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Stephanie Ramirez

Stephanie Ramirez

On April 6, I received a direct message on Instagram from Stephanie Ramirez. She wrote, “I’m 23 years old and I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I underwent a double mastectomy. I’m comfortable with the way I am and did not undergo reconstruction or plastic surgery. Your pictures help me a lot and just thank you so, so much.” I was touched and knew I wanted to meet this young survivor. She finished her chemo in July and finally, last week, Lisa and I met her and her mother in their home. Stephanie is such a bright light. Within two minutes in her presence, it was clear why my daughter said, “She is my favorite role model” after seeing one of her photos. Her battle to love herself and how she regards herself in the mirror is a universal one. The way in which she landed in her power through her bout with breast cancer holds lessons for us all. She also reflected back to me that, even in those moments when I think that having my chest photographed and sharing on Last Cut is utterly self-indulgent and unnecessary, I should keep going. I am making a difference in someone’s life. We all can. We all do when we show up, open up and connect in whatever way we can. 

Why don’t you introduce yourself and share a little bit about your story and how we ended up here?

"My name is Stephanie Alexandra Ramirez. My parents gave me a long name. I am 23 years old. On March 23 [2016] I was diagnosed with breast cancer. It was weird, because at the beginning of the month, I had not seen anything on myself. As I was stretching and getting ready for the day, then I saw a lump on my right breast. I pushed it and it was hard. So, at first, I did not know if I should worry. Then I thought, “Oh God. Is this the thing that people talk about? That lump they say that they feel?” Then, I thought, “Ok, don’t freak out.” I thought maybe I had hit myself at the gym. I had just started to work out more. The lump felt wrong. When they diagnosed me, it happened the day after my sister’s 22nd birthday. That was really hard, because we had been fighting the day before. I had my parents and her go out to dinner [without me]. I thought, “Uh. I don’t need this.” Then the next day, I thought, “What if I am taken away? I messed up. I shouldn’t have been that way.”

My doctor called me. It was my primary physician and it was an accident. I wasn’t glad that I heard the news, but I am glad it was from her. I have a relationship with my [primary] doctor that I am so thankful for, because without her telling me to go and get [my lump] checked out, I wouldn’t have gotten it checked out. She thought it was benign, but said, “Let’s get it tested.” I thought, “Ok. That’s fine.” Then the doctor who did the biopsy told me, when he found it, “Well, I am 99% sure that it’s non-cancerous…that it’s benign,” but when he said it, it sounded weird. The options were meeting with a surgeon to make an appointment to get it taken out and then watch it over the next six months or we can just leave it. It just didn’t seem right. Then I asked about the 1%, and I asked him about that possibility. He said, “Yes, but it’s just slight. We can just see how it goes.” I said, “No, I want this taken out. I don’t want to worry about it later.” It grew so fast. I hadn’t seen it at the beginning of March, and then I saw it. It wasn’t there before. There is something wrong. My mom says it was my guardian angel that was looking out for me. Before I wouldn’t really say things. I mean, “99%? Everybody would probably just say, “Whatever. It’s fine. I am good,”” but that day, I just knew I had to ask.

When they called me, I was supposed to meet with my doctor that day too. I came downstairs and told my dad. My dad started crying. Then I started crying. I didn’t want to tell my mom, because I didn’t want her to worry. My dad asked if I had told my mom. I said, “No, I didn’t tell her.” He said, “We have to tell your mom.” So he told her when he went upstairs. I called my boyfriend. We had just celebrated our year anniversary that weekend. Our year [anniversary] was on March 19. I called him and said, “I just got a call and they told me I have breast cancer.” He was really quiet. I thought, “Oh God. He’s not really reacting. There is nothing happening.” He finally said, “Ok. What’s next?” I told him I had to go to the doctor and that I was going with my parents. I asked if he wanted to come too but he said, “No, I am here and need to get ready for work. I will talk to you later.” It was really quick, but, later on, I learned that after he got off the phone with me, he broke down and was crying. I had no idea. I felt as if he was so cold and didn’t know how to react. I know there is this thing that everybody says, “People react differently,” but my boyfriend is my boyfriend. When I heard that [he was affected by it], I felt better."

