You’re so strong. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard those words. How many times I’ve nodded, smiled and replied, “thank you,” (even when I didn’t feel that way). I’ve often taken those words as more of a challenge than a compliment. Those words often caused me to feel as though there were a standard and an expectation I had to live up to. I wanted to be as strong as everyone thought I was.
It took a breast cancer diagnosis for me to realize that everything I thought I knew about strength was wrong.
Prior to my diagnosis, I felt as though strength meant never being shaken, strength was fighting back tears and putting on your brave face. I equated suppressing my fear and pain with being strong. I was wrong. Breast cancer allowed me to re-define strength.
The moment I allowed myself to just feel what I was going through is when I realized I was much stronger than I thought.
My Defining Moment
I was on the receiving end of a breast cancer diagnosis, but all I wanted to do was be strong for everyone around me. I had an “I’m great” and “don’t worry about me” readily available for anyone who asked or expressed concern.
The truth is—I was 28 years old and I had breast cancer and I was afraid.
I had seen both my mother and grandmother battle breast cancer. I never saw either one of them complain. I never once saw them shed a tear. They were strong. I had to be strong like them.
It was in the wee hours of the morning when cancer taught me about strength. I had spent weeks walking around with my wig on. I was going into my third round of chemo and I feared what was happening to my hair. I made up my mind that I was finally going to take my wig off and face my fears head on.
“It was a long, exhausting cry. I was tired of being ‘the picture of strength.’ I was falling apart because I was trying hard to define my strength based on what I thought other people wanted to see in me.”
I remember fumbling around in the dark and making my way to the bathroom. I looked in the mirror for what seemed like forever before I finally slid off my scarf. As soon as I started sliding off my wig, tears streamed down my cheeks. I hadn’t even taken the wig completely off when I felt hair falling on my shoulders. The more I shifted the wig, the more my hair came out.
For the first time since my diagnosis—I finally REALLY cried. I finally allowed myself to feel it—ALL of it. I gave myself permission to be vulnerable. I gave myself permission to be afraid, to be angry, to take off the “brave face.” That night, I literally curled up on the bathroom floor and cried like a baby.
It was a long, exhausting cry. I was tired of being “the picture of strength.” I was falling apart because I was trying hard to define my strength based on what I thought other people wanted to see in me.
This Is What Strength Looks Like
It was that night that I realized that the scared 28-year-old girl looking back at me in the mirror was the strongest person I’d ever seen in my life. She was facing her fears even though it hurt. She wasn’t hiding behind a brave face. She didn’t need to be strong for anyone. She was strong because she could admit that she was struggling. She could admit that she needed support.
It was in that moment that I realized that real strength lay in my vulnerability. I realized I was trying to fit into this idea of strength that I had made up in my head. I was strong—tears and all.
Be YOUR Kind of Strong
Every breast cancer journey is different. The key to remaining strong during the battle is being your kind of strong. Whether you’re a nervous wreck sitting anxiously in a cancer center, sobbing uncontrollably while being comforted by loved ones or staring at yourself in the mirror with tears in your eyes—You are strong. You get to define and redefine your strength every step of the way. Be kind to yourself and be your kind of strong.
“Life is very interesting. In the end, some of your greatest pains become your greatest strengths.” —Drew Barrymore
Monisha Parker found herself on the receiving end of a breast cancer diagnosis at the age of 28. Her diagnosis further ignited her passion for spreading awareness and offering support to others who have been affected by breast cancer. She authored a children’s book in 2018, which helps explains breast cancer to children. She currently resides in North Carolina with her husband and 3 children where she frequently shares her breast cancer journey at conferences and other community events. Follow her on her website at www.purposepaintedpink.com or on Instragram at @monishashante0503.