As told to Nicole Schnitzler
I was 23 years old and a graduate student in Gainesville, Florida, where I was pursuing my MFA in poetry. I was starting my second year of school, and I found a lump in my breast. Initially, I researched causes of breast lumps and assumed that it was probably a cyst, based on what I was reading and based on my age, and I wasn’t very worried about it. But after about two months when it hadn’t gone away, I had a mammogram and an ultrasound, and the imaging results made it very apparent that it was likely breast cancer. Soon after, a needle biopsy confirmed it.
It was a really blindsiding and shocking piece of information to receive. And it was a time in my life when my peers weren’t necessarily going through health issues like that. So although I had people around me who loved and supported me, I felt alone in the kind of issue I was grappling with.
The cancer had spread so far within my left breast that the doctors pretty quickly recommended a mastectomy. I underwent this surgery in December 2006, halfway into my final year of school. Because of this, and all of the appointments surrounding it, I worried a lot about graduating on time. But I was determined — I wanted to finish alongside my classmates and get on with my life from there. And with the help of teachers and fellow students, I was able to. Shortly after I graduated, I underwent a second voluntary mastectomy as a precautionary measure, as well as breast reconstruction for both breasts.
During my final semester, I was in a poetry workshop and I mustered the courage to write a poem about my cancer experience. But to write something then that I would share with others felt overwhelming to me. I did journal here and there, and over the next couple of years, I would occasionally write something that read more like nonfiction — scenes of what my cancer experience had entailed. Around that time, I went to a book launch party where I spoke with the author and shared more of my story with her. She looked at me and said, “I think you have a book about your body.” And that caused a lightbulb to go off.
I started looking at all of the journal and blog entries I had written over the last couple of years, and I assembled them in a document in chronological order. In total, it amounted to about 50 pages — I was shocked. I thought to myself, “Maybe I am writing a book and didn’t even know it.”
That was the start of my memoir project. Right now, I have a manuscript that I’m revising and planning to pitch to agents soon. It tells the story of my cancer experience, but also the story of another bodily injury I endured. It also shares the cancer experiences of three women who had been guiding lights in my life, and the ways in which their illnesses, in turn, invited me to be there for them. The book is about body image, self-acceptance, and identity. It is also about relationships — how women experience diagnoses at different stages of their lives, and how we can support each other through the process.
I’ve always been someone who has been strengthened and deeply moved by reading other people’s stories. I think it’s a beautiful gift we can give each other to share our experiences — the true stories, the good and bad things that we’ve lived through, and how we have persevered in our own ways. Knowing what other books have meant to me, it’s very meaningful for me to contribute my own story in that way. And I hope that this is a book that helps others — that when they encounter it, they, too, can take something meaningful from it.