"So then I went to my doctor and met with my surgeon. She asked if I knew why I was there that day. I said, “Yes.” She asked how and I said, “My primary doctor called me.” She said, “I am so sorry. We never do it that way. I am so sorry that happened.” I told her, “It’s fine. I would rather have heard it from her than anyone else. I am glad I heard it from her.” She said, “Ok, you have Stage 2A breast cancer. It doesn’t look as if it went to the lymph nodes, but we will have to check them. We will have to remove it.” She gave me options for a lumpectomy. I saw my parents, who had come into the room with me and were sitting there trying to hold back their crying, and I remembered Angelina Jolie and how she did it. I thought, “I don’t want to go through this again.” It was quick the way everything happened. I said, “Ok, take them both.” My surgeon looked at me and said, “You don’t have to.” I said, “No, there is a possibility, and I don’t want to have to worry the rest of my life like that. My left is clear and my right is the one trying to kill me. So take that one for sure.” I didn’t want to put my family through it. That was the first thing that I thought of. I thought of myself after, which was really dumb. I should have said first that I want to be here, which I do, but I want to be here for them. I don’t want to have to worry. 

My surgeon wanted to talk me out of it a bit. She told me the next surgery date was that Friday, March 25 [Good Friday]. Then she pulled me to the side and had my parents go out. I finally broke down when they left. I know it’s a lot and I didn’t want them to see me hurting as much as I knew they were. So, when she talked to me, she said, “You don’t have to do this. You can just take the one.” I said, “No, I am really confident in this decision. I want to take them out. I don’t feel scared for it. I want to be able to do this. Take out as much as you can. Clean it up as much as you can. Make the skin tight. Please don’t leave it saggy.” She said, “Well, I can leave a little extra room if you want to do reconstruction down the line.” That wasn’t what I was worried about though. I said, “I am not worried about my breasts right now. I want to live and I want to be here. Please clean it all up.” I had a day to think and, on the day of the surgery, she asked if I was still sure about my decision. I said, “Yes I am. I don’t feel as if I made the wrong decision. I want to do it.” As I was signing the liability papers that day with my dad, when I saw, “If you die during the surgery,” that was my biggest fear. Am I going to bleed out? Am I going to die? She reassured me I was going to be fine.

The surgery took 5 hours. All of my family was in the waiting room. The night before my surgery all of my family came over. It felt like the Last Supper. They were all looking at me. They were all praying. They were all crying. My parents thought I got freaked out because I went up to my room. I said, “No. I knew they loved me, but I didn’t know I meant that much.” Just seeing that and knowing that I am making a difference in someone’s life somewhere and seeing it amongst my family, I knew I had to be around. When I saw everyone all together, it solidified my whole decision. It was hard to see everyone that upset." 

"My mom told me that everyone was crying in the waiting room and she was doing her rosary. When my surgeon came out to the waiting room, she was bright and gleaming with a big smile on her face. I felt really good when my mom told me that, because it means she cares. I know they have to have the protocol of being to the point and not connecting with anybody. So when she told me that was her expression, I felt relieved that I was in someone’s care. Then I recuperated for a while. When I got the bandages off and was ready to take my first shower, it hit me. My parents had to help me, and I felt like such a baby. I have never passed out before, but I had the experience of almost passing out. Everything went white. My mom calmed me down. My dad had me take deep breaths. Everything came back into focus and I tried to tell myself, “Ok. I made a good decision. Don’t regret it. Let’s get through this first shower. You can do it. It is going to be like this.” My parents helped me. They clothed me. I couldn’t put my t-shirt on. I had T-Rex hands! Ugh. I didn’t understand it. I would try to reach for stuff and it was too far. When it came to using the restroom, I told them to leave me that little bit of independence! “Do not come in here, guys!” My boyfriend’s sister and my aunt are both nurses and helped me with the drains and the bruising. I was worried something else was wrong. 

For me, it came down to being comfortable with my new image. I asked the doctor if I would lose my hair. She said, “Yeah. Breast cancer. The chemo is strong. You will lose it.” She cut to the point. I asked again, “You mean nothing is going to stay?” She said, “Well, no, it is not.” My next question was, “Can I have kids?” She said, “Well, not likely.” That hurt. I was wanting [to have children]. I had wanted a family. I met the man of my dreams already. I wanted a family like that. It was hard because I won’t be able to bear anybody. I started crying and my parents saw me breaking down. That hit me. It was hurtful. I know she didn’t mean to say it that way. I didn’t want to leave that for later. I wanted to ask the question now. Maybe I should have waited, but I knew I had to ask. That was hard. I talked to my mom and my boyfriend’s sister. They both said, “Having a child isn’t what makes you a mom.”" 

