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Why I Walked In A Fashion Show 18 Months After Losing My Breast

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Illustration by Sydney Hass
When you hear the words “You have breast cancer”, you know your life is going to change. What you never realise is quite how much. And it never changes in quite the ways you expect. Standing anxiously in the belly of the Park Plaza Hotel in Westminster, about to “sashay away” down a catwalk in front of 500 people, was not what I had expected.

Let’s rewind. 18 months ago, I was diagnosed with breast cancer aged 26. I began treatment pretty much immediately – I had a mastectomy, followed by four surgeries to deal with complications, six rounds of chemo and 15 rounds of radiotherapy. I was cut, I was poisoned and I was burned. I lost my hair, I lost my breast. My face puffed as I was pumped full of steroids to combat the drugs that were unable to distinguish between the cells I needed and the vicious, cancerous ones that were growing inside me. My eyelashes fell out. My eyebrows did a runner, never to be seen again. I felt fat, I felt ill, and the person looking back at me in the mirror was not someone I recognised. I lost myself during treatment. But, as clichéd as it sounds, I kind of found myself, too.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve never been confident about my body or the way I look. Stemming from a long history of depression and anxiety, I’ve struggled with self-confidence. My sunny exterior often hides my inner turmoil, while my self-deprecation is disguised with a hearty dose of humour. Every day, as I stumbled through treatment, I looked less like myself and more like a cancer patient, and I began to care less about my appearance. I stopped hating the size of my thighs and started to appreciate how they carried me up the stairs to my flat when I was floored by fatigue. I pined for the hair I’d decried as long, limp and lifeless when the buzzcut I’d opted for after my first chemotherapy began to fall out in clumps. I was fighting for my life and, suddenly, what I looked like didn’t matter. I guess I had to hit rock bottom before I could claw my way back to some semblance of acceptance.

Sometime in the midst of treatment, I saw that Breast Cancer Care were recruiting models for a coveted place in their annual fashion show. On a whim, I decided to apply. After the deafening realisation that I was not invincible, I’d decided to say yes to any opportunity that came my way. Blame it on chemo-induced cognitive impairment, or on the temporary madness that comes with recognising your own mortality. I sent off the application just before the deadline, never expecting that, out of the thousands of applications, they’d pick me. With minimal hair, one boob, legs like Bambi and two full-length photos that made me look a bit wild, I hardly felt like model material. But something about me stood out. In January, they called to say I had been chosen to take part, as one of just 32 models.

Last week, on one of the weirdest and most wonderful days of my life, I took to the catwalk in clothes picked out by celebrity stylist Hilary Alexander. I stood backstage – terrified, anxious, overwhelmed – surrounded by all these people who had shared my narrative, and realised that I’d found my tribe. In our own ways, we’d all travelled the weird cancer path. Everyone had a different story. Some were living with the brutality of a terminal diagnosis.

I HATE the word "inspirational". After my diagnosis, I developed an aversion to all the phrases usually assigned to cancer patients: “inspirational”, “journey”, “brave”, “fighter”... These people, however, with their warm smiles and big hearts and easy laughs, were an inspiration to me. Standing among them, I felt like a fraud. It was wonderful to be surrounded by such a force of positivity, arisen from some of the very worst human experiences. At the same time, I was reminded how cruel and callous and undiscriminating cancer is. There were women in The Show who knew the cancer in their body was going to kill them. I was reminded that, although my cancer experience is over for now, it never really leaves. There’s a strong chance it’ll make another unwelcome stop in my life. That’s something myself and these other people live with every single day.
I was so very grateful for the opportunity to take part in this incredible event. I was proud of what I had achieved, motivated by how far I'd come from the anxious teenage girl, unsettled by her changing body. I thought of myself as that teenager and then as the adult I had become – still awkward, still overwhelmed. I was amazed that I managed to walk down the catwalk without falling on my face.

In the aftermath of my diagnosis, certain situations had felt a bit like out-of body experiences and The Show was no different: I spent the day in a haze of remembering that I’d had cancer, of it feeling like something that had happened to someone else. I was on a knife edge, unsure whether to laugh or cry. Someone told me that I was “turning the shit into fertiliser”. Maybe that’s right. Or maybe this is just my way of doing what I gotta do to raise awareness of this disease in younger women.

My dad, conflicted that he’d had a wonderful time at an event centred around a disease that had tried to kill his youngest daughter, nailed what it was all about. He said it was “a celebration: of continued life, of a path part-travelled, and of the strength of the human spirit.”

Cancer is cruel. It doesn’t care who you are. It targets and takes some of the world’s best people. It leaves behind devastation. Cancer took so much from me and I hate it for that. But it has given me a tribe of people I love, and it has afforded me countless experiences I could never have dreamed of.

It has changed my relationship with myself. And for that, I am grateful. Whatever comes next.
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