Before My Diagnosis
I was 24 years old when I swapped out my college books for a sleek M16 in the United States Army in hopes of finding financial stability and a promising future defending my country. About six short months later, after completing basic training and AIT (Advanced individual training), I was not expecting to find myself in the heart of the Middle Eastern war. Before you say, “well, Brandi, you did join the military… of course you were going to get deployed. While I believe this is true, I could not understand why I was going so soon.
During my time in Iraq, I kept on wondering how it would be once I returned to the States. Would I come back with PTSD or missing limbs? Would I die? There were many fearful thoughts constantly toying with my imagination. One thing I did not imagine was going home with an enemy inside of me - Ewing Sarcoma. We learned to throw grenades, pack bullet wounds, administer an IV, and tell if a lung has collapsed. However, we weren’t taught how to prepare for an illness or attack from within our bodies.
I remember it like it was yesterday - the day my life changed forever. There was a team of doctors surrounding the foot of my bed, hesitant to deliver their plan to me. “Brandi.” The doctor shuffled his notes nervously. “We may have to cut your leg off… but, we will try to do everything we can… to save it”, he said, stuttering.
Finding Out I Have Ewing Sarcoma
Ewing Sarcoma is an aggressive and rare cancer. About 12,000 people are diagnosed with it across the country every year. Nearly half of those diagnosed die, and only about 3,000 are alive after the five-year mark.
My team of doctors have only studied cases of Ewing Sarcoma in medical school. I was told that if this is not caught in the early stages, it can spread to my lungs, brainstem, and spinal cord. The cancer was found very high on my leg. It destroyed and attached itself to my adductor muscle and my groin. It was like the disease had a death grip on my leg— slowly devouring everything in its path. “We won’t know until we are in your leg and testing the margins. We cannot promise you” I remember my doctor telling me.
I glanced at my left leg that had a tumor the size of a small watermelon protruding from the hospital cover. “Please let me keep my leg; I am an athlete. I need my legs to run.” I begged and I pleaded with the doctors before my 13-hour surgery. I was not sure if I would have both of my legs or just one when I woke up. Not knowing was torture, but the operation had to be done. After spending more than half of the day in surgery and having my left leg sliced, I woke up with both of my legs and a new me. But the new me was flawed. Traumatized. Insecure. Scared.
Living With The New Me
It took a while to understand that this rare cancer took away the old me. I looked different. I felt different. I acted differently. I remember clearly seeing a dramatic difference in both of my legs. My right leg was thick, curvy, and healthy. My left leg was thin and disfigured. I had a huge scar that marched up to my leg, and my left quad and hamstrings were tied together by the surgeon to give me a fuller look. Despite their creative efforts, I could see a massive chunk of muscle missing from the left side of my butt. I felt so ugly and was convinced that no one could accept this new Brandi, not even me.
I thought the hardest part was over, the disease was gone and I was now a cancer survivor.But now I had to live with this new me that I hated. I slowly started understanding the term “outcast” and yearned for acceptance. Was I worthy of love? Would I ever feel self-love again? Would people judge me? Can I handle this new life? I did not focus on the scar on my leg because I was too focused on the fact that I could not see the left side of my butt from the front. After contemplating the idea of plastic surgery, I had my left leg worked on with a tissue expander and eventually had the hole covered up with skin. However, it still did not fix the problem. I needed volume and mass. Pulling the skin over a sunken pit did nothing. I was discouraged and upset that I was not only disabled, but I looked disabled.
I was scared to confront who I was before cancer and who I was after cancer. I didn't know why I was so affected by this journey I had been on. I felt like I had lost myself, but I wasn't sure how to find myself again. I had always liked myself before Ewing Sarcoma, but I felt like a completely different person after. I lived in fear, fear of remembering what I had lost, fear of being completely honest with myself, fear of failure, fear of change. I cried in my room for months, feeling lost and alone. The new version of myself that I had become was scary because she wasn't the person I thought I would be after cancer. But slowly I started to become aware of self-love and accept who I had become. I learned that I needed to accept, love, and respect that new version of myself.
Rediscovering Myself Through Self-Love
As time went on, I started to realize that this was my life as a cancer survivor, and I needed to make peace with that. I needed to accept who I was and stop living in the past. I needed to learn what I was good at, and figure out my boundaries. I needed to move forward with my life. I needed to learn to love myself and accept love from others. When you love yourself and accept yourself, you can't deny yourself the right to love and be loved. Self-love is heard in your crying, but real self-love is accepting all of you, despite the ugliness and badness you believe you have. By denying yourself the right to have your feelings and emotions, you are just adding to the problem.
It took many years of therapy, exploration, and grief to understand that my physical scars are beautiful. Those scars are our battle wounds of survival. My left leg has more character than Prince Charming. My 24-inch scar is the most lovable thing about me. When you start practicing self-love and accepting yourself for who you are, it makes you stand out in all the great ways. What we go through to get to this point is impressive. I've gained a respect for my body that I never knew existed. I love me and all of my flaws. I am beautiful. I am unwavering and unapologetically me.
Don't be ashamed to be different! Remember, celebrities on the red carpet events spend months looking for a stand-out outfit and pray they don’t run into someone wearing the same thing; our disabilities are our red carpet outfits. We look different! And we look damn good that way, too.
About The Author
Brandi is the founder and CEO of Resume-Advantage, an employment service for both civilians and transitioning military veterans. Brandi earned a B.A. in Mass Communications and Journalism from Ashford University, an M.F.A in Writing from the Savannah College of Art and Design, and a Human Resource certification from Cornell University.
She is an award-winning American speaker and storyteller for TLC Lions, the author of ‘The Enemy Inside Me’, the Board of Directors for the Sarcoma Alliance, and an Iraqi War Veteran (OEF).
In 2009, after being diagnosed with a rare form of cancer, Ewing Sarcoma,Brandi fought to overcome her diagnosis, heal from her treatments, and reclaim her life through therapy, being active, and other healthy living practices.
Through her speaking engagements, which cover her signature topic, “Overcoming The Enemy Inside You”, she highlights the importance of a strong support system and resiliency. Brandi transforms the lives of her audience by encouraging everyone to pursue different avenues of physical and mental therapy. Her mission is to provide an effective blueprint of strategies and resources to help cancer survivors, their loved ones, and anyone struggling with “an enemy” in any form, take charge of their mental health and wellness.
Additional Resources and Support
If you are looking for more resources and support surrounding rare illness. and self-care and wellness, check out our other blogs:
How are a few ways you practice self-love on your wellness journey? Let us know in the comments or share your story with ushere. We love hearing from our community!