When I heard that my sister Tracey’s breast cancer had returned to her after 10 years, as stage Four Metastatic Cancer, and that it was taking a roller coaster ride through her spinal column, the first thing that I did was stop breathing.
Watching my incredibly dynamic, successful and active sister sit in a hospital bed, being the focus of this wretched disease was excruciatingly painful. She seemed to shrink with each doctor’s visit and procedure. My sister is a child of the 60’s, and I am almost 10 years younger than her. I was in her fabulous shadow as she rode the spirit of Woodstock through our house. My sister was all things sexy, dangerous and dynamic to me. And Metastatic Breast Cancer at 60 was turning my vibrant sister into a white gown in a hospital bed.
I’m a sex educator (specializing in the issues of women), who believes that sexual energy is life force energy. I have worked with women with chronic illness, and even women who were dying, but wanted to stay connected as long as possible to their own erotic natures. I’ve seen that connecting these women to their sensual energy keeps them vibrant and happier longer.
But this time, it was my sister fading in front of my eyes.
When you have cancer, there is a lot of attention around doctors, needles, radiation, second opinions, and treatment plans. I wanted my sister to get attention around being alive and sexy in her body, instead of attention around the cancer. She needed time to play in her body.
Let the doctors bring on the chemotherapy and radiation! I was going to be in charge of bringing on the healing power of pleasure and sexuality. It was time for a full out rebellion against death.
So I ordered up a Sister’s Boudoir Shoot with NYC-based Boudoir Photographer Lori Berkowitz.
I wanted us to put on badass lingerie and tell cancer to take a hike. Sexuality is aliveness. And maybe if we could capture that fabulous life energy on film, we could somehow kick cancer’s ass — or at the very least send cancer our very own personal message that my sister was not going to play by cancer’s rules.
It was also a chance for us to come together and laugh at our humanness, our scars, our imperfections, and celebrate our aging bodies. The session would capture us together and apart, at our most vulnerable, naked and beautiful: facing the death that visits all of us in a celebration of life.
When I asked my sister what this was about for her, this is what she told me: “I have gone through so much this summer: learning my cancer came back, planning my funeral, then learning I could live longer through treatment. For me, the shoot was about laughing at illness and pain. Throwing caution to the wind. Sharing this fun with my sister. Getting to a new place of feeling good about my body — at 61 — while going through a terminal illness.”
Here’s what we learned from our experience and looking at the photos: No matter what life brings us, we can always play. We can always reach for the pleasure in our bodies. It is our life force energy and look at us play in it.
Check us out being beautifully defiant in our bodies that have changed since we were young — and rocking it. It’s funny. I wrote this, book, Shameless: How I Ditched The Diet, Got Naked, Found True Pleasure and Somehow Got Home in Time to Cook Dinner (Rodale 2011), which is about my own journey, healing my relationship with my body and sexuality, and here I was back in it again with my sister– embracing seeing ourselves as beautiful and sexy just as we are. Cancer included.
There is something defiant about this whole exercise, right? A woman over 50 and a woman over 60 getting naked and putting on lingerie. Not all of the parts are exactly as they were when we were born. Yet we’re adorning ourselves, and capturing it all on film.
It was incredible seeing the images of my sister as Lori Berkowitz took them. To see her getting her hair and make-up done. The pleasure of being prepped for beauty and not for surgery. Being happy in the attention of being celebrated in our bodies together was amazing. In some shots we were dancing together and it was so much fun. Getting to be her little sister again and not her caretaker.
We were young again, teasing who would get the better necklace. And play-fighting over earrings. And there were moments when we were lying together on the bed, my hand touching hers, where the tears spilled down my checks ruining my make up.
Screw you, cancer! We are alive together, playing. You can’t take that. Screw you, age! So what if we’re in our 50s and 60s? We’re hot. Screw you, culture that says we can’t be gorgeous and sexy at any age, during any part of what life brings us. We can always play. We can always reach for the pleasure in our bodies.
It’s our life force energy and look at us play in it.