It was 14 years ago, but it seems like yesterday. I knew my life would change but I had no idea how much one heart-stopping moment in time could shift the course of my entire life. I wouldn’t fully understand it until years later, but, without it, I would never have grown into the woman I was meant to be. It’s so strange to look back and see how different I was then.
I was a 26-year-old mom-to-be. I had been married less than a year. I was working to get my license in real estate when we found out I was pregnant. My husband and I were so excited to start our family. I had so many plans for how our life would be. Plans that fell apart the instant I heard the words ‘You have cancer.’
My mind flashed back to the OB-GYN appointment in which they discovered the spot. It was on my right side, toward the back. I couldn’t see it but I had been itching it for months, thinking it was just a bug bite. It was a mole that had turned half hot pink and half black. What else wasn’t I paying attention to?
I grew up living in South Florida. It was important to me that I looked a certain way. I often used baby oil at the pool hoping to have beautiful dark skin like my friends that I so admired. I hadn’t yet learned to accept myself for who I was.
Doctors told me it was stage 3 melanoma. Melanoma rates have been rising in the last 30 years but surely I wasn’t going to be a statistic. I could barely process what they were telling me at first. Words like chemotherapy, surgery, and anesthesia flew at me like birds dive-bombing for food on the beach.
I wanted to scream.
The average age of people diagnosed with melanoma is 63 but I wasn’t even 30! I now know that although the risk increases as you age, melanoma is one of the most common cancers in young adults. Was my life in the sun the reason I was here? What about my genes? I wanted something to blame.
Until that very second, I believed I was healthy. I certainly looked the part. I dieted to fit into my favorite designer skinny jeans. In fact, I tried every new diet trend that hit the market. I ate low-fat, no fat and sugar-free. How could this be happening to me? 20 minutes before I walked into this office, I thought I had all the answers. Now, I seemed to only have questions.
To make matters worse, my husband, Brett, was out of town on business when I got the news.
My head was spinning.
Doctors feared the cancer would spread quickly so I needed to make a decision fast. I had two choices. I could undergo chemotherapy and lose the baby or undergo surgery to see if they could cut out the cancer. The only problem was that since I was in the first trimester of my pregnancy, doctors wouldn’t be able to use anesthesia.
Brett flew back home as quick as he could. He would support my decision.
Within a mind-numbing 24 hours, I was being prepped for surgery. I wasn’t willing to take any chances losing the baby.
I had no idea if I was making the right choice for my health, but I knew it was the right one for my family.
According to the American Cancer Society, skin cancer is the most common of all cancers but melanoma accounts for only about 1%. Still, it causes a large majority of skin cancer deaths.
The hospital staff administered topical lidocaine. It was the only hope I had for any kind of relief during the procedure. They rolled me into the operating room and onto my side. It took 4 or 5 people to hold me down. They put something in my mouth so I could bite down if the pain was too much to bear. I closed my eyes and prayed the baby was OK. I just kept imagining the baby would be Ok. She had to be OK. It was the beginning of a deeper relationship with God. Of course, like everything else that was about to change in my life, I had no idea at the time. I remember smelling the smoke from the cauterizing. I prayed doctors would get all of the cancer. The rest I blocked out.
I ended up with 50 stitches and a scar that looked like I had been attacked by a shark. Brett worked for a medical device company so he didn’t have any trouble stomaching the changing of the bandages and the cleaning of the wound. I was the one who had a problem with it. I hated the scar. To me, it was ugly. An ugliness I couldn’t escape. An ugliness that grew bigger as my pregnancy grew.
Like other things in my life that were hard or bad, I didn’t want to talk about any of it. I just wanted it all to go away. I wished it had never happened. Remember, I was a different person back then. See, that’s how I used to cope. I believed if I didn’t talk about it, it didn’t happen.
If I only knew then how far that scar was going to push me out of my comfort zone.
In a few weeks, the days of sitting on the couch with bloody bandages came to an end. I focused all of my attention on making sure there were no other problems during my pregnancy.
My daughter’s birth couldn’t have been more joyful. As joyful as it was, it was far from easy.
She was due on Thanksgiving. I wanted to do everything naturally. I didn’t want anything in my body that shouldn’t have been there. It was a personal choice not necessarily a medical one. I labored at home the whole day. That night I went to the hospital. The doctors told me the baby was stuck. She had twisted just enough that she was lodged against my cervix and wouldn’t budge. I resisted the doctor’s suggestion to have a C-Section. Another 24 hours later she finally came into the world.
I was so happy to be a mom that I instantly set my focus on being the best I could be for her. A year later, the shock of what I had survived and what could have happened started to wear off and reality set in. Doctors said my cancer would likely return. What if they hadn’t gotten it all? What if I had overlooked a better treatment in the chaos of making a fast decision? My worries were racing like a snowball speeding downhill.
I couldn’t imagine not being around to see this tiny child grow and thrive into the woman she was meant to be! I needed to do something to strengthen my body against the illness so that it wouldn’t return.
I began to redefine my version of what it meant to be healthy.
