is such hard work, I can’t do it alone. But you don’t have to do anything, just be with me.”
I accept her gift. I sit with her. She teaches me the difference between curing and healing. Curing the body prolongs life, but healing restores and renews faith. Healing connects heart and soul with God.
As I listen, I remember the ancient healing songs. I begin to sing to her. But it is not me singing. The power of the ancestors flows through me. The Spirit of God singing through me touches and transforms. We are both transformed – midwife and mother being re-birthed. My miracle is that I receive the gift of healing love.
I remember who I am: Mountain, Place Where the Spirit Dwells. I become a spiritual midwife, one who eases the labor of dying. Healing, not curing, becomes my work.
Curing the body is important, but so is healing the heart and soul. For dying is as much work as birthing, and healing songs can ease the dying labor. We can choose to die well, finish our lives and pick our own time of re-birth, our union with the Divine.
Cancer Cells as Seeking Immortality
I move beyond fear of cancer itself. I no longer see cancer as The Enemy, but merely as Body Cells Seeking Immortality. In their wild haste to replicate themselves, cancer cells with telomerase are as misguided as any Ponce de Leon seeking the Fountain of Youth.
Many stories warn against seeking immortality, from the Greek myth of Admetus; whose wife Alcestis sacrificed herself so that he could escape death — but not eternal aging and dishonor – to Oscar Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray. Although I pay attention to my body. I do not want to live forever, merely to be fully alive now.
Earth Our Final Blanket
Finally, I move beyond fear of my own dying. Now, twenty years later, I am finishing my fourth Five-Year Plan. I have lived so many lifetimes already: homemaker and mother, college professor, buffalo rancher, quilt-maker and writer.
My posture has changed because I’m Mountain, part of the nurturing earth. Even though old and chubby, my body is no longer ugly. My body is goddess. My fear has disappeared into the earth. My focus in life has changed from inward self-focus and paralysis to outward embracing of life, curiosity and travel.
I’ve been led from the top of Tchatimanwis to explore breasts of the world, from Hawaii in the Pacific to Puerto Rico in the Atlantic, and on to the goddess sites in Europe.
Anchored and solid, I’m ready to embrace my own re-birth. I’ve learned the meaning of the old Lakota funeral song, Maka shina, Earth our final blanket. As we enter the place where the Spirit dwells, we become wholly Mountain.