Am I Too Ugly for Self-Love?
Our disabilities are our red carpet outfits.
I was 24 years old and just swapped out my college books for a sleek M16 in the U.S. Army. I dropped out of college in hopes of finding financial stability and a promising future defending my country. About six short months later, after completing basic training and AIT (Advanced Individual Training), I found my self in the heart of the Middle Eastern war – Iraq and I was in complete shock.
Before you say, “well, Brandi, you did join the military… of course, you were going to get deployed.” And while I believe this is true, I could not for the life of me understand why I was going so soon. I had just learned how to throw a grenade, shoot a gun, manhandle a 50 cal, and use a compass along with other life saving skills.
While I was in Iraq, I kept on wondering how it would be when I get back to the States. Would I come back with any missing limbs? Would I engage in firefights? Would I return with PTSD? Would I die? Death constantly toyed with my imagination. The one thing I did not imagine was returning to my homeland with an enemy inside me – Ewing Sarcoma cancer. We didn’t learn how to prepare for an illness or an attack from within our bodies. Instead, we learned how to pack bullet wounds on the bloody; we learned how to clear a room, how to administer an IV, and how to tell if a lung had collapsed.
I remember like it was yesterday, the day my life changed forever. The team of doctors surrounded the foot of my bed and was so hesitant to deliver the plan to me. “Brandi.” The doctor shuffled the notes in his hand like a nervous college student reluctant to turn in the test. “We may have to cut your leg off… but, but we will try to do everything we can … to save it.” He was stuttering.
Ewing Sarcoma is a very rare and aggressive cancer, about 12K are diagnosed nation wide, nearly half of those victims perish, and only 3K make it past the five-year mark. Ewing Sarcoma is unheard of. It is like the stepchild of cancers. My team of doctors had never seen, such as case and only studied it off of the medical pages in MED school. “This cancer is very aggressive, if we do not catch it early it can spread to your lungs, brainstem and spinal cord,” he said as he parted his lips, “we won’t know until we are in your leg and testing the margins. We cannot promise you.”
The cancer was very high in my leg. It destroyed and attached itself to my adductor muscle and my groin. It was like the disease had a death grip on my leg—slowing devouring everything in its path.
“Please let me keep my leg; I am an athlete. I need my legs to run.” I glanced at my left leg with a tumor the size of a small watermelon protruding from the hospital cover. “Cut as much as you like, but please let me keep my leg.” I begged, and I pleaded with the doctors before my 13-hour surgery. I was not sure if I would have both of my legs when I woke up or just one. It was pure torture, but the operation had to be done. With more than half of the day spent on an operating table and my left leg sliced in half, I woke up with both of my legs and a new me. But the new me was flawed. Traumatized. Insecure. Scared.
It took a while to understand that the old me was gone. I looked different. I felt different. I acted differently.
I remember clearly seeing a dramatic difference in both of my legs. My right leg was thick, curvy, healthy. My left leg was thin and disfigured. I had a huge scar that marched up to my leg, and my left quad and hamstring were tied together by the surgeon to give me a fuller look. Despite their creative efforts, I could see my left butt cheek from the front. I had a massive chunk of muscle missing, and I felt so ugly and knew that there would be no one that would accept this new, Brandi.
I couldn’t even accept her myself. I thought the hardest part was over, the cancer was gone, but now I have to live with this new me that I hated. I slowly understood the term “outcast” and yearned for acceptance from the world. Was I worthy of love? Would I ever feel self-love again? Would people point and stare at me? Can I handle this new life? Will I become suicidal? Who is going to love me with a 24-inch scar on my body?
I had all of these questions and no answers because I had just begun my journey of survivorship. I remember going back and forth with myself about getting plastic surgery done to fill in the gap in my leg. I could care less about the scar, but I wanted to be able to look into the mirror and not see my left butt cheek from the front any longer.
I had talked myself into getting plastic surgery done on my left leg to try and fill out the gap. I had a tissue expander put into my leg, and a few months later, there was enough stretched skin to pull over the hole, but it still did not fix the problem. I needed volume. I needed mass. Pulling the skin over a sunken pit did nothing. I was so discouraged and upset that I was not only disabled, but I looked disabled.
I ran from myself. I ran from self-love. I hid in the shadows of my past life and didn’t dare explore the new me. I was scared to see my opinion of myself and see the new responsibility I had acquired along the way due to cancer. I ran away from me. I cried myself to sleep for months, and no one knew how distraught I truly was. I had a version of who I wanted to be, and who I was at the moment did not match. The woman I envisioned was carefree and lived by no labels. She was label-less. I romanticized the idea of her but had no roadmap on how to birth her. She was unwavering and unapologetic for whom she was. I loved that about her.
As time went on, I started to realize that this was my life now. Why am I pondering on the past? I needed to make peace with this new me and love her and rebrand myself. I needed to find out what I was great at and what my boundaries were. I needed to be constructive with how I lived for the future and not destructive by continually living in the past and reliving things that are out of my control.
