what surviving breast cancer at age 27 taught me about aging
(This piece was published October 2014 by The Huffington Post.)
My friend went to a cocktail party in New York City a few weeks ago. She introduced herself to a shy, well-dressed woman who was wearing a silk scarf around her neck, standing in the corner. My friend said, "I just wanted to tell you -- that scarf is gorgeous."
The woman fidgeted with the fabric and said quietly, "I'm just wearing it until I can afford to get my neck fixed."
She said she was embarrassed about the wrinkles that had appeared along her neck in the five-plus decades of her life. So embarrassed that she was covering them up, waiting until she had the tens of thousands of dollars it would cost for a neck lift.
When my friend told me this story, I thought it was an isolated incident, an extreme example of what happens to women in our culture of beauty where youth is an asset and age is a liability.
But then a few days later, I was walking down the main street of Santa Barbara when a young man pulled me into a brightly-lit shop, sat me down on a white leather stool and began applying products to half of my face.
When he finished, he handed me a mirror and asked me to compare the two sides of my face. On the product-influenced side, the lines under my eyes were subtly less noticeable than on the other side.
Because of this "amazing difference," he urged me to buy a line of skin care products. He laid out four small bottles side-by-side. For the beauty regimen he suggested, it was close to $700. For a three-month supply.
I quickly did the math. Close to three thousand dollars a year to make a few lines around my eyes slightly less noticeable.
I told him no, thank you.
A few days after that, I had a free coupon for a facial. When the esthetician finished steaming and exfoliating my face, she led me to a table where she'd set out the nine-step daily beauty regimen she recommended for my "lifeless" skin that would remove the "signs of aging" from my 35-year-old face.
Again, the total came to hundreds of dollars for the skin care line. I told her I wasn't willing to pay that much money, or spend that much time, on my skin.
I'm not trying to look older than I am. I apply sunscreen and moisturizer every day. I eat well and I try to get plenty of sleep. I don't go to tanning beds or smoke or do other things that cause wrinkles to appear before their time.
But beyond that, I'm not willing to spend thousands of dollars on skin products or cosmetic surgery to disguise the signs of aging from my face -- mostly because the subtle lines that have appeared, and will continue to appear over time, are actually a gift to me.
I was diagnosed with breast cancer at 27 years old. If you'd told me then, in the exam room where I first received my diagnosis, that I'd live long enough to get laugh lines around my eyes, or creases along my lips, I would've cried tears of relief.
I know young women who have died of cancer. One of my friends died at 39, the other died at 36. And many other young women die of cancer even younger than that. They would've given anything to live into their 50's and 60's and get all the lines and wrinkles and sun spots that age entails.
Aging is not something we should be ashamed of -- it's something to celebrate. Because living is an honor. Because time is a gift.
We should be no more ashamed of our age than a tree should be embarrassed by its many rings. Instead of removing the lines, what if we celebrated them? What if we honored them?
I don't know how much time I have. But, if God is gracious, I hope I live long enough to get old. I hope I have so much joy in my life that laugh lines grace my eyes and smile lines etch my face.
And I hope when others see me, they don't think, "There's a woman who should going into hiding until she can afford a neck lift."
I hope they look at me and see a woman who lived.
A woman who gladly, proudly, joyously lived.