Over the course of 48 hours, eight words changed my life forever. The first four came during a phone call from my doctor. The latter came two days later when my boyfriend, Carter, proposed marriage. Those eight words, “You have breast cancer,” and “Will you marry me?” were just too much to process together.
Wedding Dreams, Harsh Realities
During the months leading up to their wedding day, most brides are making plans, trying on dresses, and picking out flowers and invitations. During the months leading up to my wedding day, I had surgery, chemo, and radiation.
Every bride wants to be beautiful on her wedding day. Every bride wants her wedding day to be perfect. But instead of getting to enjoy planning my perfect wedding, I was fighting for my life.
My fiancé and I didn’t get to be one of those annoyingly lovey-dovey engaged couples. Our lives had crumbled in an instant. Nothing would ever be the same.
Beauty Tarnished, Love Blind
Like every other newly engaged woman, I wanted to be a beautiful, sexy fiancée and bride. I wanted to experience the euphoria of new love and preparing for happily-ever-after. I wanted my betrothed to look at me like I was the most beautiful woman in the world. But I was scared Carter wouldn’t love me anymore; I was afraid he wouldn’t find me beautiful.
I tried on my wedding dress. The mirror was cruel. For a moment, I was the SOMETHING BLUE.
After my lumpectomy, I lost part of my right breast, and I had two big scars on my chest. I forbade my future husband from touching me. On top of that, I smelled like chemo-funk. I didn’t even want to be near myself; I couldn’t imagine how Carter could stand being near me.
My head looked like I had spread glue sporadically on top of it and then covered it with dryer lint. And my GI tract went haywire. I mean, nothing says “beautiful, sexy fiancée” like a bald woman with the walking farts. Why this man still wanted to marry me was beyond comprehension.
On one emotionally challenging day, I did what anyone would do for self-preservation – I tried to push my fiancé away. “I don’t know why you want to be with me,” I told him. “I’m bald, and I’m missing part of my breast, and it’s not fair to you. You deserve to be with a beautiful fiancée and wife. You deserve to be with a woman who is …”
Carter wouldn’t let me finish the sentence. “Don’t even say I deserve to be with a woman who is whole. You are whole, and I love you just the way you are,” he reassured. “If I came back from my deployment to Afghanistan missing an arm or a leg, would you love me any less?”
“I would probably love you even more,” I responded.
The tears eventually stopped. These conversations became defining moments in our relationship and helped us to reach breakthroughs in dealing with cancer.
Something Old, Something New
On the weekend before our wedding, I did a final prep, and I tried on my wedding dress. The mirror was cruel. For a moment, I was the something blue. I was getting married without hair, eyebrows, or eyelashes. I was getting married with two scars and with part of my breast missing. Chemo took an enormous toll on my body.
I took a deep breath and borrowed some strength. I had to let go of the something old and embrace the something new.
Beauty is not my bald head, but it is my brains, which are smart and have the ability to make others laugh. Beauty is not my scars, but my heart underneath and my ability to love. Beauty is not chemical menopause, but my commitment to raising my new stepson and taking care of my new family.
I spent the last eight months of my engagement kicking cancer to the ground. I was a survivor. And my wedding day would be perfect, because my boys would be by my side. Because they never left. I was finally ready to say, “I do.”
You can find Holly Bertone blogging at PinkFortitude.com, where she writes about life after cancer. Holly is a breast cancer survivor and advocate who has published three books on cancer survival and is getting ready to celebrate her five-year survivorversary.
This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, November/December 2015.