Libby Lovat stood watching as a row of doctors, stiff, proper British surgeons, decided her fate. She clutched her hospital gown. She felt numb.
It had been two months since her breast cancer diagnosis in Germany. Her life expectancy was five years. Lovat’s first husband had died of Hodgkin’s disease, and she had no way to contact her second husband. He was stationed in Germany as a British Army Officer. Lovat had not seen him since he’d arranged her evacuation to England.
When the exam was over, Lovat returned to her hotel room. She was scheduled to have a mastectomy at Queen Alexandra's military hospital the next morning.
Lovat realized she was alone. Her mother was still in the U.S., unaware of the diagnosis. Lovat had only her own mind and her body, together.
“I said, ‘How do we get through this?’ And something inside me shifted, clicked. I didn't know what it was, but from then on I realized there was no worry, no fear. It was just ‘Get on with the job.’”
The recovery process was hard. Lovat now had a mastectomy scar running from her shoulder to her stomach. During radiation treatments, she found she was infertile and, due to other circumstances, could not adopt, either. “It just took a long, long time to survive.”
The following years had their own turmoils including another mastectomy, cervical and skin cancer and other health issues.
Lovat, 93, now returns from Florida to Squirrel Island. July 14, she celebrated 60 years since her first cancer diagnosis.
Lovat has been summering on Squirrel Island since she was a child. Her little yellow cottage was built by her grandfather, George Sherwood Dickerman in the 1890s. The house is full of memories, from the stairs she first learned to climb to the false porthole her brother added to the side. She detests the porthole, but thinks her brother’s decision to add a porch to the building was an “inspiration.”
“This is one of the most sacred places on the Earth. It is a very sacred island. Florida is built on shifting sands, and Maine is built on hard rock, and I need that every year. I need to come back for that.”
Squirrel Island also houses Lovat’s “pride and joy,” Squirrel Island Historical Society. She was inspired to found it when she discovered the depth of the island’s history while researching her cottage.
In the ’80s, Lovat took over the Squirrel Island column for the Boothbay Register. After a week of information gathering, Lovat only allowed herself two hours on her typewriter to finish the piece. She would then run across the island to the 11 o’clock ferry to hand it off to the captain, who would have someone take it to the Register. If she missed the boat, there was no column that week. The time constraint helped her inner perfectionist learn to live with the countless imperfections.
Lovat thinks fondly of the 12 years she spent writing the column, even the times she missed her boat. She has not stopped writing since and plans to publish a two-book autobiography.
“I decided one book wasn't gonna do it. I have two books’ worth of stuff inside me,” said Lovat, laughing.
The second book will focus on her struggle to rationalize her cancer diagnosis. “Here I was. Nobody expected me to (be) but I was alive. Why? And so I've been pursuing that for the rest of my life, why? And then eventually it became, why did I get it?”
The book will cover her time studying popular psychology and philosophy at University of Chicago with focusing therapy founder Eugene T. Gendlin. Focusing tries to help people work to gain awareness of the body’s internal knowledge. Lovat will teach a focusing class when she returns to Florida.
The book will also discuss Lovat’s introductions to guided meditation, Japanese reiki (energy healing), astrology, dowsing and more.
In the meantime, Lovat has no plans to slow down. She wants to live to 120 or 150. She said this will give her plenty of time to learn the cello, clarinet and saxophone.
Lovat also recently decided to decorate her porch with flowers and have flowers in her life every day forward.
“(Life) was often almost unbearable, but I got through it all, and I survived. Afterward, I always realized it could have been worse. I guess I learned from every instance. And I’m incredibly happy now. If I hadn’t had the bad stuff, my life might have been quite boring. How dull!”