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What Cancer Took and What Cancer Gave

I never expected to lose my breasts. And find a greater purpose in my diagnosis.

A woman with brown hair and a dark dress smiles as she sits at a table with pens, paper and a backpack.
Jen Rozenbaum flashes a smile as she conducts an educational seminar about photography. | Photo credit: Jackie Molloy/The Well
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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Today is Wednesday. I had my fifth chemotherapy treatment just two days ago. Wednesdays are my hard days—the second day after chemo is always the worst for me. Everyone in my family knows Mommy needs rest on Wednesdays. As I sit here in bed writing, I think about how much my life has changed. A short four months ago I was a happy, healthy 41 year-old.  I always ate well and exercised. I have no family history of any cancer, forget breast cancer. How did I get here?

Then I have to stop. Stop going down that rabbit hole of dark thoughts. I’ll never know why I got cancer. I’ll never know how to prevent it in the future either. You see, breast cancer is just as much a disease of the mind as it is the breast. But when it comes to the mind, I actually have control over what ails it.

I was diagnosed on July 12—ironically, also a Wednesday. My first oncologist appointment was seven days later. That was the longest week of my life. Not knowing my prognosis or plan of action was absolute torture. There were tears. There was anger and confusion, but also hope. Hope that there was a chance for me. Hope that I caught it early. In the dark moments (and there were DARK moments during that week), I held on to the idea of hope with white knuckles.

Diagnosis Day - After learning she has breast cancer, Jen reaches for her camera. Recognizing she has a long road ahead, Jen decides to document her journey—taking pictures and writing notes to record her feelings. The period of time between her diagnosis and surgery felt like a blur. Her journal helps her remember what she has been through and the strength it took to get through it. | Photo credit: Courtesy of Jen Rozenbaum

After meeting with doctors and doing my own research, I opted for a bilateral mastectomy. When I decided on a mastectomy, I cried. My doctor tried to comfort me and assure me I was doing the right thing. I tried to explain to her that the tears weren’t of sadness. The tears were gratitude. I was so grateful for the gifts that had been presented to me. The ability to remove cancer from my body was a gift. The support of my friends and family was a gift. I chose to believe in that moment that I was the luckiest girl in the world. Every day I would send my dad a text. It was a countdown: “7 days until I’m cancer free”…“6 days until I’m cancer free”…

You see, for me, mindset was my medication. I know the mind is powerful. I chose to harness its power. I tried to find the silver lining in everything. I decided I needed purpose.  Before my mastectomy, I went public on Facebook to announce my diagnosis and the upcoming surgery. It was real and raw and the video went viral. It was then that I decided, this isn’t happening to me, it’s happening for me. I needed to help others. Without purpose, this is just a disease. Having cancer felt scary, but also healing. Cancer can be lonely. Going public made it less so for me.

“This is what being sick looks like.” Jen takes to Facebook to connect with friends, family, colleagues and photography clients. She live streams 1 to 2 times a week about her diagnosis, airs her fears, riffs about conflicting emotions, and keeps her followers informed of her condition. She takes questions from viewers and encourages others dealing with similar challenges to not let being sick define and dictate their lives. She has produced more than 20 Facebook Lives since her diagnosis with thousands of views and comments on each post. | Photo credit: Jackie Molloy/The Well

I had my mastectomy on August 2—a Wednesday. Two days before my 42nd birthday. So many people expressed their sadness that I would spend my birthday in bed. I assured them it was the best birthday gift I have ever given myself.  I believed it. 

I was nervous until two days before my surgery, when a strange sense of calm and power came over me. I felt so strong, in control and ready to kick cancer out! The morning of my surgery I chose my outfit carefully. I wore a camouflage T-shirt (fighting gear) and my hot pink heels. If you are going to kick out cancer, you need to have good shoes! The outfit was part of my mentality. It made me feel strong and feminine. 

I was worried about losing my sense of femininity. I have always struggled with body issues; ironically I always especially loved my breasts. How would I feel without them? I tried not to think about it, after all what other option was there?

Hours before her surgery, Jen poses for a farewell picture of her breasts. “It’s important for me to find some levity in this terrifying situation I’ve found myself in,” she says. | Photo credit: Courtesy of Jen Rozenbaum

The night of my surgery my doctor came in to check on me. She opened up the mastectomy bra and I immediately handed her my phone and asked her to take a picture. She asked me if I was sure I wanted to see what I looked like. Yes! I did want to see. Acceptance is part of the healing. 

