For any person, coming upon the end of a year can make you feel like you are searching for all the promises you’ve kept, goals you’ve accomplished, and ways you became a better person. But as a young breast cancer survivor, how do you manage the expectations you would normally have of yourself, against the powerful knowledge that you are renewing your existence everyday as you fight this disease?
The answer is, through gratitude.
I was diagnosed with Stage I breast cancer in March 2018, at the age of 29. I had no family history of breast cancer or related genetic mutations, and I certainly didn’t fit the “typical” markup of a breast cancer patient. I was succeeding in an elite position in media relations, I was enjoying the new found self-love and growth that comes with ending a relationship that is wrong for you, and I was prioritizing the most important things in my life (family, spirituality, community and mental health).
When cancer walked into my life, it singlehandedly tried to transform me from a young, vibrant, flourishing woman into what felt like a body which was on this earth for the sole purpose of being kept alive.
The physical and mental pressure of chemotherapy, multiple surgeries, endless scans, hormone therapy and one year of infusion treatments pushed me to the edges of my body and my soul.
During that time, one of the most challenging parts of figuring my way out through a diagnosis that came out of nowhere was learning to love the person I was becoming versus the person I thought I would be. Specifically, as someone who had pursued higher education, a challenging career, and lived away from family all for the sake of achieving success, I had to make the decision to accept that this path, with all its darkness and fright, could transform parts of me I would have never met, and therefore bring me to a more powerful way of living.
As my body did its job – processing toxic medicines, keeping food down, and killing cells left and right – I needed to know that somehow, my mind and soul too had a purpose for going through all this.
Every three weeks when I travelled from Washington, D.C. where I lived and worked to New York City where my family was for chemotherapy, and required a minimum one week period to recover from the harsh treatments. The multiple surgeries which demanded a four to six week rehabilitation period. And the scans that lasted anywhere from 15 to 45 minutes of being trapped in a tube or under a metal plate. These were the times that became my opportunity to sit with the quiet part inside me that had been absorbing all the information from the doctor’s appointments, all the statistical research, all the lifestyle changes and all the reflections about my changing appearance. The quiet part which somehow got me through all of it, by being brave and strong in the face of dark newness. She was the quiet part which saw the tide coming and said “no, today we fly.”
I began to meet with her often, and eventually, outside of the times of waiting, anticipating and recovering. And every time I met her, I thanked her for not only how she was getting me through the present, but how she would make my life worth living in the future, through this very experience. I didn’t need proof, or a job offer for a better life awaiting me after cancer, I just trusted in the parts of me that had grown the ability to become quiet, that this would happen.
Through practice, when I came into my stillness, I developed the precious ability to distinguish my temporal suffering from actual positive shifts in my life path.
My cancer journey eventually opened up the chance for me to move back to my hometown, New York City, and start the philanthropic fashion business I had always dreamed of as a child. Through my cancer journey, I experienced not only the loss of identity that comes from hair loss, but also the shame and embarrassment that comes from being forced to wear fake hair or head wraps that make you look like a cancer patient. During my times of stillness throughout chemotherapy, I started to sew my own stylish head wraps since the fashion world lacked the options I needed. My quality of life changed when I created a solution which allowed me comfort and coverage while giving me back the elegance and vibrancy cancer had once stolen away, simply by being able to dress like myself.
Whether I was shuttling between cities or appointments, or trying to make social plans to live as normally as possible, my head wraps began to give me the confidence and courage to experience the world around me while I healed. Through my stillness and gratitude, I realized this problem is not limited to my experience only. And therefore the solution is inherently, not my solution only.
I now run my own fashion label, where women can shop for head wraps the same way the shop for clothes – by season and by occasion. Because of my experience, hair loss no longer stands between women facing cancer, and the experiences and places that bring them joy and healing.
I still sit with the quiet girl that lives inside me. The one that knows the value of understanding the difference between temporal hardships and positive shifts for the better.
The gift she has given me, in short, is the ability to seek moments and actions that will create gratitude within me. As I spend my holiday season continuing to express that gratitude toward myself, my growth, and my purpose in helping other women, I hope you will learn to practice that same stillness in your life. You are moving mountains every day. Each footprint forward should leave an impression of gratitude toward yourself throughout the year. You have earned every step, every moment and every glory.
Written by Sonya Keshwani (@NYMannequin), Young Breast Cancer Survivor and Founder of StyleEsteem (@StyleEsteem)