Mirror Mirror On the Wall

Ever hear the saying when you look good you feel good? Going through breast cancer treatment and looking at myself in the mirror, I did not look good nor did I feel good! Putting on lipstick, makeup, and wigs work for some survivors. I have survivor sisters that were always made up. I did it several times and instead of feeling good it made me feel like shit.

At the end of the day pulling off the wig, washing off the makeup, and looking at myself in the mirror, I saw a sickly unpretty androgynous person staring back at me in utter pain. I would sometimes forget what I looked like (chemo brain) and literally scare myself when I saw my reflection. I remember one day staring at myself asking ‘who are you?’ in disbelief.

While pink was my favorite color before cancer, I found myself constantly wearing pink as a way of signifying I’m a woman and even as a disclaimer of sorts… Like, excuse my appearance; I’m fighting breast cancer.

My bilateral mastectomy and the first phase of reconstruction took me over the top. I was angry, depressed, and disconnected from my body. Even though I had expanders (which feels like hard rocks trying to bust through your chest), the fact that my breast were completely carved out, hollowed, gutted, no flesh or tissue left and my areolas and nipples were completely gone, leaving me with these crazy looking Frankenstein scars; I didn’t feel like a woman. I didn’t think I looked like one either. I didn’t see myself as beautiful nor did I think I had an ounce of sexy left in my body.

My self-image was completely shattered to the point of seemingly no return. Talking to other survivors I learned I wasn’t alone.

Watching television was depressing. Sometimes commercials made me cry. Our society has this standard of beauty that most women can’t measure up to because it’s just not real or diverse for that matter. As a breast cancer patient, every advertisement on television was a reminder of how I didn’t meet this bullshit standard. As a Black woman it was even more cutting because beyond not meeting the basic societal standard, years of conditioning made me feel like I wasn’t meeting Black beauty standards either. In the African American community, HAIR is important and is often connected to one’s identity. I was in the midst of a major identity crisis.

There were many assumptions made about me and my bald head. Was I gay or straight? Did I do the big chop? Was I a trendsetter or a trend follower? I got a lot of strange looks as it was growing back. I was pulled over by the police and had guns drawn on me from the driver and passenger side… I didn’t break any laws or do anything wrong. It was clear the officers thought I was a Black Male driving a Mercedes and they were trying to catch me riding dirty. I was afraid to move and of course, they wanted my license and registration while they had guns pointed at me. However, when they realized I was a woman their posture and body language changed. They never gave me a reason why they pulled me over other than my windows were tinted (which isn’t illegal) but I knew. They thought I was a Black Man. For me, this was a sad terrifying glimpse at the day in the life of Black Men while at the same time an indication to me that my sex was unclear.

My job as a Senior Field Representative required me to be in the public eye representing a California State Senator in my assigned cities within the district. My duties involved public speaking, attending events and meetings, presenting certificates of recognition, and working directly with people on a daily basis. I felt self-conscious, completely unconnected and unable to perform my duties the way I had before…not just based on my appearance and loss of self-confidence, but my temperament, patience level, and memory too. I felt completely out of place in every aspect of the life I knew before breast cancer. I was so angry and sad!

The Cancer Support Community became my home away from home as I immersed myself in every type of therapy available. I resigned from my job and focused on healing and recovery. During this time, the Young Survivor Coalition was working with the show SkinWars to do a special episode with breast cancer survivors. I was selected to participate. I’m thankful because it turned out to be a major step in building my confidence, self-image, and healing.

While on the set of SkinWars bonding with my survivor sisters, I was told about a photo shoot for a special line of intimate apparel made specifically for the unique needs of breast cancer survivors that have undergone surgeries. Some women are able to wear regular bras after surgery and for some of us regular bras don’t fit and/or cause discomfort. I decided to send my information for consideration. To my surprise, I was selected to be photographed for AnaOno Intimates; still not quite 100% comfortable in my own skin walking into the shoot. By the end of an amazing experience bonding with more survivors with similar issues, I may as well had walked out of there singing I’m Bringing Sexy Back. My hair was growing and although I looked different and still wasn’t use to my breast reconstruction, I didn’t have that cancer chemo Uncle Fester look. In fact, I started to feel and look more like a woman to myself. However, I still had a long way to go…

The cutting and removing of my body parts wasn’t over with the amputation of my breasts. As a Triple Negative Breast Cancer Survivor and carrier of the BRCA1+ gene, my ovaries and fallopian tubes were at high risk. This too angered me and felt like another attack on my womanhood! Chemotherapy had thrown me into menopause and it was unknown if it would be permanent. However, after a year and some months, my menstrual cycle made an unexpected return. As much as I hated it, it made me feel like a woman. The thought of having my reproductive system annihilated grieved my spirit. The risk factors caused anxiety. I was consumed with thoughts of not being able to have children. I already felt like Frankenstein Barbie (no genitals) despite having a fully functioning vagina. I had these ‘less of a woman’ feelings I couldn’t shake.

