Uncovering: Bindis & Bangles, Onions & Shame-ectomies

Who would have guessed that the only option for the Covid-19 era surgery date for my bilateral mastectomy with TRAM flap transfer would fall on my 45th birthday?

Karma?

Divine Influence? I still don’t know.

I’m still shedding all the onion-like layers the last year (and previous years) have presented to me.

However, I do know this.

The divine was present in every step and every decision I, my family, my community and medical team were a part of. My family asked my surgical team to pause for a moment of silence at 13:51 hrs, the minute of my recorded birth, during this 14 hour surgery. And they did — offering good thoughts to this person laying before them. What could be more auspicious?

This divinity, also called intuition, my guiding light, gut instinct, my ‘knowingness,’ has been with me from a very young age. I had a doctrined Roman Catholic upbringing; most likely the daily ritual of reciting Mother Mary’s rosary prayer with the family fine-tuned my Star Trek TNG’s Deeana Troi’s empathic-ness.

In South Indian/Asian culture, this kind of intuition is honoured as the ‘third eye,’ also known as ajna chakra or bindi. Hindu tradition believes that all people have an invisible third inner eye between the eyebrows — the belief is that the two physical eyes are used for seeing the external world, while the third focuses inward toward God.

My late nana was a devout Catholic. The intuition and knowingness she had was likely inherited from before our Portuguese Colonial Empire era. She and my mother didn’t wear bindis — in fact, upon the family’s arrival to Canada in 1970, all homeland clothing and language were concealed or discarded by choice. We only look forward and not backwards (with the exception of births, weddings, deaths, and anniversaries — regardless if they were alive, ritual prayers had to be done!). We must assimilate to our new culture and no child in the next generation should enter the school system speaking a language other than English. We need to fit in and have our child of colour integrate into this new world. For some of us, this caused confusion.

So, do we honour our ancestors and some of our traditions such as our curries, prayers, hearing a strange language that was only spoken by the elders, but not to the children? Or are we supposed to become a stereotypical “Canadian”? I’m so confused. What is this strange feeling I have here? Oh yes, it’s shame.

“Over the years, I learned insidious shame juxtaposed with deep love for family thrives in many cultures, in homes of immigrant families.”

So it begins. Shame, at the onset of my birth.

I was a tall-for-her-age Brown girl living within the mainly European/Italian Toronto neighbourhood of Rexdale in the 70s and 80s, who was encouraged to love thy family first, yet still dismiss the language of my ancestors, traditional clothing and jewelry, and anything that wasn’t considered ‘western’ approved. There was scolding if I had too much fun in the sun on a beach holiday — you don’t want to be dark… Lighter skin is far more attractive.

This little girl was hyper-obedient, and shame of my culture flourished, along with embarrassment over the darker skin pigment at my joints and scars, my height and size, and my overall physical appearance. I wanted to be anything but South Asian. There was a time that I referred that my family was from the ‘Portuguese part of India,’ like it was a badge up from the mainland folks.

Over the years, I learned insidious shame juxtaposed with deep love for family thrives in many cultures, in homes of immigrant families. My family was no exception.

What would others say? What would others think? Vanessa, darling, you must keep this matter quiet because we wouldn’t want the gossip or evil eye cast upon us by the community.

This led to a myriad of shames, which were hid under the proverbial rug. Not meeting expectations. Not being religious enough. Not being healthy. Disappointments with not following the preconceived life plans.

Yet, on top of that same rug lived gossip. Gossip about the failures of others. Not meeting expectations. Abuses. Anti-religiousness. People’s health.

Shame on them! They must have brought it upon themselves. Shame on them, they are cursed. No.

Actually.

Shame on us.

I adhered to my parents’ plan for me—somewhat—to get a post-secondary education, to wear the traditional gold bangles/choodis on my wedding day, to be a working professional, have children, follow the church, and then have and do it all while caring for aging parents and in-laws.

I met them at some fronts — completing a degree with a scholarship, marrying, and having children, and meeting some of my professional goals. However, I started to shift in early adulthood. I started questioning my established religious teachings, marrying outside our culture and religion, craving exploration and autonomy, questioning the notion of perfection, all while holding tight to that young shame so deeply rooted within me.

Who knew that these high expectations, paired with South Asian shame and perfectionism, would contribute to the breakdown of my marriage. OMG, a divorce in the family? And thus began the storm of secrecy within both families and community, both locally and back home. My parents stood by my side, with love and grief, but I still suffocated tremendously at the most trying time of my life, with my babies, aged 1 and 4, in tow. The scarlet letter was permanently imprinted at this time.

Yet still, with my knowingness, I chose the difficult road less travelled by my culture. Embracing the world of experts, new faith habits, and starting the seemingly impossible journey of not caring what ‘others’ might say. A modern way of divorce, balancing and respecting myself and my roots, I told myself. I chose Wonder Woman Motherhood by not moving back to Ontario with my parents, and kept my single parenthood struggles and achievements to my inner circles, my therapist, my church community, and my legal team. Yet I still faced critics, got the ‘looks,’ and likely much pity from those who didn’t understand (or didn’t want to understand) this forbidden path. I was going to do it all, and all on my own. I’ll show them all!

