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The First Day of the Rest of My Life

Killer heels never served me better than on my last day of chemo.

A woman with dark brown hair and a yellow cold cap sits in a large chair in a medical examination room. She smiles widely as she kicks her legs in the air showing off bright blue, spikey heels.
Jen Rozenbaum kicks cancer and chemo to the curb in high fashion. | Photo credit: Courtesy of Taylor Lauren Barker
A woman with dark hair wears blue surgical scrubs. She has her hand on the back of another woman with blond hair. The woman with blond hair has one arm out of her hospital gown as she holds the edge of a mammogram machine.

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It’s a Wednesday. For most, an average day. For me, this Wednesday is the first day of the rest of my life.

I finished my chemotherapy treatments today. It’s a day I’ve been counting down to for months. I would imagine in my head what this day would look like. Would there be a bell to ring? Balloons? A parade? Would my family and friends throw me a party? Or would it be a quiet moment —a sigh of relief more than a screaming from the rooftops?

I didn’t know. I played all the different scenarios in my head over and over throughout my treatment. All I knew was I couldn’t wait for today to come.

Jen wore a cold cap during chemo treatments to try to prevent her hair from falling out. | Photo credit: Courtesy of Taylor Lauren Barker

As this day got closer, ironically, I started feeling extremely anxious and emotional. I started wondering: What if I didn’t have enough treatment? What if the chemo didn’t work?  I wondered: Would people stop helping me and checking on me?

I felt (self-inflicted) pressure that everyone around would expect things to go “back to normal.” That would be extremely difficult for me, since I don’t even know what normal is anymore. 

They say (when I say “they,” I also mean ME) that cancer is a rebirth. That has been so true for me in a million ways. Now that I’ve finished chemo, I realize that this is the part of the rebirth that is most vital. I feel like a baby bird getting kicked out of the nest. I have to navigate the world again, this time as a different person.

With her cold cap removed, Jen runs her fingers through her hair. Wearing the cap made chemo even more uncomfortable, but it worked. Jen was able to save most of her hair. | Photo credit: Courtesy of Taylor Lauren Barker

This part of the journey is where I have felt the most overwhelmed. I am questioning everything —what I eat, the products I use, and how I want to spend my time.  As I mentioned in my last post, cancer isn’t just a disease of the breast, but one of the mind, too. I find my thoughts are all over the place. My mind is racing. 

Right now, my thought processes and decisions are important, but having a purpose and distractions are just as vital. And doing more of what I love is imperative. I am a photographer, in name and in my heart. I learned photography during a time when I was struggling with infertility. For me, photography is therapeutic. It got me through a very challenging time and eventually I was able to turn it into a career that I love. I started a business and have been photographing women ever since.

Jen during a photo shoot for work. | Photo credit: Jackie Molloy/The Well

As I find my mind working overtime, I have decided to throw myself back into work again, allowing my camera to be my healing tool. At first, I was afraid—worried that photographing women who are “whole” would stir up emotions in me of jealousy and self-doubt.

Through my journey I have met so many other breast cancer survivors. So I decided to give purpose to my work and reach out to one that stood out to me. Marianne contacted me on Facebook after someone saw my videos and told her about them. She told me her story and showed me some photos of herself and I just knew I wanted to be in her world and I wanted her in mine. The best way I knew how to do that was with my camera.

Marianne has such a beautiful spirit. Her personal circumstances did not allow her to have reconstructive surgery. But I found her to be so beautiful and feminine even without breasts. I wanted to capture that. I asked her if I could photograph her and thankfully she agreed.

Photo credit: Courtesy of Jen Rozenbaum
Some shots from Marianne’s boudoir session with Jen. | Photo credit: Courtesy of Jen Rozenbaum

I felt a great pressure to give Marianne a meaningful experience and to capture her true beauty. Once again, my camera proved to me its healing power. When I photographed Marianne and talked to her, I felt such love and a deep connection to her. I was in awe of her strength and resilience. I had a moment when I thought to myself, “I wish I could be like her.”  Then I remembered—I am.  

I am so grateful for that experience. Marianne reminded me that I am a warrior. I am strong and I am resilient. She also gave me permission to cry. Even warriors cry sometimes. 

Photographing Marianne also gave me the courage to work again, passionately. The shoots after Marianne were with women who had never been through my ordeal. They had their breasts. But I found that even women who are “whole” still struggle. Everyone has a personal struggle, so these shoots were even more meaningful. I know that I can continue to heal women through my lens. And in turn, they all heal me, too. 

Photo credit: Jackie Molloy/The Well
Photo credit: Jackie Molloy/The Well
Jen back at work in her studio with a client. | Photo credit: Jackie Molloy/The Well

I find strength in being around other survivors. They “get” me. They know what’s going on in my brain. It’s an unspoken bond. It’s also (I found this surprising) uplifting. There’s no talk of death and fear. Instead, we talk about life and power. Being surrounded by warriors is a gift.

There was no parade for me today, my last day of chemo. I simply said my goodbyes and walked out of the building, quietly slipping back into my life. I went home and cried. Tears of relief and tears of gratitude. Tears I had held in for months now flowing uncontrollably. I am still searching for my new normal. It will take time.

I remember giving birth to my children. Each was a painful process and at the same time, the most beautiful thing I have ever experienced. I am choosing to look at my rebirth the same way. It might be painful at times, but I know if I can push through the pain, this, too, will be a beautiful life.

Jen Rozenbaum is a photographer, mother and cancer survivor. | Photo credit: Jackie Molloy/The Well

Jen Rozenbaum lives in New York with her husband and two beautiful children. To continue to follow Jen’s journey, sign up to receive emails from The Well.

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Published November 20th, 2018
A woman with dark hair wears blue surgical scrubs. She has her hand on the back of another woman with blond hair. The woman with blond hair has one arm out of her hospital gown as she holds the edge of a mammogram machine.

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