On Melbourne Cup Day 2010, I faced the horror of being told I had stage three breast cancer. No family history, just an unlucky statistic.
No words can describe what it felt like to face an uncertain future - a future where I wouldn’t see my kids grow up, especially since my partner Kell was pregnant with our first child and was due in just eight weeks.
I thought the unthinkable; that my family may go on living their lives without my physical presence, and that was utterly devastating. Dying young was something that happened to other people, not to me. Never for a minute did I think I would be one of them.
What followed shortly was six months of chemotherapy, radiation and multiple surgeries. Like so many other women I was left with one breast, but I didn’t care. I was alive and incredibly thankful.
I was 34 and never wanted to see a hospital again.
I remained in this thankful but shell shocked state for two years. As a result of my experience and the ongoing medication, I suffered crippling anxiety and bouts of depression. I came face to face with the reality that I would never give birth to my own biological child, and at the same time fell headfirst into menopause with all its crushing side effects. Some days my biggest achievement was taking my daughter to the park four doors down without bursting into tears.
I desperately tried to navigate my way back into my life and put cancer behind me. The thought of living the rest of my life like this felt completely overwhelming; not only for me, but for the impact I knew it was having on my family.
In August 2012 on a beach in Spain I realised that while I was forever thankful to be alive, there was something missing. I didn’t feel whole. It was time to make a drastic change.
In April 2013 I underwent a double breast reconstruction. My old scars were replaced with reconstructed breast shapes using my stomach muscle, tissue and skin. After waking from a 10 hour surgery I fell into a deep depression, but then realised something. Here I was in a terrible physical way, but I was alive and on a journey to make myself whole. So many people, some of them very dear friends, would swap places with me in a heartbeat, because there is no cure for stage 4 breast cancer.
But that wasn’t me: I had to begin living again, continue the journey, embrace this second chance I have been given.
So three months later I returned for nipple grafts, and on September 18 had my new nipples tattooed to resemble the color of real nipples. This was, by far, the most surreal and liberating part of this incredible ride!
In the days leading up to the procedure I joked that I’d be presented with a selection of nipple colours and asked to pick one, just like having a pedicure. And that’s exactly what happened.
By the time my tattoos were finished I no longer cared about what colour they were. And then the tattoo artist said to me, “Okay Cass, its done.”
“It’s done.” They were the words I had been waiting to hear. For the first time in almost three years I had the overwhelming feeling that maybe, just maybe, it really was all over.
I instantly shed the caved in, cowering posture that I had grown to carry. I disposed of my prosthesis and the clothes that went with it. The impact of my physical change on my emotional state was instant. I realised something: maybe I do have a long life ahead of me. No, forget ‘maybe’ - I WILL have a long life, one where I get to see my kids grow up. And if that’s the case, I need to make sure I’m someone that treasures that every single day. Someone that doesn’t take anything for granted. I need to be the best possible version of my self.
I am now the fittest, healthiest, happiest and the most content I have ever been in my life, and I wouldn’t give any of that back. I can spend hours just enjoying the moments with my family. I can honestly say that I appreciate every single day that I wake up.
A week ago I was asked if I feel whole again now that my nipple tattoos have been done and my double breast reconstruction is complete. I really thought about it. I stopped and really thought about how I feel in this body.
And my answer was that in some ways, I feel more whole than I ever have.
This article first appeared on Daily Life.