Yes, yes, this is shame in disguise, it took me some time to discover. This was still me aiming for perfection.

By tuning out the shamers and others who didn’t support my journey, I felt many more onion layers fall off. And a few more — they started to fall more easily. As they peeled away, I felt a new confidence emerge.

That shifting knowingness will always happen within the gifts of trauma and upheavals.

‘Ah, finally,’ I thought, ‘A transitioning me.’

I thought a new butterfly emerged from the cocoon back then.

Yay, I’m finally moving to the permanent version 2.0.

But.

Wait.

One day, this empath came across an unusual tiny mass in one of her recently growing fibrotic premenopausal breasts. Exactly 0.6cm on the left. Radiology even commented on the spectacular nature of the discovery — I would have needed to lie at a particular angle and palpate a certain direction. A needle in a haystack, per the cliché. It would not have been found standing in the shower, a typical place to conduct self-exams. Divinity Part A in 2021.

The plethora of appointments and tests ensued, complete with information overload, research, fear, decisions to be made, preparations — it was a hurricane. Yet, this butterfly was there flapping as needed and found a peaceful glide during this time. The knowingness was so aligned and present.

“We toggle between living from the learnings of the old world, which we were taught to respect, and changing the course for ourselves and the next generation.” 

Divinity Part B and onwards did not stop there.

Intuition told me that withholding the initial news from my family for about six weeks would set in motion the most de-layering of this onion I’ve ever experienced. I didn’t want their grief to cloud my decision process, and felt I could share with them when I had more concrete answers. Tangible and factual information offered some degree of predictably, not only for them, but for also for me. The disclosure suddenly made it “real” — finally unhinging my anguish into the world.

Yes, my health care background gave me some medical insights, and I tended to interact with my care providers like colleagues (and vice versa). I knew how to analyze the outcomes and risks, and I’m resourceful and know how to advocate. Once I obtained and organized all the information in my mind, and temporarily made peace with the fear and grief in my heart, my guiding light somehow determined my options that I eventually chose.

Who would have guessed choosing an optional bilateral mastectomy would yield an additional, tinier, emerging mass on the preventative side as well?

Who would have guessed that the immediate reconstruction would have been an option for me only during a small window during the pandemic? A few months later, all elective surgeries were postponed due to the Delta wave.

Who would have guessed that after nine years of high conflict parallel parenting, communication with my ex-husband would transform into healthy interactions while raising our two boys? Nothing like a near death event to focus what’s important, eh?

Who would have guessed that a random and early self-detection, with low enough Oncotype scores, allowed me to bypass chemotherapy and radiation?

Who would have guessed that armies of 10 and 13 year old boys (and their families) would show up with quilts, bodypillows, cookies and dairy-free gluten-free crockpots, and proudly write my name for the first Terry Fox walk at school after my diagnosis?

And who would have guessed a health scare like this would humble aging, loving, immigrant parents to their knees, virtually watching — three provinces over, before Covid-19 vaccinations — that their first born would face an unimaginable challenge with no local family support surrounding her? And predictably, like the expected drunk uncle to the family party, their shock brought shame along with them: “Don’t tell anyone in the family!”

I allowed myself to create a community of authenticity and transparency in my networks in Calgary and beyond. Thank you Zoom video chatting!

More layers falling off, living closer to my best life.

Yes, today there are still family and community members who still don’t know. Will they find out? Who knows? Maybe. Maybe not. Most importantly, who cares?

This work-in-progress butterfly is still un-layering by speaking to her shame-ectomy — to her experiences as a child of immigrants in a culture where shame continues to run rampant. Could cancer be a result of this shame growth? Could shame be excreting cancer as a symptom for us to witness? I am an anomaly, as my geneticist revealed. No family genes in your profile. Maybe environmental. Definitely a fluke.

Phew.

And Wow.

And Why?

As I de-layer, this shame will wither and not be passed on. I own my experiences. I own my failures and accolades. I own my dark skin. I own my culture and who I am. I own how this shame bubbles up to the surface, especially in challenging times, most recently during this breast cancer detection. I suspect it won’t be the last time it will creep into my universe.

I do know though, now is the time to talk about it.

I wish I had a magic solution to offer to children of immigrants here.

We toggle between living from the learnings of the old world, which we were taught to respect, and changing the course for ourselves and the next generation. There is such a dichotomy of values that live in this sacred space. They exist in synchrony, but not completely in harmony, at least for me.

How do we change this?

Do we change this?

Oh yes darling butterfly, more awareness to be had. Shame, onions and divinity, et al. —  Vanessa


This piece was also published in Wildfire Magazine’s “Canada’s Young Survivors” issue, released on April 16, 2022.  Special shout-out and thank you to Janet Pliszka of Visual Hues Photography for the photographs.


Uncovered: A Breast Recognition Project is a resource and ongoing project that focuses on the breast cancer experiences of Black, Indigenous and People of Colour. Through powerful imagery, genuine storytelling and more, it shines a light on the physical and emotional scars of breast cancer, cultural barriers and health equity.

Learn more and read other Uncovered stories here!

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