July 22 seems to be a significant date for me. On July 22, 1992, I was an overachieving 17 year old heading out to basic training to start my active duty military career in the United States Air Force. Fast forward 23 years later, and I was headed into surgery for a bilateral mastectomy and lymphadenectomy with Stage II breast cancer. I was a ball of nerves on both days. However, I drew on the strength and determination I had in 1992 to get me through the 2015 surgery. Once a solider, always a soldier. It was the fear of the unknown – and knowing my life was going to change very quickly – that made me extremely nervous and excited at the same time.
The “flight or fight” response…I chose “fight”.
I never thought the day would come where I started missing body parts or organs I’ve had since birth. The truth is I had already lost something significant: my thyroid in 2003 due to papillary thyroid cancer. It returned in 2010 and I underwent radioactive iodine (RAI) treatment for a second time. Clearly, I was/am annoyed with cancer, and it seems like we have become old “frenemies”. For me personally, thyroid cancer was much easier to deal with than Stage II breast cancer. The thyroidectomy left me with a lifetime of medication, and a small scar across my neck that is barely visible today; the mastectomy completely altered the appearance of my chest, and left me with debilitating side effects from chemotherapy and radiation. On both occasions, cancer had altered my life’s course, but each time I feel like I emerged victorious.
Today is a day of reflection…a day where I can quickly look back and see how far I have come. If you’re going through something similar, whether it is cancer or another life-altering event, set an expectation to emerge stronger – and different – than you were before you started your metamorphosis. Be a butterfly and transform yourself: become something even more beautiful, but more beautiful to yourself. Cancer did not make me a better person; it made me a different person. I am still that overachieving 17 year old at heart, but frankly, I feel different about myself.
When I look at pictures before July 22, 2015, I see an extroverted, funny, confident, and pretty woman who had her shit together. I still see that same woman in post-mastectomy pictures; however, there is something else in my eyes. Can you see it? The eyes are the windows to the soul, and in my case, I now see more depth…perhaps more empathy and compassion… I now feel like my life has to have more of a purpose, whether that means helping myself or others. Flight attendants always say deploy your mask before assisting others; the same is true for life.
Always take care of yourself (to some degree), first. If you are like me, that is a next to impossible task. Right after my mastectomy, and in the middle of chemotherapy, I took on a personal cause to raise money to buy wigs for my fellow chemo ward patients at the hospital. My friends and family had donated almost $7000 in 15 days, and we were able to purchase over 55 wigs. It was an admirable cause, but I was using it as a means to delay the inevitable of not dealing with how I felt about myself…how I felt about my cancer… Today, I feel like I am at point where I’m “good” and that was the inspiration for this blog.
Before I sign off, I want to take a minute to thank the love of my life, and all of my friends, family, and *fans* for following me along on this journey. “No one fights alone” and I certainly didn’t get here all by myself. In the weeks I spent promoting this blog on social media, I was completely humbled by the outpouring of support and kind words. It is something that I will never forget, and something that I frequently sob about out of sheer appreciation and gratitude. I am now anxiously counting down the days to my reconstruction (scheduled for after Labor Day). My metamorphosis is not fully complete, but it is getting there! I am going to be the butterfly…and soon it will be time to exit the cocoon…