SurvivorshipPatient Stories

Beautifully Broken and Stronger Than Ever

With this moving portrait of how a cancer diagnosis can shake up one’s emotions and sense of self, Lydia DeJesus describes her experience with breast cancer and how she found her strength again.
April 2022 Vol 8 No 2
Lydia DeJesus
Dickinson, North Dakota

In the fall of 2015, at age 44, I found myself on the verge of a fantastic life transformation. I reached a place I always imagined existed. For the first time in my life, I felt content and happy. I no longer felt a strong desire to amass an incessant number of materialistic things. The peace that I found within began to fuel a desire for good health and a fit lifestyle.

I found myself filled with hope for my future and the changes that I wanted to make. I continued to pursue my certifications in the fitness industry. I believed 2016 would be my best year yet. I did not know it at the time, but my future held a different story.

Anxiety and Preparation

The year 2016 began with a series of medical tests that started after my boyfriend at the time had noticed a lump in my right breast. About 15 years earlier I had a benign lump removed from the same breast, so I had this one removed as well, which just seemed routine, until the nurse called to reschedule my post-op appointment to an earlier day. She also said to bring “family and friends,” but when I asked “why,” she said she could not discuss this. Thus, without warning, all that I had believed about my future would change.

Riddled with anxiety, I prayed and paced my bedroom floor, trying to will my appointment day into existence. That was the longest weekend I had ever experienced. Never in my life had I wished for a Monday to arrive.

Thankfully (or thoughtfully), as my doctor reported the findings, she never said, “you have breast cancer.” I appreciated her referring to my diagnosis as “the cancer,” which made it seem like a foreign object that needed to be excised from my body.

That I could handle, because problem-solving is my strength. That’s when I knew I had the power to dig deep and prepare to wage war against this thing invading my body.

When they removed the lump, it meant that I no longer had cancer. I was told that the cancer did not progress further than the tissue they removed. However, because the cancer had been aggressive and had progressed relatively fast, I still had to do 4 rounds of chemotherapy.

After starting chemo, I remember how every morning began for me. I helplessly watched a horrifying transformation in the reflection of my mirror. I did not have the capacity to make it stop. Each new day brought with it a more rundown version of me, until one day I just gave up and stopped looking.

Finding Myself Again

I let cancer get the better of me. I was so tired of feeling gravely ill day in and day out. I worried all the time that “the cancer” would come back. Most of all, I feared not being here for my children and grandchildren. Somehow, I’d forgotten that I’m not the kind of person who lets hard or difficult things get in my way. I am normally very strong, mostly because I have no other choice, but also because it’s how my mother raised me.

With God’s grace I know that nothing, not even cancer, is going to hold me back from living my best life. I finally summoned the courage to look in the mirror again. Not all at once, but slowly and intentionally. I took a deep breath, said a Hail Mary, and asked God for the grace to honor my struggle.

When I finally mustered up the courage to look in the mirror, horror washed over me. Gasping for air, I tried to remember my mantra, “You are stronger than your biggest challenge.” Again and again, I repeated those words. Even now as I write these words, I am unable to adequately express all that was going on in my mind and in my heart.

A Dark Cloud

I finally completed the 4 rounds of chemotherapy, but what “the cancer” left behind was something that still haunts me today. I did not even have the courage to ring “the bell” after I finished the infusions part of my treatment, because of the imminent threat of cancer that still loomed over me like a dark cloud.

I felt that cancer would pounce on me and destroy me at any moment. I could not shake the fear or anxiety that had become such an intimate part of my life.

As I looked at the person in the mirror, all I could see was a perfect stranger beaten down by cancer. The closer I looked, the more I could see the pain and defeat I felt. Tears began to well in my eyes, eventually spilling down my cheeks and onto the floor.

A Fire Growing Inside

I stood there crying for the girl still fighting to get her life back. I continued repeating my mantra, and I chose to focus on all that I overcame to still be here standing in front of my mirror. I’d made it further than some women who had the same affliction.

I didn’t have a single hair on my entire body, but I had a glimmer of hope in my heart, and my soul cried out for so much more. I had my faith and belief in myself, which would not be possible without the lessons my parents had taught me, and the unwavering support I received from my family and friends.

At that moment, I accepted that the woman I had been before my cancer diagnosis died. But that didn’t scare me anymore; it inspired me. I felt a fire growing inside me, fueling an intense desire to come out of this situation stronger than I had ever been. That is when I chose to take control of my future. I committed to making choices that were rooted in self-love and a belief in me.

I have been cancer-free for 6 years now. In that time, I battled insecurities and waves of low self-esteem and self-doubt. I spent many days going through the motions and pretending to be strong. I am learning that I have been given this life because I am strong enough to meet every challenge.

Technically, I am a breast cancer “survivor,” but I prefer the term “warrior,” because my fight is not over. Nobody tells you that cancer will live with you long after treatment is over. In fact, for many patients with cancer, the real battle begins after treatment—in the silence that begins when treatment is over. It is the battle to take back your life. It is only then that you can begin the true healing process.

The True Gift

After 5 years of receiving maintenance chemotherapy, in 2021, at age 50, I finally received approval from my oncologist to stop taking the medication. It’s only been a few months, but every day now I wake up on a mission to become the best version of myself. I look for ways to build a life filled with friendships, family, and love, because, after all, that is the truest gift we receive in the life we have been given.

If you are waging war against breast cancer and walking on this journey, remember that surviving cancer is only a small part of your story. What you do today matters: live each day the best way you can.

Love yourself completely, and on the days that you feel that you have failed, give yourself the grace to feel it, label your feelings, and move on.

You are not defined by your failures, so take comfort knowing that as long as there is breath in your body, you have a chance to do better next time. Honor all the parts that make up who you are, especially the parts you think are broken.

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Last modified: April 19, 2022

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