My body, the battlefield

In 2005, I was diagnosed with cervical cancer. While the treatment was difficult and the time was trying for both me and my then-husband (and our families & friends), the scars and the side effects were all internal. To the naked eye, one would have thought I was fine–that I never had cancer. That I had it all together. To the naked eye, most would have thought my marriage was fine and that we had just weathered a storm. Perhaps a hurricane. While I had lost my ability to bear children and I suffered from an immense amount of scar tissue buildup inside my most precious female organs, I simply looked like a woman who had gained a bit of weight. While I suffered from crippling depression and anxiety, most people thought it was just a side effect from my troubling past, from previously existing traumas.

I carried around the semblance of normalcy until 2015, when I was again diagnosed with cervical cancer. This time, though, I was not as lucky as before. I needed more treatment, invasive and exhausting treatment, that caused visible symptoms. I lost 40 pounds. I lost my hair, everywhere. I gained a skin condition that permanently discolored my body. I lost a labia, and then a surgeon crafted a new one. Medication provided after treatment ended bloated me, giving me a “muffin top”. Vaginal reconstruction weakened my core. My teeth eroded from chemotherapy. My groin dotted with tattoos I needed for radiation.

My body, and my relationship with it, has changed in so many ways. Some days, I look in the mirror and remember that woman I once was, seeing her in my eyes or in my crooked smile. Others, I try to think that this moment, where my body feels and looks weathered, is when I am bursting from my cocoon. Messy but necessary to get to my final destination–a butterfly. But most of the time, I sit with angst, in despair about what others think when they see me. About what I think when I see me. To what expectations people compare the reality in front of them. Many days, I just see the cancer, even after it’s moved on to ravage someone else. My body, the battlefield.

I have a sordid history with my vagina. Much of my past trauma comes from unwanted sexual advances, assaults, and the aftermath those experiences caused. I have been trying to determine what a healthy relationship would look like with that part of my body for as long as I can remember–I never did have a healthy sexual experience before having unhealthy ones. I have sought the assistance of counselors, trauma therapists, sex therapists, and body workers to help connect me with The Sacred Feminine. I work to connect to Her on a regular basis.

But things just aren’t that easy.

In some ways, I find my post-cancer approach to my body to be more respectful than it once was. In college and after my divorce, I often gave my body freely to anyone willing to give theirs to me, without giving a second thought to who should have rite to entry. I did so soberly and consensually. Even after several sexual assaults in adulthood, I attempted to “stay normal” by continuing this practice, like nothing had happened. Like it didn’t matter that I had been violated. If I just kept up appearances, then maybe, just maybe, those violations would matter less. Now, after undergoing vaginal and labial reconstruction, I am more careful about whom I grant entry. It’s not that I don’t condone these practices–they’re great!–but I was never doing them for the right reasons. I was never a free spirit. I wanted control over the past–and I never gained it. Now, I am discerning. I respect this body that weathered the storms life threw its way. I expect that people touching or enjoying it also respect it. Because it IS The Sacred Feminine. And it is mine. I have a lot less sex (with others), but the quality is much higher. And, most of the time, I don’t shrink with shame afterwards.

Some days, especially when the body shame and self-doubt creeps in, when I’m meeting someone new from whom I’d like physical adoration, I gaze longingly over my shoulder. I compare myself to the “cool girls” and free spirits, and I wonder why I have become the prude. But it only takes a moment for me to run my fingers along the scars lining my edges to remember that, in place of someone trendy, stands a warrior for truth. Stands a woman reclaiming her leg hair and body hair. Learning to receive pleasure from herself, to give clear boundaries to others. Stands the captain of her destiny and a dreamer of dreams.

A survivor stands where a girl once did.

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Recovery.

“We think that the point is to pass the test or overcome the problem, but the truth is that things don’t really get solved…The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy.” –Pema Chodron, When Things Fall Apart


End of February 2015 I shot a commercial for Vonage telephone service, a service I used and loved for many years because it gave me precious time with my brother who lived in London. The photo on the left is a shot of me after the day wrapped. Little did I know that my life would fall apart only a week later and that I’d cancel my Vonage service and delete my relationship with my brother only months later, the day the photo on the right was taken (September 2015). 

