Writer Carla Hill | Photography Joe Wesley
Every day I speak to my fears to let them know they are not real. It is my belief that wellness begins in our heads.
The best medical advice I ever received was from my surgeon, Frederick Moffat, at the Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center. Before any surgery or chemotherapy began, Dr. Moffat would urge me to begin the healing process in my head – with my thoughts. This is how I learned to think about and visualize myself back to wellness.
A SERIES OF DEVASTATING DIAGNOSES
As a young person, I did all the right things – I didn’t smoke, I didn’t do drugs, and I took care of my body. One day in the 90s, my mother found me passed out on the bathroom floor after exercising. Shortly after I was diagnosed with kidney disease. From what? Too many ab crunches? This led to a host of medications and treatments, including dialysis, and by 2000, a kidney transplant.
In 2005 I was getting ready for a cousin’s wedding. After flipping my then middle-of-my-back, fresh-from-the-salon, blow dried hair, I felt a lump in my right breast and immediately became frightened. Luckily, I lived in a house with a mother who was really progressive, and encouraged me to be aware of any changes in my body. By this time she herself was a breast cancer survivor of nearly ten years. I found out that this lump was stage two cancer.
I knew I had to take control, and not let this new health challenge overwhelm me. I found a boldness in myself I didn’t know I had. First, I made a private appointment with my husband’s barber to trim my hair into a close cropped buzz cut. Then I chose a mastectomy without reconstruction – only the right breast. I was young, and I had just had the kidney transplant. I didn’t want to risk my new perky breast becoming infected, and then possibly damaging my new kidney. For what? To fill out a Victoria’s Secret bra?
In 2007, a mammogram helped me to find my second cancer. The first thing that crossed my mind was that if I needed another kidney transplant, I’d have to be five years cancer free. I was only two years cancer free – with a second cancer! So in 2007, I had my second mastectomy.
DECIDING TO THRIVE
Social media makes us feel that everyone is enjoying a perpetual, bottomless mimosa brunch. While Instagramming can be fun, if you’re not careful, it can make you believe that what you’re going through is not the “brunch” of life, but a mere microwaved egg sandwich – from the gas station!
My kidney transplant and cancer journey (WHEW!) has forced me to be more bold about the way I approach life. I sat in a state of disappointment and “why me” for many years. I wish I didn’t have to go through these illnesses, but they’ve forced me to find courage and strength I would never have tapped into, had my life been “normal”.
I’ve tried to put my experiences out of my mind so much that I’m always in shock to hear that someone is inspired by my story. Until very recently, I wanted to be unremarkable.
If you asked me how things were going, I’d reply that everything was great! In the Caribbean community you’re expected to push through all your challenges quietly, and with a smile. But anyone going through cancer or any other life changing disease isn’t and shouldn’t feel happy about such a diagnosis. They deserve the right to be upset, and to grieve their old body, lost hair and altered sense of self, without judgement.
I’m a good Catholic girl, but I don’t believe that God punishes. I don’t think that I did something wrong and somebody up high is zapping me with cancer. I think we live in a world that’s filled with things that we can’t avoid, that aren’t necessarily good for us, and that we just have to deal with the best way we can. I have a support system that’s fortified me enough to deal like a champion.
After my second mastectomy, I made the decision to live a breast-less life. I named my new alter ego and social media handle @brstlssbeauty. I’ve claimed my “beauty”. I have decided that I’m still girly, fashionable, sexy, without breasts or luxurious hair. How truly courageous am I to totally shun traditional beauty standards and define my womanhood in my way?
Chemotherapy has left me and my husband without the prospect of having kids. We have decided aloud that WE are our family. If, how and when we choose to grow this family is no one’s business but our own.
My carnival-loving extended family is from Trinidad and Tobago. Trinis like to use the word “Bacchanal”. This word can mean all kinds of things. Bacchanal can be a great time. It can be a scandalous event. Somebody can actually be Bacchanal! I’ve used my culture to assess the events of my life and I’ve now embraced my personal bacchanal. I don’t alter my clothing or my carnival costumes to give the illusion of breasts. I don’t hide the transplant scar across my belly when wearing my scanty regalia at Trinidad carnival. I now channel my bacchanal when I’m marching down the road there, and proudly parade in all of my breast-less glory.
To those surviving their own personal battles I say – you are more powerful now than you ever were before. Cause a BACCHANAL!