Cancer Has Robbed Me of My Physical Beauty but Not My Inner Strength

I’ve been through a lot in my life, but nothing prepared me for a diagnosis of breast cancer.

Get Permission

Mandy McCown

Cancer may have robbed me of all the things that made me beautiful on the outside, but it has only enhanced the qualities that make me beautiful on the inside.

— ­Mandy McCown

I’ve been plagued with various ailments all my life. Physically and emotionally abused by my stepfather as a child, over the years I’ve developed severe psychological issues including depression and anxiety disorder. I am also in constant physical pain from cervical degenerative disc disease, osteoarthritis in my back, neck, and wrists, and fibromyalgia. The pain is so intense that I have difficulty sleeping and am unable to work, and at age 40 I had to apply for Social Security disability benefits. Still, none of these experiences adequately prepared me for the words, “You have breast cancer.”

An ultrasound of my left breast, the result of an abscess from a too-tight bra, showed two suspicious areas. Biopsies of the tissues confirmed stage 0 and stage I HER2-positive invasive micropapillary carcinoma. The cancer was so aggressive that 1 month later, when I had a bilateral mastectomy, the pathology report showed that the cancer had spread to four additional areas in my breast and five lymph nodes.

I was prescribed a chemotherapy regimen of docetaxel, cyclophosphamide, and doxorubicin, followed by paclitaxel and trastuzumab (Herceptin). I was told I would also need radiation therapy, but my insurance copays were so high, I couldn’t afford to pay for that in addition to the 20% copays for my chemotherapy treatments (which cost $5,500 per treatment), so I decided to forego the radiation therapy.

Coping With the Ramifications of Cancer

This past year has been very difficult, and I’m still struggling to come to terms with the devastation this disease has left in its wake. The side effects from my treatment have robbed me of all the physical attributes that made me feel attractive. Although I’m undergoing breast reconstruction, I don’t expect the result will restore either the look or feel of my natural breasts. And my hair still has not grown back to its former glory. Perhaps, most debilitating of all is that the pain I experienced before my cancer diagnosis has been exacerbated by the chemotherapy, as have my bouts of depression and anxiety.

The combination of my feelings of low self-esteem due to the changes in my body, the constant pain, and the emotional turmoil are also taking a toll on my relationship with my husband. He does what he can to help and comfort me—and I attempt to do the same for him—but currently I am not physically or emotionally capable of being the person I was before my diagnosis. I need more time to heal and get distance from my cancer.

I’m fortunate to have a loving husband and children who never allow me to give up, as well as an oncology team that has shown me compassion and understanding. And I’m grateful to other breast cancer survivors and their loved ones who have reached out to me with so much kindness. Their support is certainly helping me through this journey.

Facing the Future With Optimism

Today, despite the ongoing emotional and physical challenges of having cancer, I am feeling more optimistic about the future. I believe that everything happens for a reason and I’m determined to use this experience to fulfill a lifelong dream of writing a book on abuse and hope to help others going through a similar experience. I make jewelry, blankets, and scarves to raise money to pay for my medical expenses, and I’m hoping that I can eventually raise enough funds to create a foundation to support other survivors of abuse and cancer.

Cancer may have robbed me of all the things that made me beautiful on the outside, but it has only enhanced the qualities that make me beautiful on the inside. ■

Mandy McCown lives in Jeffersonville, Ohio.