"I am doing a Podcast for my project [for school about what makes a woman a woman] and I intentionally went after a mom. I don’t know if she saw me creeping on her [she laughs], but I said, “You, ma’am. I need to ask you the question.” One of her answers was “life giving.” Immediately I thought, “Well that is having children. I can’t do that. Does that not make me a woman?” Then, I talked to Timea, a breast cancer survivor I met through Instagram, and, when she heard “life giving,” she switched the perspective. She said, “No, it doesn’t just mean giving life like that. You are giving life to others. You are helping others. You are helping them live their lives.” You have inspired me and I have inspired you. It has been one of those things where [I knew] my perspective does need to change, and that was hard. I didn’t realize how close-minded I was until this experience happened. The person I was before would never have been ok with this. She would have tried to make it happen and try to do this or wear that wig. That was really hard. When they told me I was going to lose my hair, I told my sister she needed to shave my head, and she said, “Really? Are you ready?” I said, “Yes, I want you to do it.” So we made this whole thing and my cousin shaved his head with me. My boyfriend’s sister and her 7-year old daughter came over, and her daughter was really sweet. Her daughter’s words were something that really resonated with me. She told me, “It is just hair and you are still you.” Wow, she is just seven."

That is what my daughter said to me. “You are just mama.” We get so caught up in the other stuff, but at the end of the day, how we show up in the world is what makes us beautiful.  [Loads of crying happening all around]

"That conversation really helped me get through it all. I was really happy and said to my sister, “Ok, it is just hair. Cut it.” Then it came out looking pretty cool! I thought this isn’t too bad, and I started getting used to it. Then the third week after chemo, that’s when I started seeing my hair loss. I had joined support groups to help me get through it, and some of the women there said to me, without realizing or meaning how they said it, “Well, you are just going to lose your hair. Accept it.” It was a little harsh. Couldn’t they have coddled me a bit? I am hoping this is the last and only time I will have to go through this! Just help me out a little! I still had my hair when they said that, but then I started to lose it and that was hard. I was in the shower, which is the way I had been told it often happens, and then it started happening down there. It was like a dandelion, but when my hair [on my head] came out, it was a different thing. I rubbed it and it came off. So I talked to my dad and my uncle. My uncle was the one who told us to Bic it. I didn’t even know what that meant. He said, “You will have to shave it with a razor. Embrace the bald.” That was a real bonding experience for me and my dad. He shaved my head. I then took a picture and put my make up on and said, “I am going to make this work.” When I saw myself bald, I saw a different person. I did not think I would be able to be that strong or still wear a smile or put my makeup on. I remember thinking, “Whoever this is, I am all about this girl! She is a really cool person.”" 

"I then desired to see more people who had done this so I searched for other people’s profiles, which is how I found you. When I saw your profile, I saw how confident you were in how you looked. When you took those pictures lying down with the flowers and the sparkles, if I ever felt bad, I would look at those pictures, because it really helped me out a lot. I really appreciated those. They made me want to be confident. Then I saw Saga’s profile, another strong previvor I met on Instagram, and saw how confident women could be out and about in the world. I didn’t want to be cooped up in the house, because I was embarrassed about the way I looked. I am glad I am here. People don’t understand it and I get that. So I had to ask how else can I do it? You inspired me so much. So when you said you were going to come down to interview me, I was so excited. I reached out to so many people and very few reached back. I know it is a sensitive topic, but I want to talk about it. I want people to be open.

When I got the “ok” to go to the gym after being cleared after chemo, I told my boyfriend that I was so happy. This all had happened over spring break. I had just started getting into working out when this happened. I was at the gym constantly. I was getting ready for Coachella. It was going to be my first year. I was so excited. I was so excited to get my Coachella body ready! And then this happened. When I was getting ready [for surgery] and they told me they can sometimes take fat from your stomach and put it in chest, the lady said I did not have enough. I thought, “This is a compliment. I will take it, but dang, I had literally just started to get into shape!” If this had happened before I would have been fine and had plenty to work with. I would have been fine. So, I went back to the gym and my hair was barely coming in. I went with my dad and was excited. When I was there, I could see people looking. I didn’t have my makeup on. I am flat chested. I don’t have hair. I am stripped down and this is who I am. I have no eyebrows so you cant tell what my expression is. Am I mad? Am I angry? You can’t tell unless I am smiling." 

