as told to PBCC Centre County Captain Tammy Miller
Tucked away in the beautiful farmlands of Montour County, in her small, serene studio you will find our Survivor Spotlight shining on artist Mary Lapos.
How did you learn of your breast cancer diagnosis?
After years of dealing with fibrocystic symptoms, including exploratory surgeries to make sure there were no cancer cells, in the fall of 1989, cancer cells were detected and that’s where my journey to survivorship began. I was a strong swimmer during that time, and after the lumpectomy, I had to quit for a while until I healed. I then went on to set records in the 50m freestyle swim. I believe exercise is very important to recovery.
About 6 months later, on a self-exam, I felt a lump in the other breast. I vividly recall my male doctor telling me, “It’s not so bad since we caught it early.” I wanted to ask him how he would feel if he had to have one of his body parts cut off, but I thought better of it at the time. For some reason I felt angry and defeated after this surgery, and I realize now that I held this for a long time, until my art started to heal the full woman within.
What type of treatment did you have?
I had a double mastectomy. I researched the heck out of it and determined at the time that there wasn’t really anything with long term guarantees. I did have radiation, but it exhausted me, and I took Tamoxifen for five years. I had paste on boobs, which worked great until they slid off in the Summer. I was still swimming, which, again, I believe helped me tremendously.
I chose not to do any reconstruction. At the time, you had to come back 6 weeks later to remove the questionable material, and I just couldn’t stand the thought of going back again and be cut. I actually found that to be an epiphany of sorts too, as my breasts were no longer tied to my sexuality, and for me that was very liberating.
You are quite an accomplished artist. When did your art become a part of your survival?
At the time I wasn’t doing much art with two kids to raise, a farm to run and working full time. However, as time passed, I found it to be a huge part of my healing process. I do not believe that healing is just the scars getting better, but more of a lifetime of living and loving yourself.
I did some art before my family, but I put it aside to raise the children and do what needed to be done. As the children grew, I started to return to my drawing and art and rediscovered a part of me that was forced into dormancy because of time and resources.
My husband died unexpectedly in 2001, and even though the passing and cancer felt negative, I recognized the loss and feel that it moved me into another place. I look at my life as becoming fully a woman, like a vehicle for regeneration. Almost like a tree, it is there to produce what it is there to produce, it doesn’t ask anything, it just does what it does. I don’t ask if art is my purpose, but I feel like a woman who is the source of the generation and regeneration and will just be there to help women of future – be present – we are continuous – art is that purpose to leave the legacy through my art for generations.
My art has evolved as well. The signature painting that I believe represents my breast cancer journey, and perhaps others, I titled, “Inside Out”. Although this came over 20 years after my diagnosis, I finally feel like I am healed. More importantly, it represents the warrior inside all of us. I started the painting in one direction, but it was almost as though the brush took over.
As I painted it, I cried and cried. I felt a true deep beauty immerge and I want it to be a gift to women, in hopes that they see their own beauty inside and out. It is my wish that this image can find its way into a useful life in the counseling world. It is raw and powerful and has truly and clearly delivered the viewer to a place where the bridge of awareness, compassion and finally relief are hers for the taking in the knowledge that another person has walked the same path, survived and is strong in ways the viewer could not anticipate.
What has breast cancer taught you?
For practical purposes, you can take charge of your health before you take cancer. It taught me that diet and exercise are key factors in anyone’s life – no one can do this for you – you have to embrace it, own it. My daughter has learned from me and she is helping to shape the next generation with my granddaughters.
Our mission at the PBCC is to help find a cure for breast cancer now… so our daughters don’t have to. What does that mission mean to you?
I made sure my daughter got tested, personal choices can be encouraged and advised, but this was important. There are different kinds of breast cancer and many are linked back to lifestyle. If truly genetic, it may be a difficult decision to have children. We have to manage our own life, own population, and own species. Otherwise, we’re going to have people who will suffer. We must make changes.
You can learn more about Mary and see more of her beautiful artwork at www.marylapos.com and her Facebook page.