Dancing with Death, A Fierce Will to Live

Guest Story by the brave, beautiful Alex O'Pecko

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A fierce determination has propelled me through life. Born breeched, I tore through my mother to escape into the world weeks before I was due. My fragile four-pound body was left behind to be cared for by doctors and nurses because my mother was afraid of me. A few months later, I was hospitalized with labored breathing because of pneumonia. My father says he watched me chew on my Superman toy in the oxygen tent, blissfully unaware of the serious nature of this illness.

We may start with innocence as we shape our futures with hopes, but they can so easily be stripped away by reality. For me, cancer would be that loss of innocence.

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Because every elderly member in my extended family tree had succumbed to it, it didn't come as a surprise. In fact, when I met the love of my life, I told him of my destiny. I wanted to warn him of what awaited us and give him the opportunity to walk away before he fell deeper in love with me.

Still, we married, sharing the vision of a long life together, becoming the little old couple with our fingers interlocked and passing away within minutes of each other because we couldn't bear the thought of being apart. We committed to taking care of our bodies and our minds, by taking more time to enjoy life and each other.

Nine months ago, the dream of growing old together started to dim. I discovered a minor imperfection on my body. A small swollen mass was visible near my axilla, peaking out of the side of my dress bodice. A blur of doctor appointments and tests ensued, all leading up to something I already knew. The cancer had already spread to my lymph nodes, and it would require the surrender of at least a year of my life for treatment in order to provide a chance at a future.  

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I chose to face this alone. I did not want to contaminate others with the burden of my fate. I embraced my unfortunate destiny, even though it had arrived earlier than anticipated. But sharing this with my love was the most difficult moment I had ever endured. I broke his heart and witnessed the look of shattered dreams on his handsome face. I vowed that I would win this battle with breast cancer by my 40th birthday.

Unwilling to let cancerous cells take over my body and steal my life, I welcomed the poison of chemotherapy. My body has since endured the harsh side effects from hair loss to excruciating bone pain. Several doctors have screamed at me to carve out the pieces of my anatomy that are high risk, but the thought of the scars marring my flesh with the constant reminder of my defective genes was unbearable. 

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My spirit has not faltered in this battle. Even with the superficial sacrifices, I have never felt more beautiful because I have embodied the warrior spirit, full of courage, vigor, and determination.

The photos I took two years prior keep reminding me of this. I'd told a friend about my desire to do something special for my love for his birthday, and she introduced me to Lone’s photography. Within a few moments of listening to her vision and the passion in her voice, I knew she was the one who could make something magical happen. 

But my mindset shifted during our initial discussion: I no longer wanted to pose for someone else - I wanted to do it for myself. I believed I would never look or feel as beautiful as I did at the time of my shoot. I had crossed over the threshold from mid to late 30’s. I could not help but think that my youthfulness was soon to be a thing of the past. I needed to behold it and clutch it in my grasp. I finally felt comfortable in my own skin, and the life I had created for myself was everything I had desired. I wanted to preserve my current state of being.    

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I derived such pleasure from being photographed. I felt so beautiful, so empowered, and so free. I bared my soul and emerged radiating confidence and strength. As the session moved along, I felt an organic connection to all the beauty and life around me, as though I had wondrously unlocked the secrets of the universe.

I became more than just my body that day. My body would no longer define me as the woman I am. I realized that my true beauty was my spirit, which could be recognized in my facial expressions and my gestures and my eyes. 

The photos enabled me to see the evidence of my profound revelation. There I was, in dozens of photos, with twinkling eyes and knowing smile - an alluring, sexy, playful, vibrant, strong woman. It was the version of myself that I always tried to find in my reflection in the mirror. What I believed to be my true essence was captured on film, an ageless beauty was finally unveiled.

Meanwhile, death continued to stalk me, using cancer as a weapon to threaten me with silent killers. I studied my images from the photo session as I searched for answers as to what treatment to choose. I looked at my smooth unblemished skin, the curve of my breast, the way my hair twisted around my hands, the sharpness of my stance.

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I saw both the fragility and strength of my body, but more importantly, I saw the power of my spirit. 

My perspective on life has been altered by cancer. Now I find the beauty in everything around me, even my cancer. There is a unique beauty in the nature of it. A single cell coded with mutated DNA evolved to thrive inside my body. At times, I wonder who am I to try to prevent this natural progression of life.

This cell and I want the same. To live. To survive. As strange as it may seem, I'm battling myself, and the love of life, the love of me will prevail, and win.