"My friend Sylvia works at a graphic design place and she gave me a shirt that says, “Fuck Cancer.” I thought that might have been a little much. I don’t know if I am that loud, but thank you! Then, one day, I went by myself to the gym and wore the shirt. No one really said anything and they were still staring.  No one talked to me. I went again and then finally someone came up to me and asked, “Are you going through cancer?” I said, “I just finished actually and I am doing well. I had a double mastectomy. Thank you for asking. Thank you for having the gall to ask me. Thank you so much.” He said, “I am glad to have asked. Can I pray for you?” He was on the weights and just asked me that. I want to invite people to ask me. I know cancer is such a hard subject to do. That has put it into a lot of perspective for me. Not a lot of people will ask. So when I came across your work and you are so open about showing who you are, I am inspired to want to show people who I am and what I am about now. When I did that, it really helped me out. My hair started to come back a little more. It is like a baby’s. I see babies and I laugh. I am competing with that.

My mom and I went to a medicinal place the other day for herbs. You saw that my mom has a strong personality. A woman went up to her and said, “That girl. That girl you are with, the one with no hair. Does she have cancer?” She just bluntly asked like that. My mom, in any other situation, would have gotten really defensive, but instead she said, “Who? My daughter? No, she doesn’t have cancer anymore.” She came over to me and told me what that woman had said and that the woman had told her that her sister had ovarian cancer. My mom was still heated from it all. I did not know how to react to it. Before I would have thought, “This is none of your business if I decide to walk around like this.” I am not normally too outspoken, but how this person approached my mom was not cool. When we were checking out and getting ready to leave, my heart was beating so fast. I was trying to decide if I should go up to her and confront her. My mom was ready to walk out, and I just knew I couldn’t leave being mad like this. I had to go talk to her. So I walked over and I said, “Are you the one whose sister has ovarian cancer?” I asked her the way my mom had described her asking about me, but as I did so, I realized I don’t want to be that person. So I asked, “Is she ok? Is she doing better?” She said, “ Well, she is doing better. She had an eight pound tumor in her and they took it out.” So I then explained, “I went through breast cancer. I had a double mastectomy. I had chemotherapy. I lost my hair, but now it’s coming back. I am feeling way better. I am feeling a lot more positive. I am relentless. I am doing better though and I hope your sister does better.” She went into her whole story about losing her husband to cancer and how her daughter who was no more than 10-years old was helping the sick aunt. I told the daughter she was very strong and that not many children would be able to help do that. It was an experience. I told my mom on the way home that I was so proud that it did not let that situation get the best of her. There will be people who will be extreme about my choices. Those are their opinions." 

"That is why I think of this as a blessing, because the person I am now, I admire her so much. I never would have worn the things I am wearing, this dress, going out in public, running a mile under 10 minutes, being this person. I am setting so many goals. I feel so much lighter. I feel so much better as a person. It is unfortunate that it happened this way, but I am glad it did when it did. Now I realize the rest of my life I can be so much more positive. I want to help more people. Before I was trying to figure out a degree that would help me earn money, but now I want to help. I want to give back to the people who helped me get through this. I want to help others get through it. I want to be able to apply at the hospital and help people like the older couple that was there when I was getting chemotherapy. He was getting chemotherapy and she was volunteering as a nurse. They were the cutest things. They saw me coloring in my coloring book and were just so sweet. Meeting people who were like that inspired me to not be ashamed to say, “This is what happened.”

So, I am really happy for this. It is weird. People say, “What? It is cancer.” [If this hadn’t happened], I never would have connected with you. I never would have reached out to you and would have stayed secluded. My sister told me to let people know and seek the support. I am so happy I reached out. I am so happy you are here. You understand what it is like to be diagnosed so young. It is different when you are older. I tried to reach out to people my age, but only Timea wrote back. She helped me out so much. I was struggling so much with my self-identity as a woman, seeing myself in the mirror without makeup and wondering, “I don’t know if I am a woman or not.” So for the podcast that I am doing, when I got the answers about “what makes a woman a woman,” I was told “beautiful,” “strong,” “resilient,” nothing about big boobs and makeup. I had my mind opened to the fact that there is more. I am a woman! When I am out and about now, people have stopped me and asked if I am a model. I never would have felt that way, but now I walk around with such a confidence. It is nice."

