I was in second grade when my aunt Joy passed away from breast cancer. I felt her ice-cold hands inside of her casket and observed everyone walking on eggshells for months because children should not have to experience death, but sometimes they do. Joy’s death fueled the investigation into why all of the women in my family were getting cancer. My mom began routine screenings such as mammograms, since Joy was diagnosed at such a young age. Then, when I was a teenager, we underwent genetic testing. We found out that we carry the BRCA2 gene mutation. The BRCA gene (which stands for Breast Cancer) significantly increases a person’s risk of developing breast cancer and also increases the risk for other cancers such as ovarian cancer and skin cancer. My oncologist said that my breast cancer risk was about 87% and my ovarian cancer risk was about 50%. Not long after receiving the diagnosis, my mom was diagnosed with an aggressive late-stage breast cancer. I watched her suffer through round after round of chemotherapy, numerous surgeries and perpetual hospital stays. By the time I entered college, I was sure that cancer was coming for me too and so, I became anxious and depressed.
Shortly after college, I got married and gave birth to two amazing children. I opted for routine screenings until I was finished nursing my second child. I could have continued monitoring instead of surgery, but the more involved I became in the BRCA community, the more frequently I watched young women die. I decided that it was too risky for me, especially as a mother, to not have a mastectomy. At 31, I dropped off my children at school and checked in for my double mastectomy, fake smile in tow. I opted for a nipple-sparing, direct-to-implant over the muscle reconstruction (which essentially means I still have my own nipples and I have implants directly under my skin). I was grateful to be able to keep my nipples, but breast reconstruction is a long process involving multiple surgeries, so it’s not as easy as a “boob job”.
I faced single life for the first time in twelve years, with two more breast reconstruction surgeries to go.
Unfortunately, my mastectomy also coincided with the timing of my divorce (for unrelated reasons). I faced my entry in the single life for the first time in twelve years, with two more breast reconstruction surgeries to go. I told my friends that I felt like I was “still under construction” and I couldn’t be with anyone “until my body was fixed”. I felt inadequate and ashamed of the scars around my nipples. I desperately needed to feel beautiful, so I booked a boudoir photoshoot for myself. I had never shot anything other than business headshots prior to my boudoir shoot, and the idea of stepping into the studio in lingerie was terrifying, despite the fact that I chose an all-female studio. I spent the day celebrating myself. I left with beautiful photos that I could pull out and look at to see the truth, every time that feelings of inadequacy started to creep in.
My boudoir photoshoot was the kick-off into my self-love journey. I treated my feelings of unworthiness with a combination of therapy, friendship and trying new things that forced me outside of my comfort zone. Trying new things has been the catalyst in helping me discover who I really am, and when I know myself, I know my worth. At the time of writing, I’m two weeks post-op from my second reconstruction surgery (my third surgery this year). I knew the short-term depression was coming so I prepared ahead of time for it. I manage my mood by circling special dates on my calendar and counting them down just like a child.
“5 sleeps until lunch with Jaime.”
“10 sleeps until I get a pedicure.”
“109 sleeps until girl’s vacation in Tulum.”
The number of days until I have a boyfriend isn’t on my calendar, because it will happen when it happens. My version of self-love requires relinquishing control of expectations so that I can be grateful for what I have now. I’m grateful that I’m alive, I’m grateful that I don’t have cancer and I’m grateful that I celebrate myself. I feel beautiful.
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