When staff members at the cancer center ask me how I’m doing, I always say, “I’m living the dream,” because clearly, I am not. But after a two-year battle with leukemia, and while sitting in the hospital recovering from a bone marrow transplant, I realized it’s just cancer. I decided to treat cancer like any other diagnosis, but with humor, because laughing and being happy, regardless of my circumstances, have been key to my healing.
Before cancer, I was a working mom and wife with a routine: Get up, go to the gym, fix breakfast, get the kids to school, go to work, get the kids from school, cook dinner, take care of the animals, clean the house, get cleaned up, go to bed, and repeat. Weekends were filled with plans or traveling. But two years ago, everything changed. I got a phone call that my life was in critical condition, and I didn’t have much time left. For the past two years, my days have been filled with chemo poles, needle sticks, nausea, physical debilitation, hospital beds, laughs, cries, fear, and a whole lot of praying.
We may not understand why bad things happen, but we can control how we react to them. For a majority of my life, I suffered from stress and anxiety and didn’t know how to deal with it. I stressed about things that didn’t matter, which I believed caused chaos in my body and led to my diagnosis. In my eyes, a little angel flew down from the heavens, tapped me on the shoulder, looked at me and said, “There’s something going on, and we’ve got to make a change.” That was cancer.
When I received the “you have cancer” talk, I felt hundreds of emotions all at once: sad, scared, guilty, ashamed. With time, I learned to take a deep breath and remember: It’s just cancer. I wasn’t going to let cancer define who I was or let it take over my life.
Cancer isn’t cheap, and it isn’t fun. Accepting a $100,000 haircut and 20 dropped pounds during induction therapy courtesy of my oncologist was mentally rough. Pre-diagnosis, I had long, curly, beautiful hair and was in the gym five days a week. When I was cleared to go back to the gym and out in public, I was terrified. I didn’t want to be looked at or questioned. I was scared people would judge or whisper about me. I was still ashamed of getting cancer and how it affected my physical attributes. A breakthrough was hard, but I knew I needed one.
I had to accept my new appearance, but once I did, the experience bolstered my confidence and mood daily. My husband was super helpful in showing me how I can be bald and look cute. I learned that it’s just cancer, and it’s just hair. I became fearless and unashamed with his words of wisdom. Owning my diagnosis instead of letting it own me has allowed me the freedom to not hide from anyone or anything. You have to accept your circumstances and grow from them. Sometimes, there is absolutely nothing we can do about situations we are thrown into, so you just have to make the best of it.
Humor changed my relationship to my body post-diagnosis. I grew up not loving myself and not valuing my worth, and awful relationships contributed to my self-consciousness. But later, I came to the conclusion that I’m like a cat with nine lives. I learned to love and appreciate every part of me. When facing your mortality, you quickly start to appreciate every part of yourself—from head to toe—because you never know when it will be taken from you.
Cancer is a situation you have absolutely no control over, so why stress it? I thank God everyday for my body, even though my children are now referred to as my little brothers! I guess losing 25 pounds and looking like a 12-year-old comes with the territory of chemotherapy. There’s so much more to me than being “the girl with cancer.” I have kids to play with, a husband to harass, friends to laugh with, and a platform to share my experiences to help others.
Cancer may have once made me feel like my life was over, but it actually granted me a new beginning to the beautiful masterpiece that is my life—the start of my forever. I moved into fight mode and thought that maybe someone out there needed my light and encouragement. Since then, I’ve blogged about my experience, talked about it in public, and responded to tons of messages from people not feeling happy in their current situation. Fight mode for me is never giving up, no matter how bad I may feel. You just do what you have to do and make it through the day.
Cancer is my blessing in disguise because my diagnosis helped me realize my purpose in life: love. Being a loving person was not the way I lived my life before cancer. I didn’t grow up with a loving family. But one day it just clicked: I want to spend the rest of my days on this earth in love—in love with myself, others, and life. I will forever remain kind and spread love everywhere I go. For today, tomorrow, and forever, love wins. I approach everything and everyone with love.
“Sometimes I don’t even know who you are anymore,” my husband often says. My mentality in life has changed for the better, and I’m always evolving, growing, and wanting to do things differently.
“Maybe it’s because I’m sober, minus my nights out on the chemo pole!” I jokingly reply. You have to learn to laugh at yourself and not take life so seriously, no matter the situation. Making jokes about my near-death experience is only something I can understand, and it’s given me the happiest life I could have ever imagined. It’s the one thing I can control.
Britny Maldonado is a 29-year-old wife and mother to two boys, ages seven and 13. She lives in Columbia, South Carolina. Before her leukemia diagnosis and during remission, Britny worked for a dermatologist. She is currently recovering from a bone marrow transplant and is enrolled in school.