Breaking the cycle of secrets: A conversation with Stephanie Wilson
Host Myra Flynn sits down with artist Stephanie Wilson in her first interview since her double mastectomy and breast cancer diagnosis. Together they talk about her ongoing journey toward healing, and her work to break the generational cycle of secrets she believes made her sick in the first place.
This is the latest episode of Homegoings, a seasonal podcast that features fearless conversations about race. This is storytelling — with soul. Follow the series here.
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Myra Flynn: There's this quote from Anaïs Nin, that I've always really loved. It says: “And the day came, when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.”
I think this quote says something really important about the rewards that can come from vulnerability, (scary as it may be, sometimes). The reward is growth, freedom, healing. The reward is you, blossoming.
But vulnerability isn't just hard for many Black people to express. It's actually dangerous when we do. Because to be free to be vulnerable, means you have to be free. Free to go jogging without getting shot. Free to be gay, without being beaten. Free to breathe without a knee on your neck.
So being vulnerable is actually usually something we fear. Unless you're Stephanie Wilson, at least these days. In my home state of Vermont, Stephanie is a prolific dancer and singer. She has this indie soul sound I've always wanted to play over and over again in my home.
And though Stephanie's music is vulnerable, she hasn't always been. In fact, I haven't heard anything from Stephanie in a while. I'd wondered what's up until I read a recent Instagram post from her husband, Tim Heaghney. The post read:
“To our dear friends and family, in the community, we are so blessed to be a part of. I've wanted to tell you all how much your support has meant to us during a challenging and unexpected time in our lives, and explain all the details to you. But this has been delayed as the business of life has continued. And I found it so difficult to express. It occurred to me that maybe we reach a point where the need to communicate our inner experience is stronger than the fear that we'll screw that up or be misunderstood or judged or just not able to do our feelings justice. I guess I'm there. I know I will fail to fully articulate the details and nuances or to convey how deeply we appreciate what you have all done to help us. But we can't ever let that stop us can we?”
Today on the show. Stephanie Wilson's first interview since her double mastectomy and breast cancer diagnosis, the shedding, the blossoming and the breaking of the generational cycle of secrets she believes made her sick in the first place.
From Vermont public this is Homegoings. Welcome home.
We hope you'll watch this episode or listen using the audio player below. For accessibility, we also provide a transcript of the episode. Transcripts are generated using a combination of robots and human transcribers. They may contain errors, so please check the corresponding audio before quoting in print.
Myra Flynn: Stephanie is a singer, a dancer, a lyricist. I mean, sounds like everything artistic, but mostly in like the performance realm. Yeah, and thanks for being here with us today on Homegoings.
Stephanie Wilson: Thank you for having me.
Myra: Yeah. So can you describe just kind of where you live and what it feels like culturally for you?
Stephanie: Winooski, I actually love living in Winooski. To go back a little bit, I grew up in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont, which is, you know, way up scooted up next to the Canadian border. And it's, you know, very, I guess, white.
And so, moving to Winooski and being there in a couple of years. It's the most diverse city in the state basically. So I really thrive being there. I love my neighbors. I love walking out and seeing like, little kids brown and Black. It's really fulfilling for me.
Myra: Yeah, there’s like 32 languages spoken there or something like that?
Myra: So as somebody who is based in performance arts, you use your body, so much and
kind of rely on it. I mean, as a singer myself, that's like if I lose my voice for even a moment, you know what's going to happen to my livelihood? What's going to happen to me? And you've been going through something that's incredibly taxing on your body. Can you just kind of walk us through the story?
Stephanie: Almost a year to date last summer, I felt a lump in my breast started with that. I went to get it checked out, got referred to UVM. And when I went in there, I received an ultrasound. And it actually wasn't my first time dealing with something like that. Although I kind of forgotten because it happened, maybe I think about seven years ago, I had been through this and I had went in, had the ultrasound and it was nothing. So I kind of went in again, with the feeling of like, Oh, I just need to get this checked out. It's going to be nothing. Well, I went there, I got the ultrasound, and then instead of sending me home, they had me sit back in the waiting room. I was going to do a mammogram and then the mammogram turned into a biopsy. And then they had me come back to do an MRI. So it was just like, I went in thinking one thing, and then that was just where the switch began of like, okay, I think this is something very serious.
October 3, was the date that I got the call from Pearl from UVM. Letting me know that it did indeed come back as cancer, and November 11th was my first surgery. I think the other day, we're saying, “Oh, I think the six month mark has like, come and gone.”