Yes, I can see you walking down a runway! When you find that confidence within yourself and it radiates out, it completely changes your external appearance. Whereas normally people are trying to fix it from the outside, but if you don’t do the work on the inside, it is challenging. You don’t even have to go through something like this to get there. The path is always different. You arrive at a radiance that can’t be touched by any make up counter or anything else. Last week, I saw the video that you posted where you were singing with no makeup on. It was extraordinary and then it was gone.

"Yes, I told my mom that I thought I looked too tired. I didn’t know if I sounded good. I got rid of it, because of that doubt. Now I want to do another one."

You are extraordinary. You can sing like nobody’s business and you are gorgeous. I felt so lucky that I saw that video in the two minutes that you posted it [before it was removed]. I sent it to Lisa, but then it was gone. When I used to hear that I was given a gift by what I was going through physically, I do not think I knew how to internalize that. Now, looking back, I can see the 20 years of health challenges with 6 major surgeries were a gift. They brought me to this moment, this specific moment, and the last 8 months of doing this project, which I feel is the beginning of the rest of my life. I wouldn’t have gotten to this particular moment if all that had not happened in the way that it did. I feel as if it is all a gift. We can’t regret anything. None of this would have happened. The fact that you are supported by people and feel so good within very much so on your own, it is a gift. It is a gift that you are so young and now have this good health and support to go out into the world to do something incredible. Seeing it reflected in you is giving me a renewed belief that it is all a gift and we have a choice of how we see everything. We can decide if we are going to allow something to weigh us down or decide to turn this pile of shit into something that is going to boost us up or bring something better to our life. The road there is not always easy.

"When I got that diagnosis, I wondered if I was going to be bitter and hate being here. My mom said she never asked God, "Why?" but I did. I questioned it and wondered, “Why me? Things were going so well. I had met such a wonderful man. My family is doing great. I have been doing well at school. I did so well on those midterms. Why? I don’t understand.” When you sent me that comment the other night saying that your daughter said I was one of her role models, I really appreciated it. The other night my boyfriend’s sister said that I was a role model for her young daughter. I realized that when Timea told me the thing about life giving, I am doing it and I didn’t even realize it. I want to inspire other woman. I want to inspire young girls like that, because now I totally fall out of the mold that everyone thinks society has conformed for us. I am glad that I look the way that I look right now. You really, really helped me so much in being confident about my body, because I never would have gotten here. I was so excited to connect, because you understood what I was going through. I would always go back to the pictures with the flowers and the sparkles."

"I had no idea that I was impacting other girls. My boyfriend’s niece has a friend and they were talking about the fact that I had cancer. They didn’t understand and were asking if I was going to lose my hair. So his niece explained it to her friend. She told her that I had cancer, got medicine and that’s why I was losing my hair. She told her friend, “It is just hair!” Her friend freaked out and said, “I would never be ok if I lost my hair.” She kept telling her though that it’s ok. It is just hair. The other night when we all went out, I went over there and was all dolled up. I saw all the kids, and they were all so excited to see me. They were all jumping all over me. In that moment, I knew I look this way, but it is about so much more. When you told me that about your daughter, I was so happy. If I can be someone for these young girls to look up to or other women to look up to, then I can rock this and I can be happy. One woman thought that this was just my look and that I was a rocker. So now I put on my headphones at the gym and just think, “Let them stare.” I went to the grocery story this morning with no makeup on. Let them stare.  I am healthy. I am here. My hair is still growing in. I don’t have cancer. If that is what you want to stare at, then ok. I am so happy that I can do that right now. I used to go out only if I had penciled in my eyebrows, but now everything is growing in a little bit more. My eyebrows are growing in a bit more so you can see my expression and understand how I am feeling.

I am so happy to have that and, looking back at that whole time, I realized that I have to be happy with me. I never thought I could get to this moment. I am going to be 24 next week and my parents keep asking me what to do for my birthday. I said, “Guys, I am just grateful I am here. I don’t know what to ask for. I am just so happy and you have sacrificed so much.” My dad does not have any more vacation time because he took it all to be here with me. I can’t ask for anymore. My mom isn’t feeling her best, as she is on disability. Now we are both twinning it on disability. She took care of me and did that for me. I am so grateful for everyone that helped me. I don’t think I could ever ask for anything more. Clothes? Yes, I could ask for that, but before I would have been more demanding and expecting of things, now I am just grateful for what I have.  I couldn’t be any happier. My boyfriend found my shirt and sports bra that had gone missing for a while and gave it to me yesterday. I was so happy! I never thought I could be this strong and resilient and happy and confident in my skin. This is who I am. I wanted to dress up for this [conversation] and show you that I am happy with who I am and that I did not let this phase me. Thank you for everything you did. Thank you, Lisa, for taking all of those photos and documenting this. I don’t know how you see through that lens, but everything you documented on her journey is so wonderful. I never could have imagined being so inspired by this. You guys are the perfect team."

