“The greatest mistake in the treatment of diseases is that there are physicians for the body and physicians for the soul, although the two cannot be separated.” ~ Plato
Our breasts cover our heart. If you have ever nursed a baby, it is clear that our breasts are not there for adornment, they are a primary organ of nurturance and sustaining life. They are enervated directly to our sexual center, one of our primary sensory organs to awakening libido. Their attraction, often confused with size or shape, is truly about how they connect us to our heart and the pieces of life that are most life affirming.
The rate of illness in this region of our body is mind boggling. Breast cancer affects one in eight women everyday. Heart disease kills one in four women. Just last spring, when I was called back to re-image a lump in my own breast, waiting in the hospital gown for a “better view” of what was happening in my breast, the truth of these numbers hit home. Any of us can become part of these statistics at any moment. And I knew, sitting there, that for the one woman out of eight who gets the unfortunate response of cancer, everything in her world and relationships shifts at that moment.
The physical illness that we aggressively treat with an incredible range of toxic chemotherapy or radiation therapy moves the focus to the symptoms and complications that these treatments exact. Life is consumed by the physical battle to sustain during these life challenging treatments. Many patients are left to deal with the emotional battles on their own.
This work of the heart is complex and layered. Whatever issues existed prior to the diagnosis have often yet to be understood and articulated, but now the more pressing fears and coming to terms with mortality and loss can overshadow everything. Few doctors who plan the medical attack on the cancer are equipped or have the time to explore this critical side of the illness. Even fewer recognize how much this work impacts recovery.
That sexual dysfunction issues are often ready companions to this difficult situation is not surprising considering the interruption of normal hormone production that the treatments precipitate. The results on a physical level are frequently the early onset of menopause, vaginal dryness and loss of libido. Combine this with the psychological damage of losing a breast, and the feeling of sexiness feels about as faraway as the days pre-diagnosis.
The irony of the situation is that the heart of the matter for most women is that serious illness of the heart region can often be linked to emotional distance and inability or unwillingness to share one’s emotional life. Love and intimacy are how we connect most deeply to our lives, our relationships and our life. The millions of reasons that we cannot or will not open up are as unique and individual as each woman’s struggle with disease. As we take time to honor the women who both survived and were lost to this disease, let us also give ourselves to the heart of the matter- choosing to love ourselves, our lives and the people who live with us.
Love is the one treasure that multiplies by division. It is the one gift that grows bigger the more you take from it. It is the one business in which it pays to be an absolute spendthrift. You can give it away, throw it away, empty your pockets, shake the basket, turn the glass upside down, and tomorrow you will have more than ever.
Our breasts cushion our heart. As our hardest working organ, our heart never sleeps, beating over 2 billion times in a life time and circulating 50 million gallons of blood. Impossible to think that one could ever take this organ for granted, but so constant is the heart, we rarely celebrate its function or recognize it’s needs. Hearts perform best that are dosed with generous amounts of love and can bear the thrill of new romance as well as the tragedy of loss with equanimity. They strain under repressed emotion and isolation. Studies show both more stable heart health and increased longevity in the context of sustained loving relationships. Hearts need to be heard.
A couple of days after my last column, I was walking my dogs in the nearby park when I passed another woman walking her dog. We exchanged greetings and decided to let our dogs off leash for a run together. I noticed her cap covering her bald head and asked if she was over the treatments yet. Hers was ovarian, though most people assumed she had breast cancer. More insidious still, with almost no symptoms to alert the victim, she shared her history and illness. ‘Last month was national ovarian cancer month, most people don’t know’ she added.
I talked about my last column and the responses I had just gotten from people I had known over the years of my business who had gotten in touch because they had the illness and wanted me to know how much my writing had touched them. The conversation warmed the brisk morning fog and the dogs ran. Having already revealed my occupation, I asked her if she was having an intimate life, adding that it was perhaps the most life affirming activity she could pursue. She laughed and said her doctor had already prescribed the same at least once per week. Both physically, to remind the tissue how to relax and open, and emotionally, to soak in being deeply loved, we agreed making love was curative.
I offered our organic lubricant solutions and shared how her sense of smell could help to awaken her libido. Giving her a handful of products felt like a privilege. It was a moment when giving felt like receiving, a place that I search for in life. After spending the day fasting yesterday, on the Jewish high holy day of Yom Kippur, (the day of reckoning for Jewish people everywhere), I realized that the places which both nourish me and block me have everything to do with generosity. The moments when my giving is automatic and easy feed me. When I want something back for what I give, whether it is recognition or advantage, usually do little to nourish me and probably don’t feel much like giving to the recipient, just ask my kids.
The connection for me between receiving and generosity is crystal. Giving on empty isn’t really giving at all. I was troubled during my introspection to admit to myself how much of my daily doing falls into this category. The spiritual paradox that Mother Theresa embodied and espoused is true: ‘If you love until it hurts, there can be no more hurt, only more love.’ Finding this place where generosity is true, without judgment about the receiver’s capacity or intention enriches us even when we give up our time and resources because momentarily it transforms and deepens our connection to what is most human in all of us. Being generous is like weight lifting for the heart. An exercise that keeps us all well.