In March of 2018, I was diagnosed with triple-negative breast cancer. I was a 29-year-old married high school teacher living in Des Moines, Iowa. In the following nine months, I experienced a double mastectomy, a fertility treatment to harvest and freeze my eggs, 16 rounds of chemotherapy, hair loss, another breast surgery, and … a divorce.
My husband wasn’t engaged in what was happening to me from the beginning. In the weeks following my mastectomy, while I filled my days with TV shows I didn’t really watch and tried to get my head wrapped around “cancer,” I told him how sad and lonely I was. His lack of support didn’t change that. So when he asked for a divorce after my second round of chemo, I felt utterly rejected and hurt, but not surprised.
But I survived — both the cancer and the divorce — and came out of it more myself. My diagnosis didn’t mean I was broken or unlovable. It was actually an opportunity to be fully me. Here’s what I’ve learned about life, love, and myself (so far).
Starting Over Doesn’t Have to Be Scary
I remember feeling panicked, afraid of starting over and being alone. But here’s the thing: I was already alone. There’s something about being in the same house with someone who won’t speak with you or give you any time, that can feel even more lonely. He was a physical reminder of rejection, and I needed out. I began to crave my own space and my own life. I was exhausted from chemo, and tired of the life I felt temporarily stuck in.
That summer and into the fall after my diagnosis, I completed chemo. That time taught me so many things, but most importantly, to be more intentional with my time and to say yes more.
A week after my last chemo, I traveled to New York City to attend a gala thrown by the Breasties, an organization founded to create a community for survivors, previvors, thrivers, and carevivors of people impacted by breast and gynecological cancers.
It was on this trip that things shifted. I felt, for the first time in a long while, like my life was just beginning. It may sound cheesy, but the city reminded me of all the dreams I had as a teenage girl.
Putting Myself First Should Be a Priority
I couldn’t figure out if it was my ex-husband’s abandonment and rejection that left me feeling this way, or the changes to my body, but sometimes I felt angry and broken.
I didn’t want my ex to have the power to dictate who I was now, or how I spent my time and energy. But I also didn’t want to look back at my life and view my marriage as a waste of time, so I charged myself with reframing my marriage as a foundation from which to grow.
My ex and I continued to live together while I had chemotherapy and throughout the divorce process. In that time, I began to practice putting myself first. He’d gotten used to me catering to his needs, and in doing so, had gotten used to me not having any. My saying no to him meant saying yes to me, and I began finding and doing things I loved to do. I was becoming happier.
Chemotherapy also helped me shift. The exhaustion from treatment left me with very little energy left to smile or pretend. I got used to being more authentic and unfiltered. I realized that saying no when I didn’t want to do something didn’t make people think less of me, and I started saying yes only to things I actually wanted to do.
I Don’t Need Anyone’s Approval but My Own
In order for someone to embrace every facet of me, I had to embrace every facet first. During chemo, I had begun to take daily “outfit of the day” pictures. I loved my fashion sense, and I leaned into that when I felt lost with my hair. I began trying different styles and wanting to show off my new body in ways I had never before.
I started sharing my writing and stories on Instagram, and I attended Camp Breastie, a weekend camp thrown by the Breasties. Both made me feel seen and heard. It was there that I decided to be done letting my hair do whatever, and I changed it.
I went from waiting for my hair to go back to normal, to making it my new normal. I bleached it so platinum blonde that it looked white, and I had my pixie cut shaped to more of a fade. I found that I was becoming more and more comfortable being alone because I was starting to love myself, and loving myself meant that I didn’t need someone else’s approval. I was enough.
Romance Only Has a Chance if I’m My Most Authentic Self
I made a list of qualities and characteristics I wanted and needed in a partner. I wanted to be intentional about who I was spending time with. I wasn't sure how I’d know if someone had these qualities or not, but it felt like the place to start.
I did the same thing with my online dating profile. I was still working on loving this new body and hair of mine, but I didn’t want to hide any part of who I was. I was done allowing my self-worth to be drowned out.
My ex-husband had seemed to reject the cancer part of my life. I needed my next partner to understand and embrace this part of my identity, and I wanted to date with full transparency. So I put it all out there. I had pictures of me with my pixie cut at the time, in a wig, pre-cancer hair, and even one with a head wrap at chemo. I looked fabulous in all of them, and they were all me.
Being Me Took Practice, Especially as I Reentered the Dating World
In March of 2019, a couple months after my divorce was finalized, and a year after being diagnosed, I started to swipe. I hadn’t been on a first date in over 10 years. I worried that things were different and that I wouldn’t know what to do.
I was moving to Atlanta in three months, and decided to just practice. In the back of my mind, I was scared that the old Julie would come out. Would I return to that accommodating version of myself? Was that all I knew? I figured the only way to find out was to try. So, I went on a lot of first dates.
I learned that I had triggers and to pay attention to what they were. This was an opportunity to be authentically me in a romantic space, and if I started off with old habits, it might make that harder to do. I didn’t want to lose what I had just fought so hard to regain after my diagnosis: my life and my authentic self. Triggers were a protection mechanism that prompted me to check-in and reflect.
I had been seeing a guy for a couple of weeks, and one evening he was telling me a story about college that led us to a discussion about different marginalized groups in our country. I had pushed him on a few things, challenging him to think from different angles. I could feel his discomfort and although the date ended well, my inner voice was battling my old self.
“Old Julie” wanted to text and apologize for making him feel uncomfortable, thus making myself small, quiet, and catering to his ego. “New Julie” was disappointed by my old self’s reaction, reminding myself that typically a man wouldn’t text and apologize, so why should I? An apology would signal that I did something wrong, and I hadn’t. His discomfort triggered me. I had to process my reaction and fight my old habits so that next time, I would be able to recognize the trigger and have a plan for moving through it.
Having a Supporting Community Keeps Me Grounded
My friends and community had helped me to feel more seen, more heard, and more alive than any significant other ever did. When I date now, I look for the same things. Not for someone to make me whole — I am already whole and loved by many — but for someone to embrace me for me because I’d be doing a disservice to myself if I accepted anything less.