Self-love is heard in your guttering sobs. True self-love is accepting all of you – there is no ugly in you or bad in you; there is just you. By denying myself to feel worthy of loving and accepting love and attention from others because I felt broken, I was adding to the problem. I was so lost in the past that I couldn’t heal the present me. It took many years of therapy, exploration, and grief to understand that our physical scars are more beautiful than a baby’s laugh. That part of the body was tried, and it won. Those scars are our battle bounds of survival.
My left leg has more character than Prince Charming. My 24-inch scar is the most loveable thing about me. Whatever you are insecure about makes you stand out in all the great ways. What we go through to get to this point is impressive. We are worthy of love, but most of all, self-love. I’ve gained a respect for my body that I never knew existed. I love me and all of my flaws. I am beautiful. I am unwavering and unapologetically me.
Don’t be ashamed to be different! Remember, celebrities at the red carpet events look for months to find those outfits that stand out and pray they don’t run into someone else wearing the same thing; our disabilities are our red carpet outfits. We look different! And we look damn good that way, too.
How were you diagnosed?
I was diagnosed with Ewing Sarcoma cancer in 2009 while I was deployed in Iraq. I first discovered the lump in my leg while I was stretching after a routine leg workout.
While stretching, I saw a lump the size of a peach protruding out … I pushed it, squeezed it, and tried to move it around, but nothing happened. There was also no pain present at the time. Naturally and naively, I thought nothing of it, but little did I know that I would leave the heart of the war to defeat an enemy inside myself.
Tell us about your treatment.
I had a very harsh treatment plan. I did chemotherapy for five days on and eight days off. I had a total of 17 cycles in 10 months. I also had a major surgery, which was 13 hours. The doctors removed my adductor muscle.
Describe your sarcoma journey in three words.
Strength, Mentality, Opportunity
How is your life the same or different now?
My life had changed dramatically in every aspect. Cancer has allowed me to see that life is not only precious, but that time is of the essence. I am now more motivated than I have ever been before in my life.
What’s a random fact or piece of information you’ve learned along the way?
That we are a lot strong than we all know, cancer will strip your physical strength, and you will be left with your mind. I believe cancer is about mental fitness and endurance more than anything.
How have your relationships with friends and family been impacted?
My professional and personal relationships have also flourished for the better as well. I communicate better now, and I am more open with my feelings about how I feel.
How are you doing today?
Today, I am a business owner of Resume-Advantage, an author of The Enemy Inside Me, a brand ambassador for Bristol Myers Squib, an inspirational speaker for TLC Lions, and a cancer advocate.
I am currently training for the Wounded Warrior Games in March 2021.
What keeps you inspired and/or motivated?
Pushing myself to be the best version of myself and continually lifting the bar. I have a lot of goals, and I try to make them so outrageous and unbelievable. Once I do that, I find a path that gets me on track to accomplishing that dream.
While I am on this path to do whatever is it that I am trying to accomplish, I meet some fantastic people along the way. Sometimes my goals change, and other times they will stay the same.
Favorite comfort meal?
My favorite food is Broccoli with vegan butter, Hot sauce, salt, and pepper. I will take that over a full course meal.
What books, films, or music would you recommend we check out? (Ones that have helped to carry you through your sarcoma journey or just ones that you’d generally recommend)
I love the book called the Secrete and Heal. Both of these can be found on Netflix.
What do you want us to know about you?
I am the founder and CEO of Resume-Advantage, an employment service for both civilians and transitioning military veterans. Brandi earned a B.A. in Mass Communications and Journalism from Ashford University and an M.F.A. in Writing from the Savannah College of Art and Design. She is currently pursuing a Human Resource certification from Cornell University.
I am an American speaker for TLC Lions, an author, a brand ambassador for Bristol Myers Squibb, and an Iraqi War Veteran.
In 2009, after being diagnosed with a rare form of cancer, Ewing Sarcoma, I fought to overcome my diagnosis, heal after my treatments, and reclaimed my life through therapy, physical activities, and other healthy-living practices.
Through my speaking engagements and signature topic “Overcoming The Enemy Inside You,” culled from the title of my acclaimed book, I transform the lives of my audience by encouraging them to pursue different avenues of physical and mental therapy to take charge of their healing and wellness.
I have had the pleasure of working with SNOW Companies, Bristol Myers Squibb, Kevin Hines, HOPE Nation, The Hines Foundation, LSP3, Brag Media, and many more.
My mission is to provide an effective blueprint of strategies and resources that survivors, their loved ones, and anyone struggling with “an enemy” in whatever form, take charge of their healing and wellness.
What advice would you give to others impacted by sarcoma?
That this disease affects everyone differently; what may work with one person may not work for another. Don’t judge your health based on others. Listen to your body and make your thoughts more positive than negative. Our words and thought are extremely powerful. It is vital that you speak well and health into your life.
I want to also encourage those who are affected by this cancer to know they can reach out to me. I have over 200 inboxes of sarcoma survivors and patients that I am actively speaking to and here for.
You don’t have to go through this alone. Please reach out to me on my Instagram.