This month, Lupita Nyong’o was named People Magazine’s most beautiful person of 2014. I’ve seen her discuss her long road to embracing and owning her beauty, especially as a woman of a darker hue who often faced a dearth of media promoted, similarly hued beauties. In a different way, I’ve been on a journey to embrace and own my beauty, and strength, during my breast cancer journey. At 44, I am a 5 ⅓ year triple negative breast cancer survivor. My breast cancer journey forced me to readjust and redefine many things including my definition of strength and beauty. At 38, with a 1 year old daughter, 4 year old son and husband of 7 years, I was diagnosed with Stage 1, Grade 3 invasive ductal carcinoma. But, my breast cancer journey really began 30 years earlier. At 8 years old, my 36 year old mother was diagnosed with breast cancer; beginning her 12 year fight that ended when her third battle with the disease took her life at age 49.
Many aunts and first cousins were diagnosed with breast cancer and/or ovarian cancer and most lost their battles in their 30s and 40s. Amidst sadness and loss, I frequently considered my own mortality and questioned if I was living the life that I wanted with so many dreams untouched. Should I do my own thing or follow convention? I always returned to a normal “inside the box” life.
Armed with information and learning that I was a carrier of the BRCA1 gene mutation that increased my risk for both breast and ovarian cancer, I began planning my preventive (prophylactic) surgeries. In the midst of planning my surgeries as well as preparing for Thanksgiving, Christmas and my upcoming 39th birthday, on 11/21/08 I received my diagnosis and became a fifth generation breast cancer patient. Face to face with the enemy prompted a redefinition of many things in my life, among them beauty and strength. I promised myself that I would do everything I had to do to survive and work toward a great quality of life.
Beauty is often defined by our vision and varies depending on the lens that we use and whether or not it’s in or out of focus. Throughout my battle with breast cancer – through the bilateral mastectomy (prophylactic on the right breast), bilateral prophylactic oophorectomy, 16 rounds of chemotherapy, reconstructive surgery (2 times on the left breast and 1 time on the right) – I was readjusting, trying to focus my lens, but my vision was often blurred. Blurred by my tears as I experienced every emotion – anger, fear, sadness and also joy when I achieved a survival milestone like getting through my first chemo! Tears of joy, sadness, confusion, faithlessness and frustration. Tears of hope. Tears for my late mother. Through my tears, the image of beauty appeared more clearly, came into focus. I found clarity regarding the vision for my life. Ahh, yes, it’s a thing of beauty to have clarity. And, that clarity drives me to unapologetically pursue my vision for my life.
It’s not about a bucket list, but rather a passport of happiness; one that will be stamped many times a day, filled with beautiful experiences. My good living is my middle finger to breast cancer. My redefinition of beauty is having a vision and putting every blessed breath into sculpting, crafting and bringing to life that vision.
As I adjusted and readjusted my lens and found beauty through clarity of vision, I also spent countless hours in the mirror looking at my “new” body. New scars on my “breasts” from the mastectomy, under my armpits from my drain tubes, and the scar above my right breast that had been the insertion point for the mediport that my doctors urged to prevent my veins from collapsing during or after chemo, allowing me to continue the lifesaving treatment. Somehow, even though my mastectomy scars were much more pronounced, my teary eyes always focused on my mediport scar. My intense focus provided a unique connection with this scar. I transitioned from wearing it like a scarlet letter, to being unafraid if it showed because I likened it to a red badge of courage. I’ve grown proud of this symbol of my strength. After everything that I faced, and even with a scarred body, I still look at myself with pride.
While looking through that lens, my strength was redefined as a covenant. Strength is honoring the promises you make to yourself, like the one I made to do everything I had to do in order to survive. Again, the redefinition was only made clear through focus; keeping promises to myself even when confronted with seemingly insurmountable challenges; focused on living my vision. Many dreams I had are no longer untouched. I’m busy doing a lot of stuff that I love, including co-founding Breast Cancer Comfort Site that is a wellspring of lessons and guidance for breast cancer survivors to plant new seeds and flourish during and after breast cancer treatment. After being nearly sidelined by the draining and debilitating effects of chemo, I’ve turned the corner and last month I ran my first half marathon. I ran all 13.1 miles without stopping. And, two weeks later, I did a 10K. I’m unstoppable, beautiful and strong.
April 24, 2014
Melanie A. Nix – Triple negative breast cancer survivor. Always striving to color outside of the lines when defining my new normal.