Curled up in an old chair on her back porch, Liz Yarnell went on with her evening enjoying the clear sky and crafting a belly dance bra, as the news on the small, portable television kept her company. The results wouldn’t be in for 24 hours; so worrying about the biopsy done earlier that day was unavoidable. It was Oct. 3, 2006 and Yarnell, along with the rest of America, was just learning about the Amish schoolhouse shooting in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
“That horrible news story was breaking through as I was sitting out there listening to this,” said Yarnell. “Of course I’m nervous about my biopsy and what the results are going to be but two things crossed my mind at the time. One was if God took any of the women, the mothers, aunts, wives, grandmothers, in the shooter’s family or the children’s family, if God took any of those women and said ‘You’re going to be dealing with a tragedy, but you get to pick the tragedy: Either you get breast cancer or you have a shooting,’ every single one of those women would raise their hand and say they take the breast cancer.”
This moment of realization and empathy soothed Liz’s fears of the reality of her situation. “My other thought was, at 54, if I do have breast cancer, even if it’s terminal, I had a life and it’s been a good one. Those little girls didn’t get a chance.”
“I was there with her, we were coworkers. We kind of all sat together when she got the phone call. It was such a scary moment. At a moment like that, you do what friends do. You stand by each other,” said Melanie Brown, executive director of the human services committee at the House of Representatives in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Gripping the hand of her coworker, Yarnell’s body language told the story better than she could while receiving a call that would change her life.
Hearing upon the initial call that the cancer wasn’t life threatening, Yarnell clung to those words in an effort to stay afloat. “It was a shock, but not a surprise,” Yarnell said.
Yarnell started her journey with a routine mammogram. With a suspicious lump found in her chest, she proceeded with a biopsy on Oct. 2, 2006. Yarnell was diagnosed with DCIS, Ductal Carcinoma in situ, and proceeded to have two lumpectomies before making the ultimate decision of getting a mastectomy of her right breast.
The Perfect Match Boutique in Camp Hill, Pennsylvania caters to breast cancer survivors by offering partial prosthesis bras and clothing for women coming away from cancer with partial breast loss through lumpectomies or a full mastectomy. Walking into the shop, Yarnell found herself surrounded by fun, flirty and vivacious lingerie – feelings not often associated with breast cancer survivors. While the store owner took Yarnell in and showed her around, her eye was drawn to a mannequin donned in a brown, leopard print bra – a bra that would complement her brown, leopard print belly dance costume beautifully. “This bra became my inspiration,” said Yarnell. “Over the next couple weeks, when I went in to surgery I was at peace with everything and the concern was to ‘get it off.’”
Following her surgeries, Yarnell purchased the leopard print bra, wore it home and her inner belly dancer immediately started decorating it. In honor of the “jug” she lost through her battle with breast cancer, Yarnell continues to perform in that inspirational bra both on its own and with a jug.
“I feel like dance really builds some inner spiritual, sensual sense of self through dance and performing and sisterhood,” said Yarnell.
For most women, losing their breasts is losing their womanhood. Belly dancing more than 20 years has given Yarnell a head start in hurdling the grief that comes with losing a piece of what makes her feel like a woman.
“[Belly dance] really helps with the self-image and body image,” she said.
Through her constant humor and the unconditional love felt from friends and family, Yarnell’s unusually rapid recovery through dance from her mastectomy and journey to a healthier physical self, brought her to not only belly dancing as a survivor, but walking in honor of her journey and the battles lost by family members.
Walking in a half marathon provides physical challenges for most, but that didn’t sway Yarnell’s decision to participate in the Hershey half-marathon for Breast Cancer. “I decided to start walking because I like to walk and I needed to do something and I needed to do something physical,” she said. Yarnell trained for five months, working to build her physical endurance while slowly beginning to repair the overwhelming emotion scars of the journey she began a few years before. In a personal post on her blog capturing her battle with cancer, Yarnell described finishing the half-marathon with a 17-minute mile – something she was never fully confident she could do.
“At that moment, on Sunday, Oct. 3, 2010, four years to the day of diagnosis, I officially stepped out of the black hole and into the sunshine! Not only did training for the half marathon strengthen my body, it healed the raw edges in my soul. Crossing the finish line, I knew I was okay. Victory! I beat the beast. Cancer! Eat my dust!” she wrote.
Yarnell described the uncanny parallels of battling cancer and training for her half marathon four years later. It is a journey she had to endure alone, no one could walk across the finish line for her. No one could have the mastectomy in her place.
As a survivor from one of the toughest challenges she’s ever had to face, Yarnell’s battle with cancer comes down to nine words that have gotten her through the emotional and physical recovery that comes with losing a piece of yourself. “They took my breast, they didn’t take my soul.”