The first step was learning not to be afraid in the kitchen. To say I wasn’t a natural cook is an understatement. The thought of making dinner used to paralyze me with fear. All of the so-called healthy recipes that I tried seemed long and involved, with lists of ingredients a mile long. This was not going to work with our busy lifestyle. So I stuck to the basics and cut a few corners.
One night my brother came over to the house for dinner. He was a Doctor of Chiropractic and Functional Medicine. I was so excited to show him the salmon I had made with broccoli. Much to my surprise, he wasn’t nearly as proud as I thought he would be. He asked if the fish was farm raised or wild caught. I didn’t know. He wondered where the broccoli came from. I told him I didn’t know because it was frozen. You don’t even want to know what he thought of my oh-so-convenient spray butter.
When he left that night I was disappointed. This wasn’t going to be easy. I realized I didn’t know as much as I thought. For the next six years, I became a student of food. I immersed myself in researching cancer, health and nutrition and the connection between them. It was exciting to see how healing real food could be. I started to feel hopeful. I made a promise to myself. If this was going to work, I needed to make it simple.
The first thing I changed was my intake of refined sugars. Research shows that sugar essentially feeds cancer cells. So I learned how to use local honey and dates instead of white sugar. I found coconut sugar an easy replacement.
With every step I took, I felt more confident that I would not let cancer win. It was empowering to feel like I was in control of my health. But there was so much to learn! Every diet suggested something else was healthy. Food labels were so confusing! I didn’t know the difference between fructose, or sucrose. I would just stare blankly at the ingredient list, not really knowing what should or shouldn’t be there. I left the grocery store feeling overwhelmed and frustrated. I needed to clear out all of the clutter being thrown at me and concentrate on one thing at a time. Yes, that’s what I was going to do! Master one thing and then move to the next.
I quickly figured out that the back of labels was more important than the front. I learned what ingredients to avoid, like high fructose corn syrup. I even started to have fun experimenting in the kitchen.
From there, I moved on to figuring out what it meant to eat clean meat. It turns out there is a big difference between grass-fed and grain fed beef and farm raised and wild caught fish. I was putting so many toxins in my body and I had no idea.
At some point it hit me that I just needed to go back to the basics, eating the way we were intended to eat-real, raw, whole foods from nature. It was actually way more simple than it felt.
Creating swaps for white flour and refined sugar took a little practice but little by little I started to build new habits. The best part is, I was still enjoying all the food!
At night I would go into my daughter’s room and just watch her sleep. She was my reminder that the changes I was making were important. Every day brought new discoveries.
I switched from regular water to alkaline water because it’s important to keep my body balanced on a PH level. Cancer thrives in an acidic body.
The list goes on and on.
By the time my second daughter Riley came along, we had adopted a fully anti-inflammatory diet. I also had decided that this time around I might consider an epidural. Again, God had other plans for me. I almost didn’t make it to the hospital before I had the baby.
I had forgotten the idea of becoming a real estate broker and had started educating others on proper nutrition. Personally, I was researching supplements as a way to get all of the nutrition that modern food can’t provide. I had also moved to exploring other areas where I could make improvements that would lead to lasting health like in my home and beauty routines.
Somewhere along the way, that scar stopped looking ugly. I saw it as a daily reminder of how precious life is. After all, it marked the reason I was now talking to people about how to live a healthier life. But I still didn’t want to talk about the scar.
That is, until a man came up to me after a wellness seminar I had given at a large company.
He looked me directly in the eye and said to me, “What do you know about being unhealthy?”
His words pierced me like a knife. All of the information I had just shared had fallen on deaf ears. He thought I was just there to fulfill some wellness requirement of his company. He didn’t understand that this wasn’t just a job for me, it was my purpose.
“Actually,” I responded, “I know a lot about it.”
My tense response wasn’t enough to change his mind.
Angry and hurt and feeling on the defense, I told him my story. My whole story. By the time it was over, I was crying and so was he.
That day I realized if I really wanted to reach people, I would have to keep talking about it from now on.
There was no more hiding. Simply educating others about nutrition by offering a list of do’s and don’ts was no longer enough for me. I wanted my words to make a real and lasting impact so that other people might be moved to create healthier families. The funny part is, I’ve learned that talking about my pain, not only helps others, it helps me.
In some ways, I think it’s even helping me to be a better mom. I don’t want my girls to be afraid to talk about the hard stuff that happens in life. Closing off our pain only closes us off to the people we love. My girls see it is possible to rise above struggles and setbacks. They see that being vulnerable isn’t a weakness.
I am 40 years old now. I share my story with people every day. Each time I feel a little braver. Even this essay shares pieces of my story I’ve never shared with others before.
I know I wasn’t alone in what happened to me. But I am beating the odds. In fact, one person dies of melanoma every hour. I still have to go get bloodwork once a year. So far it has come back better and better every time. That is my proof that this change in my life is working. I believe it can work for others too. We can make a huge dent in our health and our bodies by the way we treat it. Ironically, all of the outside beauty I chased all of those years ago, was a dim comparison to the beauty that radiates from the inside out.
For me, the diagnosis was an awakening that goes far beyond what real health means. It gave me a purpose. It shaped my heart into a more compassionate person. I no longer live my life trying to please others. I believe we are called to Live Out Loud. I have a voice and I plan to use it.