Lisa: It is when you know you are with the right people. You were so taken by that day we did all of those photos with the different elements. We were in another universe that day. And you have to know that behind the scenes, she is not without doubt either. There are many moments when Samantha asks if we are really doing this and if there is a point. You don’t always know what you are doing or why you are doing it, but you just know that you have to do it. The other thing that I want to reflect to you when you were talking about people staring at you at the gym, the thing that came into my head is that the way you present now looks like a choice. It looks like a choice, whatever that choice might be interpreted to be, but there is a second meaning behind the choice. It is the choice to embody who you are, and that is what I am seeing. I started the day cracked open but, wow, wearing makeup today was a poor choice. This is extraordinary.

I don’t show my daughter much on Instagram out of fear of what she might then go seek out and find at this age. I think I had shown her one photo or one video of you and said, “Look at this amazing person that I get to go interview next week.” I want to reflect back to you that we can have a huge impact on people even when you don’t know that it is happening. Just being who you are and showing up as who you are in this new iteration of yourself and believing in yourself will have an impact on many. You don’t even have to try. It will be the extra bonus even when it is just going to the supermarket. I think the people at the supermarket staring are just scared. Maybe they have never had anyone in their family who has been sick or had cancer or anything even close to that? Not everyone will have the guts to go up and ask questions in a compassionate way because they are curious or because they want to know more. So I think instead they feel the shock of it and don’t know what to do with it. I walk through the world in the same way, wondering if people want to ask me questions. I wrote about it at one point. I wonder if people notice. 

What’s most true to you?

"What stood out to me with this one is my faith. It really tested it. At first I thought, “Ok. I believe in the idea of God and there is a cosmic energy and all this other stuff.” I believe that there is something out there that we can all go to. It’s funny because I told my boyfriend at one point that I feel as if people need to find someone to worship, like God, only when they need him the most. We were talking about that idea and how I did not know exactly what to do with religion, because I felt as if I was so lost. I knew there was something greater. I know. I just don’t know. It didn’t make sense at all. When this happened, I am falling back on those stupid words that I said and eating it right now. I feel as if I do need it. I do need someone to be there for me that I know can be there for me always, and that was God. So that was the biggest thing that was true. Then I met incredible people and all these people were falling into place. With my chemotherapy I did not get sick. I felt really good. I was trying to go for a run after my third one. I was trying to stay with it. I am able and I am blessed.

So many people prayed for me. My mom told me her family in El Salvador was praying for me, and my aunt’s family in Mexico was praying. That is nice and I appreciate it. The fact that they were taking the time to think about me made me feel so much stronger. What can I do with that? I thank God every day. We have this statue over there, Cristo Negro, and I make sure every morning I touch him as I go down the stairs. Whenever I am moving through that space right there I know I have to make sure I do the sign of the cross, because I know I am grateful every day for it. I am so glad that He let me stay here, meet people like you and do my best to be inspirational. There is more to do. My faith has gotten so much stronger and I am so happy that it has. Now I understand. It is unfortunate it happened this way, but I am glad it did. So that was something that was really true.

The other was my family, and the loved ones that have become that to me; all the people that I have met. My friend brought me something blessed from Mexico and she reminded me, when I was really down, to fix my crown and be the queen I am meant to be. So I realized that my family has become so much bigger than just the people that I thought before. [It is all] the people who have been there when I was sick and have seen past that and made the effort to come see me and try to be there and ask how I am doing and check on me and think about me." 

You spoke so much about the decision you made in that moment of your diagnosis. The other question I would ask you is what has been the most challenging part of focusing on the positive, staying focused and living up to the decision that you made. You made such an empowered decision for you, but there are moments when those decisions can be challenging. 

