“The kind of beauty I want most is the hard-to-get kind that comes from within – strength, courage, dignity.” Ruby Dee
When one thinks of beauty, images of flawless complexions, radiant cheekbones, smoldering eyes, shiny flowing hair and perfect bodies come to mind. As women, we are brought up to emphasize the importance of our exterior attributes from early childhood development onward. Actresses, models and beauty queens define our cultures’ standards for perfected beauty. For most of my life I helped perpetuate those standards. I worked in magazine publishing as a fashion editor and my job was to bring beauty, fantasy and perfection to every fashion photo I styled. As beauty and fashion trends changed with each season, it was my job to keep current with those changes. While make-up and hairstyles varied greatly (helping to define each decade), our obsession with thin, perfect bodies that had the right bust-waist-hip ratio remained pretty much a constant. Women whose bodies did not conform to our cultures’ dictate of beauty were made to feel inferior. Those inferior complexes helped provide an opportune marketplace for articles, books, tapes and videos on how diet, exercise, makeovers and even surgeries could help any women attain the same perceived beauty featured so prominently throughout the media. Just like most women, I fell in to the trap. I bought creams to remove wrinkles, replenish my skin and recreate the glow of my teenage years. I experimented with every new diet that made the bestseller’s list. I had my teeth whitened, my hair straightened and my frown line “Botax”ed. But then something happened!
At 46 years old and at the top of my “professional game”, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. A lumpectomy and five weeks of radiation followed. My right breast that had been radiated was now smaller than my left breast. My symmetry as I had known it was now flawed. Somehow it no longer mattered. As I sat in the waiting room before each radiation treatment I stared in to the faces of women less fortunate than myself. What stared back at me was an amazing beauty that radiated from their inner strength and courage. I began the process of re-accessing my life.
Fast forward four years later. Last October my annual mammogram turned up new abnormalities in my left breast. Another lumpectomy resulted in more alarming news. While my first round of breast cancer was non-invasive, my latest diagnosis was that I now had the aggressive HER2+ form of the disease. In January I underwent a bi-lateral mastectomy followed by reconstructive plastic surgery. I am currently halfway through chemotherapy treatments. I have lost all my hair, feel toxic most of the time and still have two more surgeries to undergo. The ironic thing is that I am the happiest, most contented and confident that I have ever been in my life.
Cancer helped opened my eyes and my heart. The lesson I learned in the end was that we cannot be defined by the way we look but rather by the depth of the collective wisdom we gain through life experiences. My battles with breast cancer have provided me the opportunity to rid myself of my former vanities and really find out what lies beneath my surface. For this, I will be forever grateful!
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