Things fell apart. A week after my fun on set, at the top of my career, in love with my life as it was, I was diagnosed with cancer. This distanced me from my family, my friends, myself, my job, everything. I lost 40 pounds (photo on left: 143 pounds, right: 103) and my hair. I lost my job, my boyfriend, some friends, and my sense of stability. 

And during that time, people complimented my appearance. It devastated me, and I broke. I hurt everywhere, physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually. That photo on the right was an unhealthy version of me. I remember being cold all the time, walking through a cognitive fog, suffering from spontaneous incontinence, and really exploiting that small amount of hair that stayed attached to my scalp (the rest I had to shave because of the bald patches). I cried every single day. From pain, from loneliness, and mostly from fear. 


Photo on the left: 6/5/15. Two years ago. I’d completed a complete cycle of chemotherapy (7 doses over 7 weeks), 8.5 weeks of radiation, so many scans and biopsies and blood tests, 1 surgery, and all the misery I could have imagined. I had just been discharged from the hospital after my first surgery, the surgery that would remove the rest of my cancer. I couldn’t move from the pain, I had a catheter in still, and I was vomiting everywhere. My hair had just started to fall out, in chunks. I had an open wound where my labia used to be. And this was the day I wanted to die, when I couldn’t take anything any longer. I couldn’t imagine anything worse than that moment. 

But that wasn’t rock bottom. Over the next 6-8 months, the bottom fell out from under me and I experienced the depths. My body changed and healed, but I completely lost my footing emotionally, mentally, spiritually, financially. I was broken. Literally everything in my life changed. I experienced so many endings that it shook my cobwebs loose. 

And that’s when the healing started. I met my therapist in the city where I moved, and she gave me the room, the capacity, to experience everything in a messy, ugly, angry, irrational, emotional way. I began to learn what self-love feels like–being ok with all the emotions I’d been bottling up for so long. 

Those cobwebs that shook loose allowed room for things I could not previously accept: joy, self-respect, humor, silliness, childlike behavior, spontaneity, forgiveness, and love. I discovered what God means to me, and where I can find, accept, and celebrate spirituality. I am continuing to discover these depths inside of me, knowing now what Pema has tried to teach me for years: the things that shake you to your core remind you what inside of us is indestructible. 

“To live is to be willing to die over and over again.”

Today is my cancer survival day. Happy birthday, new body. Thank you for bringing me to my knees so that I could learn how to pray.

The Alchemist

To the one

Who loved this body

Broken, wounded

Ravaged by where others had been

Taking on the darkness

That lived, burrowed deep inside

Drinking from this vessel

Always knowing its poison.
To the one

Who, with eyes like lasers

Gazing deep into this heart

Boring into this soul,

Coated the myelin sheath

Around faulty synapses

Corroded from trauma

From those who’d come before

Strengthening all chakras

Always knowing its depletion.
To the one

Whose uttered words

Like a sacred language

Became the guiding voice

A radiant light in the darkness

Comforting the small child inside

Desperately pleading for reassurance

Coursing through these ears

Into these veins

Filling empty spaces with compassion.
To the one

Who, now with this body nearly restored,

Has drifted away

In need of wholeness

Of detoxification of spirit

Of compassion and comfort

Of deep, healing restoration

Your essence is enough

Surrounding us both at once.
To the one

Who, with vulnerability and kindness

Taught this broken heart to mend

These broken wings to fly

These blind eyes to see

Who, with gentle wisdom

Taught a body, mind, spirit

To heal, to harness its power.

Who, with divine alchemy

And pscionic power

Revealed the magic inside.
To the one,

Whose healing touch

Still felt on this body,

Whose stare,

Still slowing this nervous breath,

Whose voice lingers in these ears,

Whose mage hand, holding mine

Still guides this soul through the dark river

Whose alchemy,

My constant companion.

Never to be alone again.