Yourself Go? You Bet!
By Patricia Corrigan
From the Fall 1997 issue of Radiance
Okay, I admit it. I've let myself go.
I've let myself go dancing and swimming and to Egypt and to Argentina
and up onstage in front of thousands of people to tap dance in a red sequined dress
trimmed with fringe and off in tiny boats to whale watch and to work every day in a
Whoa! How did this happen? I'm a big woman and have been for most of my
life. At some point, I realized that I am the only person who can hold me back and keep me
from going where I want to go and doing what I want to do-and why would I do that to me?
Words matter in my life. Accordingly, I define myself as a
"militant fat girl" instead of the more politically correct "large-size
woman." I laugh when I say it, because I am a feminist and I don't permit other
people to call me any sort of "girl." I'm proud of my forty-nine years on this
planet, and I want credit for every one. However, I've learned from the girl in me to wear
bright, happy clothes that say Look at me!, to laugh a lot, and to like nearly everyone I
meet. My motto is, Let's try new things, learn new skills, and go new places-all the time.
Mine is a purple-and-red-paisley life with turquoise accents, and it's all on purpose.
The fact that I'm fat just doesn't matter to me, or to anyone else, as
far as I can tell.
Let's not use numbers as a standard of measurement for happiness,
accomplishments, or states of mind. Sizes, weights, and even checking-account balances
easily slip up or down, so why should we define ourselves by any of them? I learned from
my parents to measure worth in other ways: Was I living up to my potential? Was I generous
in thought, word, and deed? Was I happy? They used the same standards for themselves. Mom
died in 1973 and Daddy died in 1982, but to this day, I heed those standards more often
than any random set of numbers.
Who am I?
I'm a storyteller. For as long as I can remember, I have interpreted the world through my
writing. I work for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, a daily newspaper, where I am now the
restaurant critic, lively arts reporter and a columnist Working as a news reporter for
seven years, I wrote about women's lives, wildlife conservation, or animal welfare. On
occasion, I contribute travel articles, fashion stories, and book reviews. For ten years,
I was a theater critic. In 1970, I began selling freelance articles to the Post-Dispatch.
I joined the staff full time in 1982. Even before I began work at the paper, writing had
always been a part of my jobs, whether that job was in public relations, in advertising,
or as a newsletter editor.
Writing for the junior high school paper launched my career in
journalism. By the time I was in high school, I was writing not only for my high school
paper, but also for a local daily paper and a weekly neighborhood paper as well. I was
also selling articles to national teen magazines. Today, I am the author of a
whale-watching guide, several children's nature books, and a dessert cookbook, and I write
articles for newspapers all over the country and for national magazines.
And there's more to me, much more.
I'm also a mother, a whale watcher, an avid reader, a cancer survivor, a
theater enthusiast, and a belly dancer in training. One Thursday past March, I made my
runway modeling debut at a local department store. Public speaking-talking about my job or
other aspects of my life at conferences, seminars, and meetings-has always been a part of
my professional life. And, if I can find the time, I want to take up the tin whistle as a
way of connecting with my Irish roots.
Then, in the spring of 1993, I was heading for a dip in a scented bubble
bath when I paused to consider my naked self in the bedroom mirror. With great awe, I
realized I had turned into the modern-day equivalent of the Venus of Willendorf. You may
recall this chubby little goddess from your college art history class. The original is a
4-1/2-inch limestone sculpture, the oldest sculpture of the human form ever discovered,
believed to be at least 30,000 years old. It was found in 1908, nestled in the ground
among some tools near Willendorf, Austria. Today, the sculpture is on display at the
Natural History Museum in Vienna.
As I stood staring at my image in the mirror, I realized that I was
quite comfortable with the shape and look of my real self. How could I go wrong, looking
like a goddess who symbolizes the abundance of the Earth? My body first outgrew society's
standard sizes when I was about ten. My weight gain coincided with the illness of my
five-year-old brother, Michael. I'm sure I started overeating because I was afraid he
would die. Kidney disease took his life when he was ten.
In high school and college, I tried different diets, urged on by my
chubby parents. They loved me completely, and let me know it every day of their lives.