Myra: That's fresh!
Stephanie: It's very fresh.
Myra: Six months is fresh.
Stephanie: So I ended up going to L.A. to receive treatment, actually. I did a lot of research on who I wanted to see, you know, what I wanted to do, what my options were, I felt like here, I was presented more with maybe one option. And I needed to know if there were more, and you can receive radiation, you can just treat you know, you can just treat one, and then we'll watch the other and you'll come in every six months for who knows how long to monitor it.
So, for my own peace of mind, I knew that I just wanted this like, gone, out. I didn't want it to come back. I decided that I was going to do double mastectomy
Myra: Were you feeling scared or nervous? Or how did you feel in that moment?
Stephanie: I felt very scared, almost in shock. And then I did something a little different. I did a PAP reconstruction, which instead of going straight to implant, what you can do, it's a crazy surgery, where they take tissue from my thigh and blood vessels to reconstruct my breasts. That in itself was a whole intense recovery.
So I had four incision points. I had the mastectomy and then I also had two in my legs, the incisions are underneath here. So you know all through my arm has been super tight. Wasn't able to raise both of my arms. I mean, I couldn't even put a T-shirt on. And so recovery from that, having your arms down, I mean it doesn't take long with your body being stagnant to lose it, basically a lot of loss of muscle mass.
Yeah, and then my thighs, holy moly. That was difficult because the incisions are right on like my like, right on the back of my thigh here. So sitting down like this was not something that was possible. I remember by Christmas, I sat down for like, short periods of time. By Christmas, I was able to kind of be walking around and sat down to dinner and was like, okay, I can think I can sit here with a bunch of pillows for maybe like, think I can do 45 minutes before I need to get up.
Myra: If you were to give me a sentence when I asked How are you doing now? What would it be?
Stephanie: It would be … I'm hanging in there. There's still some pain there. There's a lot to process. I'm fortunate to have a partner who is so devoted, took as much as he could from me. I will have to say, I don't think Tim and I were 100% prepared for how intense that was going to be. It was a lot. I couldn't get in and out of bed. I couldn't tie my own shoe. I couldn't get dressed. I mean you're basically just lying there. Just helpless, just helpless, completely helpless. So that was another trust ball of like, okay, I just need to like, take this help, so I'm just gonna … just gonna go.
Myra: When we come back, Stephanie's journey toward recovery, and her ongoing quest for physical, emotional, and generational healing. That's right after this.
Myra: Welcome back to Homegoings, a righteous space for art and race. I'm Myra Flynn. And today I'm sitting down with Stephanie Wilson, a Winooski, Vermont based dancer and singer. Six months ago, Stephanie underwent a double mastectomy after receiving a breast cancer diagnosis. So life is looking different for her these days. And I'm feeling really honored to be here with her, not only because this is her first interview since the diagnosis and the surgery, but also because six months ago, she couldn't actually sit down at all. Just her being here with me reminds me to never take anyone's story for granted.
Myra: When you look in the mirror now with your reconstructed breasts and your double mastectomy, what do you see?
Stephanie: It's only recently that I can really look myself in the mirror again. You know, in the beginning, when I had the surgery, I couldn't even look down. A part of me is gone, and there’s some deep grief with that. And, you know, I have such a supportive community that tells me that I'm beautiful. And I know that I'm beautiful, but it's really hard. It's very hard to look in the mirror and accept this new me. It’ss still very fresh. And so I'm hoping that I will get there. But it has not, it has not been easy.
Even the surgery itself, there were complications in the surgery. So I ended up having to have one implant in on one side, and then I have the flap and on the other because one of them didn't work. And so I am coming to terms with that.
Myra: How is love with this new body?
Stephanie: I feel like that's something that is not talked about. And it's something that I also wasn't prepared for, you know, I got this diagnosis. And then it was just straight survival mode. And Tim has been by my side the entire time and so kind, and so loving, and so patient, but I'm, I'm almost relearning myself. I hope that in sharing this that other women will also talk about this as well. But this is a lot to get used to, you know, there's no feeling there. So, that's something that's gone that I'm still mourning the loss of and grieving the loss of. And it's difficult because sometimes there's no other side to it. Like — it's just sad.
Some things I can find no silver lining, but for this there isn't any silver lining. Except that you know, I do try to find like, you know, hold on to those little bits of joy that I can find and kind of like, keep those as tight as I can and almost like, store them up, any little bits of joy.
