Being a Cancer Graduate has stopped being my identity and started simply being something I accomplished.
How can you love your body post-cancer?
With Practice and Patience.
Self-love is not something that magically grows within me. It does not come easily and it is not permanent. Yet, our society treats it as if it is as natural as breathing rather than a skill that can be learned and strengthened.
Towards the end of my cancer treatment, I wrote this love/apology letter to my body, and I found that it healed me more than any medication.
A year ago this month, I nervously posted my topless mastectomy photo series on the internet. Not knowing what the reaction would be, I prepared for the WORST (an avalanche of slut shaming internet trolls, hate mail from Breast Cancer Patients saying "I am insensitive", and my father being mortified) and hoped for the BEST (internet trolls showing compassion, breast cancer patients finding comfort and joy, and The Ellen Show begging to have me on).
Thankfully, the reaction was the Best Case (minus getting on The Ellen Show) and the internet proved to be incredibly kind to a WOMAN SHOWING HER BREASTS ON THE INTERNET.
In 2014, a year after my mother passed away from ovarian cancer, I was planning a preventative bilateral mastectomy to lower my risk of cancer--thanks BRCA1 genetic mutation. Three days before my appointment to schedule that surgery, I was diagnosed with Breast Cancer.
Behind the scenes video of the series and my vulnerable explanation of the process.
Before removing my breasts, I wanted photographic evidence of their original splendor but I didn't want it to look like mug shots of attempted murders taken from my cell phone. Instead, I imagined images that captured the changing emotions of each stage in the mastectomy/reconstruction process.
I told everyone that my goal was to change the images women saw of mastectomies. Rather than simple Before and After photos, these would share the Evolution, the Life, and the HUMOR in this dark situation. But the truth is, I was making the photos I wanted to see when I started this process. This series gave me a way to reframe my experience and accept my new body in the process.
The incredible women, Alexa and Ellie, of Blast 'Em Photography lovingly came on board, along with Brynn Burg (Bride of Frankenstein MUA/HAIR) and Tiffany Alfonso (Mannequin MUA).
I dubbed the series MY BREAST CHOICE.
Gasp... REAL Nipples. When the photo series got picked up by the news, this was the only image they censored. The feminist in me finds that funny/heartbreaking.
"Topless Rosie" is an ode to the WWII propaganda image. Taken a week before my double mastectomy and the first time I EVER bared my BARE breasts for a camera, I wanted to capture the "We Can Do It" spirit of determination that was missing in all of the medical mastectomy "before" photos that filled the internet.
Two weeks post mastectomy, with the expanders slightly filled and no nipples, I felt like the Bride of Frankenstein. I was broken and cut to pieces--physically and emotionally. (The stitches around my shoulders and collar bone were movie make-up created by the talented Brynn Berg).
There are so many layers of emotion in this photo. It was taken at the end of 4 months of intense chemo, my expanders were fully inflated, and I looked like a mannequin. It felt like I had become a base model human without the external trappings that define us; hair, clothes, breasts.
During this crappy time, as the treatments were starting to take their toll on me, there was this pressure to continuously be HAPPY. The moment I showed any fear, anxiety, sadness, or depression, people would spew out cliques, "Stay Positive", "Be Strong", "You are going to be FINE". Much of the time was spent managing other's emotions and FAKING my own. I learned that in those moments that all I wanted someone to say was "This sucks" and just be with me as I cried.
Cancer ignited a rebellion within me. Never before had I posed topless because I was a "Good Girl." I followed societies unspoken rules.
Cancer helped burn that away. The human body is beautiful, we are allowed to love ourselves, and there is no reason we should have to hide our bodies. Cancer made me a Feminist and that is why I created this last photo.
I must admit that I still feel shame for the first image. I am embarrassed to show my nipples, even though those nipples are buried in a hazardous waste pile. The censorship of my real nipples goes all the way to my core. YET, this final image, with prosthetic nipples, I feel free of shame or guilt about my body.
Did you take before photos of your breasts? Do you wish you did? Comment Below
Special Thank you to those who made this HAPPEN:
Reconstructive Surgeon- Dr. Christopher Low and Breast Cancer Surgeon Dr. Avisar
Photography Team- Blast 'Em Photography (Alexa and Ellie)
MUA/Hair for Bride of Frankenstein- Brynn Berg
MUA for Mannequin- Tiffany Alfonso
Wig for Bride of Frankenstein- On loan from Chris and Michelle Diamantides
Prosthetic Nipples- Pink Perfect
Buzzfeed Contact- Jenny Lorenzo helped make this whole thing go viral.
MOUTH SORES...they are like a portal to Chemo HELL. What if they could not only be treated but PREVENTED? Oil Pulling is the magical answer, plus its cheap and easy.
My final chemo treatment was April 11, 2015, and this has been the one tip I share the most. Oil Pulling has made me one of those overly excited people pushing unsolicited holistic remedies onto unsuspecting cancer patients (I know...ugh), but this one actually works and made it possible for me to eat during chemo. Plus, it isn't connected to a mid-level marketing product.
Prior to chemo, I couldn't justify the hassle of oil pulling. My random attempts couldn't “proved” that it accomplished more than slowly whitening my teeth, but during chemo it became my secret weapon against dreaded mouth sores.
Sounds like a party, right?
Christmas morning, 2014, my first mouth sore broke open one week after my first chemo treatment--what a gift! My internet chemo-comrades informed me that I could get my doctor to prescribe “Magic Mouthwash”, but they warned that it tasted like crap and and would make my mouth numb. Out of simple laziness to avoid another trip to the pharmacy, I decided to try oil pulling again. By the next day my mouth was HEALED.