Still, they worried that I would have a harder time in adolescence being heavy. I don't
remember suffering much more than anyone else: adolescence is hard for everyone. I always
had lots of friends, and in eighth grade, I went steady with two boys at the same time
because I couldn't decide which I liked better. In high school, boys didn't line up
outside my house, but they did invite me to my share of parties and movies. My junior year
in college, at age twenty, I decided to marry one of those young men. My new husband went
into the Army after graduation, and a year after we were married he was sent to Vietnam. I
gained weight that year, too, terrified that I would be left a young widow because of a
Tom came home safely in 1971. Our son, Joel, was born in 1974. My size
did not hinder my pregnancy in any way. I was convinced that my body was perfectly
designed to have a baby. That's what female bodies do, I told myself, and I sailed through
my pregnancy, eating healthy food, taking vitamins, and practicing for natural childbirth.
I proudly nursed my son for almost eighteen months. Today, Joel is a graduate student in
telecommunications engineering. He loves animals and theater and camping, is fluent in
French, and hopes to work in Paris after he earns his master's degree in the year 2000.
Around the time I turned thirty, a male friend said one day that he
thought I'd become something of a dowdy little mother hen. He wasn't talking so much about
my body as about my sense of self-and he was right. I hadn't ever intended to marry or
have children, and though I loved my husband and my son, I did not find a lot of
satisfaction in staying at home. In college, I had always talked about going to work for
the New York Times. With a family in St. Louis, that was out of the question, so I revived
a dream that had begun when I was in high school: to work for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
First, I had to go back to school to finish my degree. Henry David
Thoreau spoke of living deliberately, so that when you come to die, you aren't overcome
with the realization that you have never really lived at all. His message, printed on a
poster hanging in my home, reached me in a new way the day I made my first calls to the
local universities. I began to change my life. For Thoreau, living deliberately meant
moving to the woods. For me, it meant taking responsibility for my life. I had gone from
my parents' home directly to my husband's home. I had relied too much on others to take
care of me. Suddenly, I was eager to learn to be more self-reliant.
I earned my college degree and got a job as an advertising copywriter.
The changes in my life seemed to aggravate problems in my marriage, and my husband and I
divorced in 1980, when I was thirty-two. To this day, Joel remains at the center of both
Around the time of my divorce, I started seeing a psychologist for help
with the transition. At some point, I listed losing weight as one of my many goals in
putting together a new life. This is what the therapist said to me: "That's an
admirable goal, but I'm wondering if you can't accomplish everything you want to do in
your career and your personal life at the size you are today." My answer, after some
thought, was yes.
In 1982, I was hired at the Post-Dispatch. I joined the staff as a food
writer: the first one in a long time who looked as if she actually enjoyed eating! Soon
after, the style editor asked me to write for her section about the dramatic changes
taking place in large-size fashion. I still write many large-size fashion stories for the
style section. The feature department was my home for seven years, and then I moved to the
news section, where I worked nights for five years.
It was also in 1982 that I went on my first whale watch, out of
Barnstable, Massachusetts, off Cape Cod. I've always loved animals, and when I read in a
travel article that a regular person could get on a boat and go out to see whales in their
natural environment, I knew I had to try it. After a business trip to Washington, D.C., I
booked myself on a commuter flight to Hyannis, rented a car, found a motel, and boarded
the boat the next morning. We spent much of the day watching humpback whales feeding,
their huge, open mouths rising up through the columns of bubbles they blow underwater to
trap tiny fish. The humpbacks also waved their tails repeatedly, and two of them swam and
dived in unison, as though performing a choreographed dance. It was a magical day. Since
then, I have traveled all over the world to sit in boats, large and small, next to whales.
Every time I hear a whale breathe, I am reminded that they are mammals, and that people of
all sizes share a common bond with these magnificent animals.
Of course, when it comes to whales, big is perfectly acceptable. The
American public is fascinated with superlatives: the best, the newest, the biggest. People
relish knowing that the great whales range from 45 to 100 feet and weigh as much as 1.5
tons per foot. One blue whale-the largest creature ever to live on Earth-can weigh as much
as thirty-two elephants. And if one of those elephants were willing, there would be room
for her to stand on the blue whale's mammoth tongue. A toddler could crawl through the
arteries of any full-grown great whale. A humpback whale's 15-foot-long flipper is more
than twice the height of the tallest person you know.
But whales are more than just big. They are graceful. They are gentle.
They are perfectly suited to their environment. What wonderful creatures with which to
Identify! When I reached age forty-five, I was the healthiest I had ever been. I was
happy, too, with many special people in my life. My son was doing well at college,
starting to craft dreams of his own. The opportunity to write nature books for children on
dolphins, sharks, and manatees was a dream come true. And I was juggling more freelance
travel assignments than ever before, traveling to exotic places to learn more about the
world. I was in one of those places, Baja, California, watching whales, on the day that
Ross Winter, my closest male friend, died. An audacious Australian, Ross was artistic
director of a dance company and the man who had encouraged me to get up onstage and dance
in a show for the fun of it. He was killed when his car skidded on a rain-slick street,
hit a curb, and flipped over. We had been family for each other for ten years, and then he
just disappeared from my life.
