I’ll always remember that pain in my back and intestines, a gravitational pull so severe, it knocked me to the ground. The year was 1998. Ten months earlier, my gynecologist had given me a clean bill of health. So you can imagine my shock when, after an MRI, my doctor told me, “You have stage 3 ovarian cancer.”
Ovarian cancer—which doesn’t run in my family—had spread to my large intestines; that’s why I’d felt like I had a horrible case of hemorrhoids. I’d have to have surgery to remove not only the metastasized cancer, but also my uterus and ovaries. At the time, I was 35, married and longing to have a child. The idea of losing a major part of my womanhood brought me to tears.
Two weeks after the surgery as I was preparing to undergo radiation, menopause hit—that’s what sometimes happens when you have a hysterectomy. Suddenly, I was dealing with mood swings and hot flashes. I couldn’t try hormone replacement therapy because doctors said the estrogen would’ve made my body more vulnerable to cancer. So I incorporated baked yams, a natural remedy into my diet. As I worked to get my physical symptoms under control, my home life fell apart. The cancer and recovery put a great strain on my relationship with my husband, and in 2000, after five years of marriage, we divorced.
I needed to start over. I resigned from my job as a legal administrator and moved from St. Petersburg, Fla., to San Francisco, where I took a position as an operations manager and settled into my new life. Then in 2005, I decided to have a breast reduction. When I went in to see the doctor before the procedure, I got some news that knocked me for another loop: There was a mass on my left breast. The ovarian cancer had predisposed me to other forms of the disease. Instead of a reduction, I had a mastectomy.
Angry and depressed, I asked God, “Why is this happening to me?” As I dealt with the disappointment, I started thinking about how I could feel better—even beautiful again. So I went to a spa, had my body massaged and got in the whirlpool, which was so soothing that I returned every day for a week. I felt nurtured, which lifted me out of my funk.
That’s when I made a choice: I wasn’t going to let cancer define me or allow it to rob me of feeling beautiful and creating joyous experiences. I began to dress more stylishly. I got my hair and nails done. For years, I’d been doing so much for others that I had neglected my own needs. I finally learned to put myself at the top of my priority list. I even coined a word for my new perspective: divatude.
After the mastectomy, I wanted others to experience the pampering I received at the spa. That’s why I began Heaven’s Door Cancer Foundation (heavensdooropen.com), a charity that provides female cancer survivors with free spa services. My message to those who participate is simple: Yes, you have cancer, your head is bald from the chemo and you feel sick a lot of the time. But when you’re what I call a Cancer Diva, you don’t have to take any of it lying down. There’s still so much to celebrate—starting with the fact that you’re here.
My battle with this disease continues: In 2009, I was diagnosed with a third form of cancer: spinal. Right now, I thank God that all of my cancers are in remission. Though I still have my challenging days, I’m learning to be less focused on my hardships and more grateful for my blessings—all while standing tall in my stilettos.