From that moment on, every morning, the first thing I would do--after peeing, of course-- was put a spoonful of coconut oil in mouth. A year later, I am still doing it. With four months of intense chemo, the first mouth sore was my ONLY mouth sore. Oil pulling also saved me THOUSANDS of dollars in dental work after chemo. Something no one mentions during treatment is that all of those sores wreak havoc on your mouth, causing damage that could result in gum disease, cavities, and tooth loss. I only needed two preventative fillings. Thank you, Oil Pulling!
what I use:
- 1 teaspoon Organic Coconut Oil
- 3-4 drops Organic Clove Oil
- 3-4 drops Organic Peppermint Oil
- 1/2 cup warm salt water (for rinsing)
I prefer coconut oil but you can also use sesame or sunflower. Amazon sells “pure, unrefined, cold pressed, 100% organic extra virgin coconut oil” (with that many adjectives it must be good) in a 54oz jug for about $17.
Dr. Mehta, my integrative medicine doctor at UM Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center, suggested I add several drops of clove oil to my oil pulling. Clove oil and coconut oil both have antiseptic properties and the clove oil has a huge list of added benefits. Now, I also add a few drops of organic peppermint oil to give me extra fresh breath.
Why does oil pulling work? I came to find out it's not magic. Dr. Mehta explained that during chemo the cells are exploding and leaving their toxic waste floating in your body. By drinking water you flush the water soluble parts out but the fat soluble bits are stuck. By oil pulling, you give a place for those fat soluble toxins to go and then you spit them out. Abracadabra, the magic of our bodies.
First thing in the morning, before drinking water or brushing your teeth, put a teaspoon of coconut oil with a few drops of clove and peppermint oil in your mouth and gently swish for 20 minutes. If you are finding that your mouth is cramping or you are gagging, start with less oil and less time. Then do your morning ritual; use the bathroom, make the bed, shower, feed the cats, meditate, etc. 20 minutes is the optimum time to get the full benefits. It's long enough to break through the mucus membrane and short enough so the toxins don't seep back in. Spit the oil into the TRASH (you don’t want to clog your drains). Then rinse with salt water as an added antiseptic while in chemo. DONE.
As an added bonus, you will have a bright white smile to go with your shiny bald head.
What It Will NOT Do:
- CURE cancer (Go to the doctor)
- Heal pre-existing cavities and decay
- Magically make all of your problems go away (Cancer Sucks)
Benefits I felt:
- Whitens Teeth
- Freshens Breath
- Reduces Stiff Joints
- Reduces Sinus Problems
- Clears Skin
- Detoxifies the Body
- Increase Energy Level
- Prevents Mouth Sores before they start
By the end of Chemo, it was an all out battle between oil pulling and the chemo drugs. My mouth felt fuzzy, food tasted funny, and I could feel that the mouth sores were clawing to come out. Chemo compounds and oil pulling can only do so much, but if you are diligent with oil pulling you can hold them back as long as possible.
Did you try oil pulling during your chemo? what was your experience?
This is something that worked for me, but please talk to your doctor. Also, check to see if your cancer facility has an integrative medicine doctor. They are a wonderful resource for adding holistic medicines to your standard medicine. *DO NOT discontinue your actual medicine because of what you read here.
The first time someone called me a “Cancer Survivor” I recoiled in horror. It was a badge of honor that I was supposed to wear proudly, but instead it gave me the willies. “Survivor” signified only two options; being alive or being dead. My mother was a Skin Cancer and Breast Cancer “Survivor” but Ovarian Cancer revoked her title the day she passed away.
Many patients feel connected to the term, they feel like “WARRIORS”; which they are. In no way am I trying to diminish that. For me, the term didn’t fit and I had to find a new way to cope with my cancer diagnosis.
The question became, “What else can you call a Cancer Patient when they finish treatment?” My fellow cancer comrade, Nora, and I came up with “Graduate.” We are “Cancer Graduates.”
I spent the next 6 months refining the term. Why Cancer Graduate?
For me, there is a moment of recognition when talking to someone and finding out they also went through a cancer diagnosis. Instantly, we connect. It is the same moment of recognition when you find out someone went to the same university. “You went to CancerU, too? What campus?”
You ask what major they had. “I majored in Breasts, you majored in Prostate! How crazy.”
We reminisce about the parties where we had too many cocktails and were throwing up.
We compare courses; surgery, chemo, radiation.
There is a camaraderie…an understanding.
When we graduate some people become Alumni Donors-going to the games, sporting the team t-shirts and bumper stickers-while others move on only mentioning it in passing when they meet fellow alumni.
Imagine what the cancer experience would be like if we walked in with that same attitude as going away to college. Florida State University had a huge impact on my life, shaping who I am today, but it doesn’t define me. We enter college with the main goal of learning and we ask ourselves, “How can I use this knowledge to help the world, to help myself, and to change the future?”
I knew college was going to be difficult and expensive. I struggled but did it with an open heart and excitement. I found where to have fun, made life long friends, gained 15 lbs and cut my hair.
Sometimes when we think we are done with school, life happens and we have to go back for a Masters or PhD.
We enter cancer knowing it is going to be a struggle but at the same time curious about what we will learn. As Viktor Frankl said, “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves” and “between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
Going to WAR carries a heavy emotional burden filled with images of death and destruction. Fear and Anger are powerful ways to propel oneself to action but over time can become overwhelming and difficult to bear. By changing our view of cancer from a war to be waged to an educational experience, it allows us to change our feelings of fighting to perseverance, fear to curiosity, pain to growth. It becomes lighter.
I am proud to be a “Cancer Graduate” and I can’t wait to share what I learned with the world.
What will you do with your degree?