Breast Cancer Surgery, Physical Therapy and My Shoes


Not being one of those women who owns a bunch of shoes, I don’t quite get it. Maybe that is because I have wide, inflexible feet that require orthotics and cannot wear flip-flops, never mind those sky-high platform pumps once reserved only for hookers. Just a trace of envy lives there perhaps, since most days my achy feet are confined to running shoes. Love of footwear is a common girly thing, but not for me. So, it was a rare moment when I found myself with a strong desire to photograph a bunch of women’s shoes, lined up in a haphazard way at the entry to a dance studio where I sat and waited to meet with a physical therapist. These shoes had a story to tell.

Portland, Oregon is one of those cities that has become trendy in recent years, in a quirky, low-key, ultra-green, creative, bohemian, food cart sort of way. Stumptown is cool, her suburban sprawl, not so much. I live in the sprawl and it suits me, but that day as I sat on a poofy couch surrounded by the colors and decor of India, large potted plants and a row of incredible shoes, I looked down at my tidy blue and white trainers with double-knotted white laces and saw myself anew.

A pair of large, chunky leather boots with square silver buckles. Red ballet flats, slightly scuffed. Those five-toed things that are supposed to be like walking barefoot. These were shoes I would not wear, even if my feet allowed. High-top black sneakers. Wedge platform ankle booties. There was a yoga class in progress and I could hear Zen-like music, although I could not see any of the participants. I imagined them to be ethnically diverse, attractive, slender, employed in good jobs, masters of composting and backyard chickens. They could lift their arms above their heads, twist, turn and stretch in every way. I was a housewife from the white-bread burbs, barely able to drive my car and in constant pain some seven weeks after a bilateral mastectomy.

From down the hall, the physical therapist came to collect me. Casually dressed, she wore no shoes, just brightly colored socks. Over the next six weeks she would  repair my shattered anatomy. Hours of expert massage with strange metal tools. Deceptively simple exercises. Self-massage techniques. A bit of psychology. This combination and my own dogged determination to do precisely what she suggested worked wonders. Pain melted away. Strength and stamina improved. Each week I returned, twice a week. The entryway shoe collection varied with my appointment time. I wore the same running shoes, but the person in them slowly became more like the old me.

At some point I realized that the women in the yoga class were not the Portland hipsters I’d imagined. Most were just like women everywhere. One or two women in that yoga class would get breast cancer, according to the odds. My talented physical therapist has way too much job security. And I have way too few pairs of shoes.


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