August 9, 2017

My Face after Cancer—How I’m Learning to Let Go of my Reflection.

*Author’s note: The photo on the left is after surgery and the right is two months after, with make-up.
I look forward to continued healing. 


Last night, I dreamed about the movie “Face/Off.”

If you haven’t seen it, the characters have their faces surgically exchanged.

My dream was prompted by a recent surgery of my own. No, I didn’t have my entire face removed and swapped for someone else’s; but, I did have extensive surgery for basal cell carcinoma on the left side of my face.

The cancer is gone, and I am lucky. But, looking in the mirror at my misshapen face is both jarring and disconcerting.

As someone who considers themselves a deeply spiritual person and as a yoga instructor, I am vaguely surprised by how much my sense of self actually derives from my face.

As I re-enter my community with a long, pink, raised incision line across my face and still-crooked smile, I encounter averted faces and uncomfortable stares. Or, is it just my imagination?

What a great lesson this experience is for me! Intellectually, I know there is so much more to my identity than my visage. The essence of me is far deeper and much more expansive. So, why the struggle?

Maybe I need to remember the lessons of the monks.

I recently had the good fortune of spending time with visiting Tibetan Buddhist monks, who spent many hours and days creating their intricate, brightly colored sand mandala, only to brush it away with respect and joy. They then ceremoniously threw the sand into the local river for it to be absorbed by Mother Earth, a symbolic reminder of both our impermanence and our foolishness in thinking we can actually hold onto anything.

The building blocks of our lives are impermanent: jobs, looks, friends, family members, homes…any of these could be gone in the blink of an eye. The possibilities make me quiver. The only eternal thing is the everlasting soul—our essence.

Putting my day’s checklist in order feeds the illusion that I can control what I cannot. Still, years, days, hours, and minutes disappear. Along with them are missed opportunities to nurture others, make meaningful connections, and walk mindfully on this magnificent earth.

The tick of the house clock almost mocks me, as if to say, “Hey you, the one with so much given to you, go out and love the world! Love all beings. Say what is yours to say. Dance! Fall down, and get up again. Laugh. Smile. Get away from your phone and computer! Be free, frolic, and dare to be different. Don’t wait!”

“Loving what is,” a mantra of Byron Katie’s, emphasizes that we are foolish to choose otherwise. If we deny what is, then what do we have left? We often hang onto ingeniously contrived explanations to filter our reality. These sometimes provide us solace, but ultimately deprive us of the chance to live authentically. Our self-delusion cuts into those precious minutes, those measured breaths we have now, and never again.

Many of us will recognize these truths already. They are the basic tenets of yoga and mindfulness. But if I teach yoga and I still need reminders, maybe you do, too?

I enthusiastically invite you to dance and celebrate with me. Instead of making that mundane “to do” list, go out and greet your neighbors. Perhaps that is the new list: how many lives can we touch in a day?

I know my physical wounds will heal. I have friends with far more serious medical issues. In fact, I feel a bit sheepish for focusing on this. After all, I am much more than my face, and my face will heal. Even if it doesn’t, I should not be lessened by it. With hope, acknowledging my struggle is a part of the healing process.

Who knows what the future will bring?

The ticking of my kitchen clock continues. It’s my cheerleader of sorts, urging me to seize the day.

I will venture out, excited and inspired to craft my own mandala—a tapestry of color and interest.

I will defy the “shoulds” I hear from other folks and, especially, from that persistent, convincing voice within. Like the monks, I will be invested and focused, but devoid of attachment, need for recognition, or inclination to preserve or keep anything as mine.

Will you join me in this dance of the “essence of self?”

The journey is so much easier if we support and encourage each other. This process of uncovering our greatest, most magnificent, connected, vibrant self, and allowing it to flourish. It’s what the world needs most right now.

It always has been and always will be what we all need most.


Relephant read:

How Seven Monks Taught me the Beauty of Impermanence.


Author: Ellyn Stanek Hutton
Image: Author’s Own
Editor: Khara-Jade Warren
Copy Editor: Nicole Cameron
Social Editor: Leah Sugerman

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