Victoria, diagnosed at 30
Feeling beautiful is something most women struggle with; it can be a bad hair day, not feeling great in the dress you choose that morning or thinking that you just might not like yourself in green after all. This everyday feeling intensifies when you are faced with a daunting change to your “look.” That’s what cancer did to me. It made me feel like I wasn’t beautiful. It made me feel like I didn’t want to look in the mirror, and it wasn’t just a matter of changing an outfit. Cancer took my breasts, my hair and what I considered my beauty. I was 30 when I was diagnosed with Invasive Ductal Carcinoma. I have no family history of the disease. The last thing I was thinking about was getting sick. I was focused on making plans to marry my long-term boyfriend and dreaming about starting a family and being a mom someday. In fact, the day I noticed something was different was a cold day in January when, after wearing a very pretty but very itchy wool sweater, I scratched so hard, I left my skin raw and while applying some ointment, I noticed the lump.
My tumor was 1.4 centimeters and my cancer was both estrogen and progesterone positive. After speaking with my doctors and a lot of soul searching, I decided to have a double mastectomy with DIEP Flap reconstruction. My oncologist wasn’t sure if I would need chemo, since the tumor was small and I was having a double mastectomy. At this point, fertility preservation was not something my doctors focused on. My surgeon asked if I was planning to freeze my eggs, but didn’t really discuss it any further or explain why I might want to research this option, especially since I was only 30 years old. When I learned I needed chemo that is when the fertility discussions began. I was able to freeze my eggs and keep my hopes of one day becoming a mom alive. Now, I was a girly girl and still am. I was focused on thinking about my future and the wonderful man that was in my life. I was thinking about weddings and babies. I was not thinking about chemotherapy and losing my hair and breasts. But this was now my reality. I was having a hard time working through what it meant to be pretty, what it meant to be a girl with no hair (mine used to be long) and to have just had my breasts removed. I was finding it hard to feel attractive. Every day my boyfriend would tell me I was beautiful and that he loved me, but I struggled with how I felt about myself every time I looked in a mirror. I didn’t want to shave my head, but the first time my hair fell out after chemo, I knew I had to. I could not watch it fall out in clumps. I knew that if my hair was falling out, the chemo was “doing its job,” but it still was shocking to see.
I had seen some pictures of a cancer patient that seemed to honor and not just record their treatment experience and their baldness. As soon as I saw those pictures, I knew I needed to do that too. I needed to see the beauty in this experience, to feel the glamour that was still a part of me, to acknowledge and honor what was strong and wonderful about me as a young woman, even a bald young woman fighting her most important battle this early in life. The photo shoot was incredibly empowering. For a short while, I forgot about being sick, and my next round of chemo. I was able to just be a girl again, to think only feeling pretty. I shopped just for fun (without worrying that I had a double mastectomy) and went and had my makeup professionally done. I still look back at that time and think about how it allowed me to just be me again, if only for a day. Though I have some hair now (it’s short) and I’ve completed my reconstruction, I will always be able to look at those pictures and remember the days that even though I didn’t feel gorgeous, I was to so many people. I just needed to remind myself!