"Honestly, the biggest thing that has always affected me has been depression. I struggled with my self-image and everything when I was younger. I did try to take my life when I was younger. I still have the scars from it. That’s why I went and got my tattoos, as I thought I would cover it, but now I realize that’s a part of me. That is my biggest challenge and my biggest fear is for me to get back to that point when I was so low in my life. I especially thought that was going to happen here. I realized I couldn't [let that happen]. I survived once, and I was not going to let this do it again. I was not going to let this horrible thing overcome me. The biggest thing that inspired me was you and your photos. It was Saga. It was women like Timea. I am glad that I really reached out on social media through Instagram. It has really become one of the staples for me in becoming stronger. That has been one of the biggest challenges, to overcome those feelings and look for the positives. I have to stay positive. My grandma says that she thanks God every morning to be awake and alive. She is one of my biggest role models. I want to be the person that I am. I want to be sweet and loving like she is. I aspire to be like that. I knew I couldn’t let that depression get me. I don’t know how to let people see that part of me because they know what I went through before. I know that characteristic is in me, but I know so much better now that I don’t want to wallow in that and so I need to get through it. I go to the gym and I talk and I look for the brighter things in life and I am just so grateful for it. My friend told me there is a proverb for God and how he takes time for all the flowers. I want to be here to appreciate that beauty, so I need to overcome that. I have been doing really well and have been trying. When I have a moment, I will cry, be sad and depressed, but then I don’t stay in that mindset. I have to get through it. I have to move past it. I fight through it every day. I am glad to be awake. I am glad to take the day as it is."

You spoke a lot about the young girls and self-image. What do you wish you had known when you were younger that you learned through this experience? Something that you wish you had known all these years that would have made it easier.

"Honestly, I feel as if this is the same for a lot of people, but it is that self-image and being confident in who you are. That is who I really want to be and that is what I wish I had told myself when I was younger. I feel as if I could have avoided hating myself. I hated my nose. I would pick at myself for so many things. Now when I see myself, I love my face. I never thought I would say that. I love the way my body looks. I am getting back to exercising. I know it was a struggle and I had to overcome all these obstacles to appreciate who I am, but I wish I could have told myself these things when I was younger. Just to be able to accept who I am and know that things will get better with time. I know my parents told me that before, but I was so stubborn. Now I realize that I do want to believe that and relay that message to young girls. There is so much effort that is wasted that could go towards advancing themselves as a person. It is who they are and not how they look. You can be really pretty but have an ugly personality. Let things happen the way they will, and be thankful you are here. We are not guaranteed the days and we have to enjoy what we have now. I am really grateful to have this moment and be able to reflect on this with you." 

Was it worth it?

"Yes, I feel really confident. The nurses told me after I had the surgery that I could get prosthetics, but I am happy how I am. My sister told me that tops would fall so nicely on me. Now I just love the hugs. I look forward to them now. It is so much more intimate. I used to have that little barrier. Thanks, boobs. I appreciate how they gave me my boundaries, but now I am embracing experiencing every person for who they are. Now I love when I do hug someone. I am realizing that there is something to a hug that relays a bigger message. I am glad that I am able to do that. Before I would be awkward, but now I am happy to hug you. I am happy to put a bit of my personality on you. I hope that you take the best of me. I will volunteer for that. If there were a job for that, I would sign up. Professional hugger!"

Yes, everything feels so much closer to the surface. I can feel my heartbeat like never before.

"I felt so much more exposed. It is me. I am glad to see the little movements in my skin and in my chest now. This is really nice. I am glad for the person I see in the mirror now. Before I wasn’t, I was seeing the decision I had to make and made, but now I am so happy. I am so happy with the woman I am. I am glad I got the scars that I did. I did that to survive, but it impacted me in creating the person that I am."

What do you hope to do in the world?

"I honestly hope to be able to give back as much as the people I have met on my cancer journey have given to me.  I know it is going to be somewhere in the medical field. I have to do something there. I want to let the people who are going through it know that they can get through it, stay positive and do what they need to do, and that I understand. I think that is what people don’t have. We are all told when we are diagnosed that it will be ok and you will get through it, but you don’t know. Now that I am realizing I can give that perspective, I want to be able to do that. I want to be able to hopefully give back that way. That’s my biggest goal. I want to make people feel comfortable with who they are and just be happy that they are still here."

Samantha: You will do amazing things.

Lisa: You have a leg up. You are 23 and have this stuff sorted.

Samantha: I am so happy for you. Thank you. I appreciate all of your honesty and it was so good to be with you. This was a gift. 

Talila Gafter

Talila Gafter

Ronny Turiaf

Ronny Turiaf