Myra: The silver lining is that you're alive.
Stephanie: Yes, yes, the silver lining is that I'm alive. The thing that's tough with that is like, sometimes that's not enough.
You know, I go through these stages of, you know, at least it wasn't this, you know. I didn't need chemo or radiation. And so I think about those women who got through all as far as I did, and then did the chemo and radiation, and I can get onto this train of like, well I should be grateful that that didn't happen, I shouldn't feel this way. So it's kind of hard fluctuating through that of being grateful for what I have, but also being incredibly sad for what happened.
Myra: Yeah, and you're allowed both. While you were talking about the change in your body, and the change in maybe how that shows up for your sexuality, and how that shows up for the things that you love about yourself and the way that your husband sees you. The only other time that we can feel this change, I feel, is when we're either close to mortality for some reason like this, or you give birth. Do you feel like you've had a rebirth of sorts, or are we not there yet? Is it like, “I'm still just pissed, and sad. And that's where it needs to be right now.”
Stephanie: I'm not there yet. I wouldn't say pissed, I would say I'm just like, sad just describes it perfectly. I felt that like I was, like, so confident in my sexuality and so confident in myself and having to rebuild that. You know, I was talking with my husband about things like, I don't want to feel like I have to try. Like I want this to be natural. I don't want to feel like I have to work at loving myself. I want to just love myself.
Myra: What I see when I look at you is somebody who is incredibly strong. You look like you have not missed a beat in the dance world seriously.
Stephanie: I've been working my butt off for sure.
Myra: Yeah, yeah, you must be incredibly strong, and tested the limits of your body in ways that you never had before.
Stephanie: I went through a lot of PT. I was very anxious to get back because I love to dance and was very anxious to get my movement back, very anxious to pick up where I left off. I in my mind was like, okay, 12 weeks, I think is what they said for recovery. No, not at all. I'm still recovering.
Myra: I reached out to you after seeing some posts on Instagram. And I know the community in Vermont has been loving on you, but you have been pretty quiet. Why did you decide to say yes to come in on Homegoings? Did that feel important to you?
Stephanie: It was really hard to even tell anybody. That was something to really kind of show my vulnerability in that way. Even some of my closest friends, I kept it from them for a long time.
I feel like all through this process I've been having to trust. And it's honestly felt like I've just been closing my eyes and falling backwards and just letting my community catch me. And it's the scariest thing. At this point, sharing my story is something that's very important to do. Because what I've been doing before isn't working anymore. I've been keeping things into myself, keeping them within my body kind of pushing that down. And I feel like that is probably something that's, you know, maybe it's part of what caused this sickness in the first place.
Yeah, I think it's important for me to be here and tell that story. Just to break that cycle. Anyone who knows me This is so outside of…
Myra: You don't normally just go get in front of a bunch of cameras with flowers on the table? Thank you for trusting me and thanks for trusting the show. What has it been as a Black person whose community is so steeped in dealing with grief and is so steeped in having to deal with it because of how many of us die — what was it like looking at your own mortality and the possibility of that?
Stephanie: My father passed away when I was in high school.
Stephanie: Yeah. And I would have to say that after that, you know, my family we kind of broke apart.
It's so hard. And I know some people can resonate with this, like some expressions of grief. Like I know my mother in particular, she tried. But there's so much pain, so much generational pain that it becomes too much, and I understand that. And so the way that I dealt with it was very personal, was very by myself. In fact, I spent a lot of time alone after that. I lived by myself for my last two years of high school.
Myra: That is so young.
Stephanie: It's very young. Looking back now I'm like, I cannot believe that's what went down. But I learned to take care of it myself. And to put on an exterior, that everything was fine. And that you don't need to worry about me, everything's fine over here. Fast forward to my own mortality. I wanted so badly, to have that exterior of “everything is fine”. But this time I couldn't do it.
I tried. I tried a little bit. I hosted a party and did a show and didn't tell anyone that I had been sitting on that news for weeks and hadn't told anyone and had a great old time.
But realized soon after that, like, this isn't going to work for me like this anymore. I can't do this anymore. Which is why I'm here right now. Even like, every time that I talk about this and almost takes like lifts away off of it and takes away some of the power that it's been holding. I want to change the generational pain that lies within my family. I want to change that simply by shattering it and be like, here I am. This is my story. We all have stories. I learned to hold my pain in, but I don't want to do that anymore. I want to hear about other people's stories. I want to cry. At my dad's funeral, I remember someone saying, “It's okay. You can cry”.
