How Cancer at 23 Taught Me to Love my Body
I was 23 years old. I had recently graduated from college, returned from a life-changing trip to Kenya, moved into my cool apartment in downtown Philly, and settled into my first “real” job. I was lovin’ life and out to change the world.
And then, I found a pea-sized lump above my collarbone. For some reason, it just didn’t feel right. I wanted to pretend it wasn’t there, to believe in the invincibility of youth. But, thankfully, I listened to my gut and went to the doctor.
It was a snowball effect, or more like an avalanche, from that visit on. I had a biopsy and anxiously awaited the results. My dad came to be with me at my apartment the afternoon we were expecting The Call. I’m forever grateful that he did, because The Call revealed my fear and changed my life.
Cancer. Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. A very treatable kind, they said. Usually effective, they said. Blah, blah, blah… I could only hear “You have cancer. You could die.”
After I recovered from the initial sucker punch to the gut, I regained my breath and got into action. At the time, people said I was handling it with such courage and grace. I felt that I was just doing what I had to do, as anyone would.
Fifteen years later, I can now see and appreciate the strength I had as young woman. I can let the compliment in. At the time, I just focused on healing my body and keeping my fear from taking over.
Chemotherapy. Radiation. The whole shebang. I had no appetite. My white cell counts dropped and I needed daily shots to keep them up. I woke up in the morning to find hair on my pillow. I took a shower to discover that hair falls out everywhere, and felt strangely pre-pubescent.
My mom lovingly bought me an expensive wig, which I never wore. Instead, two amazing friends came over and shaved my head. And I rocked that bald head. I wore a hat at night, because being bald is cold, and pretended it was just like camping.
At times, I hated my body for “failing” me. Healthy, active, good people shouldn’t get cancer at 23 I thought to myself. WTF.
Then, the most beautiful thing happened. It was over and I was declared well. And my hair started to grow back (curly!). The color returned to my skin. I enjoyed food again! It took time, but the fear slowly faded.
Mostly, I had the most profound appreciation for life and for suffering. I had the deepest gratitude for the strength and brilliance of my body. A body that endured the onslaught of cancer cells, chemo drugs, and radiation. A body that fought for me, and won. A body that would go on to grow two incredible children.
When I feel crappy about my body (and sometimes I do, like all women), I am quickly reminded of its unfathomable strength. Of what it has endured, how it has served me, and how it serves me still.
Our body enables us to be here in this world. To love and laugh. To kick and scream. To experience the wild ride that life is. To make the difference we were born to make.
Sometimes our body gets weary. Sometimes they don’t function like we wish they would. Sometimes we wish they’d be smaller, stronger, taller, or something “else.”
But our body is our vessel, and for that, I am eternally grateful.