I connected with Haus of Volta, a nonprofit organization with a mission to help young breast cancer survivors and metastatic warriors with positive body image, self-love, confidence and more. I am a model in the 2019 Survivor Pinup Calendar representing the month of August. When I saw the pictures I was like wow… I look like a woman, a sexy woman! I’m working through my issues publicly and as transparent as I can in hopes of helping other women going through similar struggles get their sexy back and a positive healthy self-image.

My participation in this project is what made me realize what I see in the mirror is not quite what everyone else sees. A friend shared their battle with body dysmorphia with me. However, at the time I didn’t know it was what I was experiencing… “Knowing is half the battle,” according to G.I. Joe. Now I know!

The proceeds from the sale of these calendars go directly to Haus of Volta, the nonprofit organization that helps breast cancer survivors and metastatic warriors. The calendars are $20 (shipping and handling is $15). I’m encouraging my friends, family, and co-workers to buy a calendar for themselves and pay one forward to a survivor. We will be delivering calendars to survivors across the country to encourage, inspire and support them through their journey. If you’d like to purchase a calendar for yourself please click here to order. If you’d like to pay a calendar forward to a survivor or make a donation for this purpose please go to https://www.paypal.me/hausofvolta

It’s a 12×18 Wall art pinup calendar featuring 13 breast cancer survivors and metastatic warriors! Full Color, glossy with large squares for writing down all your important dates!

A week after my 43rd birthday and here I am living my model dreams from when I was 23… except I never dreamed I’d be in a SURVIVOR calendar… I never thought cancer would knock at my door… I never thought that anything could ever make me feel like I wasn’t a woman any more…. breast cancer and my double mastectomy with the looming ovary removal did that to me…. see fighting cancer is one fight that starts many more…. it’s not always comfortable to talk about some of those knock down drag out fights… Sometimes just when you think you’re over it and you’ve knocked that beast out… you turn around and it’s standing there looking at you like yup, I’m still here. So when you look at this picture you might just see me bent over leaning on a car with my ass out…. that’s one way of looking at it… I’m really saying I’m reclaiming my time that cancer took from me, I’m reclaiming my beauty that cancer blinded me from seeing, I’m reclaiming my body that cancer tried to steal from me… I kind of wish my middle finger was up. However, I’m glad my ass is out cause as far as I’m concerned cancer can kiss it. we all draw strength and lessons from different things, different people, and different experiences such as this photoshoot … this is one of many ways I Fight Like a Grown Ass Woman… All we do is win! ‚̧Marenda #FightLikeaGrownAssWoman #SurvivorChronicles #lifeaftercancer #NeverGiveUp #fuckcancer #breastcancer #Repost @hausofvolta —————— Ow, she’s a brick house She’s mighty-mighty, just lettin’ it all hang out She’s a brick house That lady’s stacked and that’s a fact Ain’t holding nothing back #superfly #coffy #seventies #harlem #dontstartwithme #brickhouse #rnb #randb #motomama #empowerment #empoweringwomen #kittengotclaws #fightthepower

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The Other Side, There’s Light at the End of the Tunnel and it Ain’t the Train!

I walked into my Oncologist’s office for my routine 6 month appointment with a level of confidence I’ve never had (since I started going to her in 2014). I lost 2 survivor sisters in 2018, gained a new survivor sister (not a club you want your loved ones or anyone to join), and I have a survivor sister battling a recurrence. It was a tough year to say the least. I ended 2018 with having a Bilateral SalpingoOophorectomy (removal of both ovaries and fallopian tubes) with a total hysterectomy (uterus and cervix removed). Being BRCA1+ having had Triple Negative Breast Cancer sometimes feels like having a dark cloud overhead…like cancer is lurking in the shadows waiting to strike those vulnerable parts of me at the highest risk… Like that cloud is waiting to rain on my parade! NOT TODAY or any other day!!! Those parts of me were no longer serving me and had to go. I laid my burdens down on December 18, 2018 with that surgery which was also exploratory to confirm no evidence of cancer; it was also the 4th anniversary of my bilateral mastectomy.

So today I walked into that office feeling good and knowing I’m GOOD! No anxiety. No panic attacks. No crazy thoughts in the back of my head. I didn’t have to give myself a pep talk. I wasn’t dreading the appointment as I usually do. My doctor did everything she always does. What was different was ME!!! Today was the first time that I truly felt ON THE OTHER SIDE. I’ve had days that just felt like I would never be on the other side like there was no light at the end of the tunnel. Not any more. I’m almost at the point where I only have to see my oncologist ONCE a year. I no longer have to have the MRI’s, the pelvic ultrasounds, pap smears, or endometrial biopsies. I was all smiles giving up my blood today, that’s pretty much the extent of what my appointments with my oncologist will be like now. THANK GOD! We knocked out 4 years and I’m living my best life. Another year to hit that milestone 5!

If I can do it so can you. No matter what you are going through, you can get to the other side! You can drill through the mountain, climb it, fly over it or command it to move… It’s up to you. Whatever you do, Fight Like a Grown Ass Woman!!!!!