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In 2009, at the age of 24, I was diagnosed with a rare, aggressive cancer called Ewing Sarcoma. I was deployed in Iraq when I discovered a large protrusion that filled my hand when I cupped it. I had left my home soil to fight a war overseas only to be sent home early to fight an enemy inside my own body.
That massive lump changed the trajectory of my life, as I knew it.
Sarcomas claim many lives due to its ability to stay hidden and metastasize at high rates. The survival rate of Ewing’s slims significantly if the disease is not discovered in enough time. This cancer can attack the original site, branching to the lungs, spreading to the brainstem, and traveling to the spinal cord.
My cancer was in my left groin area (stage 1B), which infected my adductor muscle, and the doctors prepared me for the possibility that I could wake up from my 13-hour surgery without my left leg.
“We are going to do everything we can to save the leg, but we cannot promise you…we may have to cut it off…”
They threatened to amputate my cancerous limb at the hip, should the need arise.
Life After surgery – I lost Myself
After my surgery, I felt a swell of fear knowing my life was forever changed. I was disabled. The team of doctors managed to save my left leg but had removed my entire adductor muscle in exchange.
I could no longer run or sprint. Every movement was met with pain and a limp. I was traumatized by my new limitations and scared of the unknown. How would the world see me now? Could I find a man who would love me now that my legs were so drastically different in size? What was I good at now? Would I recognize the person looking back at me in the mirror? The thought of creating a new life sounded unfathomable back then.
For a few years, I experienced grief, self-hate, and extreme sadness. I was ashamed of my body and embarrassed by my leg. Before my surgery, I had always been poised and self-assured. I was not used to being ashamed of my body. But the new me was insecure. I was experiencing life from a completely different perspective, one with which most of the world is all too familiar.
I felt physically and emotionally broken.
New Life, New Me
It has been over ten years since I felt hesitant about standing out in a crowded room. Self-reflection has made me more of a whole person. After a while, I realized that the entire time I was in the hospital, and even after, I had been fighting for a life that was already gone. I was fighting for the old Brandi. There was a moment when I had to accept this and move on to a new life. During that time, I asked myself a life-defining question: If my life were a book, and I was an author, how would I want my story told? Would I want to be someone that gave up because adversity beat me down? Or would I be resilient and reinvent myself?
After all the struggle and pain, I chose to see the new me as a capable woman. I chose to imagine a life with no limitations. Only then did chapter two begin. I now understand that that decision made me valuable to those who will come after me and who find themselves on a similar path of uncertainty. When facing life’s biggest battles, mental strength is a necessity. It determines whether you move on, how soon you move on, and with what quality of life.
The “Aha!” Moment
What I learned during my cancer journey was that we create our own limitations. We are the deciding factor in whether we stop living or become creative with how we live. We must know that when our best laid plans do not work out, or when something unforeseen happens, it does not mean that life is over or that we should stop dreaming. It merely means that there is now a new route to your destination.
I had to learn how to walk and run again; I had to explore my fears of being different and love myself; I had to learn how to appreciate life and push through the hard times. And in the process, I learned that we are all stronger than we can imagine.
Since my cancer diagnosis 11 years ago, I have written a book called, The Enemy Inside Me, which can be found on my website, BrandiLBenson.com. I signed with a modeling agency that works with disabled individuals with physical and mental disabilities (Gamut Management), and I am training for the Paralympics for a secured spot on the USA javelin team. I own my own business, Resume-advantage, and I have become a professional storyteller, drawing the connection between the importance of mental health and wellness after surviving a traumatic events, such as suicide attempts, childhood traumas, abusive relationships, deadly diseases, and car accidents. I provide tools for cultivating and implementing daily techniques to drive and optimize health, physically and mentally.
I know now that whether you were born with a disability, gained one along the way, or you simply fear the unknown, you can still live the life you want. When the going gets tough, you can beat the fear inside you and embody resiliency, because you have a choice.