In the course of the healing process, my relationships with old friends
deepened. I met a wonderful man who makes me laugh every day. I made some long overdue
changes at work. With counseling that never wasted a moment on what size I was or wasn't,
I put my life back together once again. I gained more weight, but with it came the insight
that in the past I had turned to food at times of great personal stress. I realized that
my fat did not protect me from any emotional pain or further loss. In spite of
considerable "insulation," I had lost my brother, my parents, one marriage, and
a best friend. I began to learn to deal with stress in different, more productive ways,
such as regular exercise, more quiet time, and a better balance among sleep, work, and
Then I got breast cancer.
I found the lump late in May of 1995. Arriving home from work hot and
tired, I slipped off my blouse, unhooked my bra, twirled it over my head three times, as
is my habit, and threw it across the living room. I vigorously rubbed myself, happy to be
free of restraint. My joy disappeared immediately when I felt a small lump in my breast.
The lump and I went to the doctor the next morning. I reminded her that I had had a clear
mammogram just six months earlier. She suggested that the lump might be a cyst and
recommended we wait a few weeks to see if it changed. We did-and it didn't.
In September of 1995, I had a biopsy. The surgeon told me right there in
the operating room that I had cancer. He said the tumor was tiny, and he congratulated me
for finding it and for acting quickly. Because the tumor was small, I had the option of a
lumpectomy, which my doctor said works especially well for women with large breasts.
Although a fistful of tissue surrounding the tumor is removed, there still is plenty of
breast left to balance out the other side, he said. I scheduled a lumpectomy for the
That first night, friends dropped in, bringing hugs, flowers, garlic
mashed potatoes, and plenty of emotional support. My son was away at college, and when I
finally got him on the phone, Joel heard all the people laughing and talking. "Are
you having an 'I Have Cancer' party?" he asked.
"I am," I said. "That's exactly what we're doing."
Two days later, I was home alone in the afternoon, lying in my bed, trying to nap. I
started to cry-again-and I called a friend.
"You'll be fine. You'll come to consider this disease an
opportunity to learn more about living" he said when he heard my sobs. "I'll
help you get through this." He knows something about living with disease. He has
AIDS. His words comforted me.
The morning of the lumpectomy, I packed a picture of me patting a baby
gray whale's head. "I'm not just a cancer patient" I said to myself as I waited
for my ride. "I'm a whale watcher." I also tucked some ginkgo leaves from my
tree out back into my bag. Ginkgo trees excel at survival: they have been on Earth since
the Jurassic period, when brontosauruses ate their leaves for lunch. After the surgery, I
had to wait a few days to find out whether the cancer had spread to any lymph nodes. I did
indeed have one bad node. My doctor prescribed four chemotherapy treatments and six weeks
Those first weeks, I would suddenly find myself overwhelmed at how
drastically my life had changed in such a short time and at the incredible significance of
every decision that I was making. Still, I returned to my job at the Post-Dispatch,
showing up five days a week all through my treatments. More important to me (if not my
employer), I kept my weekly manicure appointments and continued to go to the theater and
out for dinner with my son and my friends. Chemotherapy made me very tired and completely
bald. Radiation also made me very tired, and my skin burned badly. Cancer treatments have
a way of taking from you anything about which you might be vain: for me, it was naturally
curly hair, pretty skin, lots of energy. Still, I had read that it is wise to embrace your
cancer treatments, as they may save your life, so I tried not to think unkindly of them.
With a lot of help from my beloved family and friends, my treasured
coworkers, my wonderful doctors and nurses, cherished readers who wrote or called to say
they were praying for me, and my support group at the Wellness Community, I survived
breast cancer. I survived worrying about how I got cancer: I'm the first in my family. I
survived worrying that I was somehow to blame. And I survived worrying that I might have
to eat only broccoli and tofu for the rest of my life. On those rare days now, nearly two
years after diagnosis, when I start to play the "what-if" game and panic about
whether I will see my son launched in a career, have quality time with grandchildren who
do not yet exist, or get the chance to spend every penny of my 401 money, I remind myself
that no one gets a guarantee of how long he or she will live. That realization always
brings me right back to the moment.
