Lean into the Light and Dark

Mary Van Heukelom
3 min readSep 20


We all live dark moments; cancer or not, life is full of adversity, challenges, and grief. It seems when a shadow of black drapes over your health, deep contemplation also looms. Often, a reflection of what was, and an earnest effort to shape the darkness into light.

During my dark minutes, I shed layers of grief, like the skin pulled back from my breasts, birthing new scars and trampling vanity. A friend said to me “vanity can be a real mindfuck.” We all have experienced this to some degree, as our body changes with age, wrinkles creating a road map on the face, butts flattening like pancakes, and hair growing in places remnant of our neanderthal bros.

Thanks to Kathryn Gamble for inviting this authentic photo shoot

At times, fears of a future recurrence may hit me, like a lap of a dark ocean wave against a lonely boat. This too, is part of a cancer journey.

It was a cave-dwelling yogi, Milerapa, who taught us to sit with our demons, and offer acceptance and awareness. It’s not running away from the dark, it’s sitting with the teacher of the shadows. Grief is real, in all its stages, and the point of acceptance is freeing.

When I notice my mind journeying down a bumpy and dark road of demons, I slow down, and breathe. “Breathing is a means of awakening and maintaining full attention in order to look carefully, long and deeply, see the nature of all things, and arrive at liberation.” — Thich Nhat Hanh

This journey also has taken me to sunny and bright hours. Walks with my fur babies through the woods. Biking with friends to a patio. Hiking through Smoky Mountain National Park and the Appalachian Trail. Camping with Lynn and Vanna White. Swimming in a quarry with Anna and Luke. Relishing a warm meal delivered to my home. Reading a book or card delivered by snail mail. Cooking a family meal with my kiddos and their friends. Playing silly games and cards with anyone who will tolerate my chiding. I have been wrapped in a blanket of love, nourishment, and laughter.

A road trip through Kentucky, Virginia, North Carolina and Tennessee took us to a beautiful quarry in Knoxville

I cradle all the gratitude my arms can hold. Gratitude for the dark, and the light. We can’t have one without the other.

An Update:

On September 19th Dr. Susan Beck removed my port and both of my breasts, and they will be under microscopic care. (I asked if I could keep my nipples in a jar … And, a hard no) I am healing well at home, with the care of Lynn, family, friends, and the pooches.

My Ode to Breasts

First, a recognition of all breasts. Those of women, men, non-binary, and our trans and queer community. No matter the shape and size, and our evolution and design.

This is for the breast that nurtures a baby, that softens their hungry cries and brings life to their mouths and eyes.

For the nipple, perky in winter, excited during foreplay, and bleeding during marathon days.

And the cleavage, shy and hiding behind a button, or shouting loud just for fun.

For the breast that goes from budding to perky to saggy and gone.

Farewell to the defenseless breast, swollen with silent tumors.

A toast to life extended, without breasts. A toast for all humans, enduring changes, who grieve what is lost, and what is yet to be found.

Yummy cake creations by Deanne Scott Edwards



Mary Van Heukelom

Mary is the co-creator and leader of Cancer Survivor Programs in Central Iowa. She is a yogi, nature enthusiast, and ornery mother of two and a pooch.