She took some photos and asked me what I thought as I was looking at them. I said, “That’s totally bad ass!” She laughed and told me she never heard that reaction before. I don’t know how to explain it, but in the moment I felt my whole life shift. I was grateful for the scars. I couldn’t help but think how lucky I was that I have a reminder on me at all times that I can do tough things. Any time I doubt myself, all I have to do is look down and my mind says, “You can do it.”

A few hours after her double mastectomy. | Photo credit: Courtesy of Jen Rozenbaum
The generosity of others has helped Jen maintain a positive outlook. These are a few of the many inspirational gifts she received from well-wishers during recovery. | Photo credit: Jackie Molloy/The Well

On September 18 (my son’s birthday), I started my eight rounds of CMF chemotherapy. I was terrified and devastated that I needed chemo. The thought of being sick, looking sick and admitting I am sick was not something I wanted to do.  I knew that I had to, though. I wrapped my head around it and strutted my way to that chair. Chemo is a challenge for me. I am a doer. I am always moving and shaking. I am a mom, a wife, a business owner. Who has time to sit?

On “bad days,” Jen takes some time to rest. Chemotherapy is hard on her emotionally and physically. In this image, Jen is wearing a cold cap during a chemo treatment. The cap narrows the blood vessels beneath the scalp and helps prevent the chemo drugs from invading the hair follicles. Jen has been able to retain most of her hair, but the cap is extremely uncomfortable - even painful - before her scalp goes completely numb from the cold. | Photo credit: Courtesy of Taylor Barker
Jen’s son Sam gives his mom a kiss before running off to play catch with his dad. Jen struggles daily with how to balance her kids’ fears and needs with her own reality. “I want to keep everything as normal as possible for them, but now we need to redefine normal.” | Photo credit: Jackie Molloy/The Well

The weeks I have chemo, I have learned to sit. In fact, I have no other option. I am tired, achy and unmotivated. The upside: The weeks I don’t have chemo (I go every other week), I am still functioning.  I am traveling, working and being the biggest version of myself I can be. Is it easy? No. I call it the tale of two lives. This is my way of life for now. In a way chemo is harder than the surgery was. After surgery you feel better every day. With chemo, it’s more of a roller coaster. This roller coaster is hard for me to accept at times. Again, the moments of darkness try to sneak in.  When I am not feeling well physically, I find the emotional side of me is more vulnerable. These are the times I have to remember: I can do this! I am bad ass and I have the scars to prove it.

Jen wears her scars with pride. Although her wounds are healing and the scars are fading, they are a poignant reminder that she is capable of doing anything she puts her mind to. Jen took this selfie shortly after surgery to document her expanders, which are filled over time by a physician to make room for permanent implants in the future. | Photo credit: Courtesy of Jen Rozenbaum
On “good days,” Jen feels strong and attacks work with ferocity and passion. Today she gives a lecture about posing subjects to budding boudoir photographers at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center in New York City. Jen’s work through her company, Shamelessly Feminine, has always been about celebrating a woman’s unique femininity— she appreciates the irony that she is now looking to rediscover her own. Calling upon her experiences with past clients has helped her a great deal during her cancer journey. Jen is more confident and proud of her body than ever before. | Photo credit: Jackie Molloy/The Well

I don’t want to say I didn’t have pain or that I didn’t mourn (and still do at times) my body.  I miss my cleavage. I miss sleeping on my stomach. I miss hugging people hard. I cry when I feel sadness, but I laugh a lot too. I have extreme gratitude. More than I have ever had in my life.

For Jen, one of the most painful truths about a double mastectomy was learning that she would likely lose sensation in her chest. “This was devastating because I’m a hugger and a cuddler, especially with my kids. Hearing that made me cry. But now that I’m in it, I can tell that hugs are different but still so meaningful.” | Photo credit: Jackie Molloy/The Well
Jen’s time with her children and husband, along with the overwhelming outpouring of support from friends, family and her community, are what keep her going. As Jen sees it, her journey has just begun. And she is determined to stay strong, carry on and find her “normal” again. | Photo credit: Jackie Molloy/The Well

Cancer has given me so many gifts. I have learned patience in a way I never expected. I have learned true self-care. Cancer is a life changer, sometimes in the most beautiful way.


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 December 7th, 2017
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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