Myra: You didn't cry?
Stephanie: I did not. I did not. And I also couldn't, you know, I couldn't. I could not look at my dad when he died, either. It was just so much push, push, push away, push away. And that's something that I'm learning now did not serve me and does not serve me, and that I can face this. But on my own timeline, like again, it's so fresh. You know, I had Tim tell everyone I didn't even have the strength to do that, or the bravery. I couldn't. You know, there I had so much of this exterior of needing to keep things calm and needing to make sure other people felt okay. And if they knew that I wasn't okay. They were not going to feel okay. And how am I going to monitor that? I'm not going to be in control.
Myra: Oh yes. Yeah, I know that feeling.
Stephanie: Yeah, yeah. And none of that because I was facing cancer and something so serious. I literally could not think about those things. And so, I just one last time, placed it over here, dealt with what I had to deal with, and then now that I'm coming out of it, I'm realizing okay, this is serious of how I have dealt with tragedy and tragic things. And I feel like I can, with some work, change that. Yeah. Here I am.
Myra: I just think it's so brave to change anything, especially generationally. So I think you are incredibly brave. Yeah, you keep saying I didn't have the bravery. It's like whatever process you needed to go through to get to this place, it will only serve you, it sounds like going forward.
Stephanie: I mean, right now it doesn't … like … outwardly I can be like, Okay, this is a brave thing. And I even feel like you know, I feel a little bit of strength kind of welling up as well of like, okay, I can do this. With what I went through with the cancer and the physical part like, I had no choice I have to do this. In the emotional part, I feel like I can't continue as I have been, take everything that happened and then stuff it in. I just can't.
Myra: Right and you do have that choice. You have a choice to not now you're doing that.
Stephanie: Yeah. Yeah,
Myra: I hear a rumor that you might share a song with us. Can you tell us about the piece that you're going to share?
Stephanie: Yes, I wrote it with my band before this diagnosis, before I had been going through all of this. And it's about the very subject of generational pain and forgiveness, wanting to break that cycle of secrets as well. You know so much about hiding the pain, maybe not talking about it, wanting to have that perfect exterior so we're going to pretend none of this is happening. How that played out in my family is that I was like in the dark with so many things. Yes, there's that generational pain that's there but that also means that there's generational strength as well. Because we've been through a lot and so, I think I'm gonna focus on that. Hopefully somebody hears this who needed to hear this.
Myra: It's called “To Blame?”
Myra: Okay. Yeah. Settle in, and get ready to let the listen in. This is Stephanie Wilson with “To Blame.”
By Acqua Mossa and Stephanie Wilson
Tell me something from your history
Something sorrow something blue
Tell me what’s inside of you
Things you never talk about
words that never leave your mouth
secret names , what is it you won’t say
tell me where you come from
Why we act this way
afraid, is that why we’re running
Running away from the feeling
I feel it repeating.
Acting the same way
Feeling the same things
Repeat repeat repeating through
our DNA gold chains
Can’t break the link
I’m my fathers son and I’m my mother’s daughter
I continue on like ripples in the water
I’m my fathers son and I’m my mothers daughter
I’m your reflection. Your features in my mirror
Who am I to blame
Who am I to blame
It’s in my DNA
brought here on the waves
I still feel your strength
This episode was mixed, scored and reported by Myra Flynn. Myra also composed the theme music. Other music by Blue Dot Sessions, Acqua Mossa and Derek Rice. Brittney Patterson and Mark Davis edited this episode, and James Stewart contributes to so many things on the backend of making this thing come to life.
Special thanks to Tim Heaghney, Derek Rice and Stephanie Wilson who together make up their band: Acqua Mossa. And double thanks to Derek Rice, offered up some original compositions to score this episode with.
Also, this episode is a vodcast! That’s right. A first for Homegoings, we experimented with putting out a podcast and video version of this conversation with Stephanie. So pick your flavor: listen or watch. Or both!
A huge special thanks to Mike Dunn at Vermont Public, who directed and edited this video, and co-produced it with Myra Flynn. Also thanks to Joey Palumbo for filming, and Peter Engisch, for the live musical mix of our deep listen. And as per usual, thanks to Elodie Reed, who is the graphic artist behind all of our Homegoings artist portraits.Stephanie’s is especially breathtaking, as she allowed Elodie to capture her as she is in this moment — scars and all. Check out her brave portrait at homegoings.co.
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