At this moment, I am perfectly healthy once again. I have put into
practice the many lessons cancer has taught me. Working for a living matters, but not
nearly so much as working on a life. I have cut back on my work hours. A four-day week
allows me to spend more time with people who make me laugh, to read more, to go to the zoo
more, and to snuggle on the couch with my cats more. I have regular massages. I'm making
time to learn about seashells, seabirds, and the different species of cactus. And I'm
learning to let go of hurts and grudges that have outlived their usefulness.
I no longer push to get ninety-nine things done when eighty-nine will do
nicely. Every night, I say, "Thank you for this day." I list the names of people
I'm worried about. Then I sign off by saying, "I know the universe is unfolding
exactly as it is meant to, whether or not I understand the plan." My doctors had
cautioned me that sometimes people become depressed when treatments end, as they no longer
feel that they are actively fighting the disease. That didn't happen to me. I was happy to
stop focusing on something as scary as cancer. What did happen is that I worried that
a.b.c. (that's After Breast Cancer, as opposed to b.b.c., Before Breast Cancer), I might
launch my new life tentatively, with more fear than hope, figuratively holding my breath
to see what would happen next. I worried that I might move lightly through life, as though
walking on eggs. I am delighted to report that instead, I've been making omelets, eggs
Benedict, and scrambled eggs with fresh chives and feta cheese! Looking back, I have no
real sense of exactly when I began to turn my attention from having cancer to surviving
it, from agreeing to do what I was told to telling others what I planned to do, from
taking sandwiches kindly made for me to making them for myself and for others. Certainly,
it was an incremental process.
Maybe it started at the beach. In April of 1996, just one month after my
chemotherapy and radiation treatments had ended, I was sitting on a beach north of Malibu
with a good friend. As we watched the sun prepare to set, we started to shiver from the
cold. Suddenly, directly in front of me, twenty feet from where I sat, a whale spouted. I
squealed and pointed, and my friend looked in time to see a second, smaller spout. We
watched the gray whale and her calf swim by.
"We can go home now," I said. "I'm healed." Some
other people on the beach saw the spout. Some were oblivious. What a perfect reminder that
if you concentrate on what's in front of you, blow the picture up so that it's really big,
and let go of stupid mistakes from the past and brilliant successes of the future to
concentrate on now, you see exactly what you need to see.
This past Thanksgiving, fully eight months after the treatments, I woke
up one morning and felt like myself again. Not the well-muscled, healthy self I had been
before cancer, but a self finally ready to go back to the gym, a self able to walk farther
than from here to the corner, and a self willing to stay up past 9 p.m.-some nights,
anyway. I directed some of my newfound energy into looking at the rest of my life, eager
to make changes at work and in my personal life. "I am in need of new
beginnings" I told a friend.
That's how I came to run away to Egypt.
In the end of January, I took a two-week trip to Egypt in the company of
sixteen other women, guided by a fifth-generation Egyptologist. I didn't have the money
for the trip, of course, but what does money matter when you've just beaten cancer? I
borrowed the money and went to Egypt because a year before I couldn't and this year I
could. I knew before I went to Egypt that scarab jewelry was popular, but I didn't know
why. While touring the tomb of Nefertari in the Valley of the Queens, I learned that the
scarab is the symbol of new beginnings. New beginnings! That's what I'm up to here in
Egypt, I thought. I decided right then to buy a scarab souvenir of some sort.
I didn't have to.
After the tour, we headed back to the bus. The driver had brought along
his eleven-year-old son, who sat across from me. Earlier in the day, I had noticed the boy
watching me use my binoculars to scan the sky for birds. Before our group left the bus to
tour the tombs, I had handed the binoculars to the boy and told him to enjoy himself. Upon
my return, he thanked me and gave them back. Then, shyly, he placed something on the seat
next to me.
"This is for you" he said.
It was a small alabaster carving of a scarab.
People always ask me if I'm back to my old self, and I tell them that I
am an all-new self, trying to live a more focused life, a more mindful life, a more
deliberate life, the kind of life suggested by the Thoreau poster that first inspired me
back in 1978. Once again, I have decided just to let myself go-absolutely anywhere fun
that life may take me-and I intend to go with a grin, living up to my potential, and
expressing generosity of spirit at all times.
Hey, you can play, too: just let yourself go! ©
PATRICIA CORRIGAN can be reached at 314-862-2152 (or e-mail
firstname.lastname@example.org), or by writing to her at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 200 South
Bemiston Ave., St. Louis, MO 63105.
back to the Back Issues