I stood on the beach in Puerto Escondido, Mexico, staring at the ocean early one morning when a stranger crept up behind me, clasped his hand hard over my mouth, and swung his other arm around my waist.
“Move in!” my coach yelled. Even though she was half a continent away, it was as if she were screaming in my ear, telling me what to do.
I spun around to face the assailant and pressed against him so it would be harder for him to control my body. Then I slammed the heel of my palm into his face and threw my knee into his crotch as hard as I could.
We tumbled onto the sand, lukewarm salty waves splashing over both our faces while I struggled. I wondered if I was going to be drowned and raped all at the same time.
Five years earlier, after a series of personal setbacks put my life in the crapper, I signed up for a class called Model Mugging, where women like me learn to deliver a knockout blow to single, unarmed assailants.
During class, highly trained men dressed in gigantic padded suits attacked us, and we learned how to land strikes that would render them unconscious.
The cracking sound my elbow made the first time I belted it against my mock assailant’s head, and how the force of that violence changed something in me, are embedded in my memory. It was a defining moment in my life, a time for me to change the way I was living.
After the fight on that beautiful Mexican beach, I scrambled up the shore, putting as much distance as I could between the man and me. My arms flailed chicken-like because of the sudden rush of adrenaline that coursed through my body, but I was safe, and the bad guy was lying still in the sand far away.
Model Mugging — a long, arduous, and expensive class — helped me in ways I never could have imagined. And ironically, so has my experience with cancer. In fact, there’s a lot of overlap between the two experiences.
In my 20s, making myself a priority didn’t come naturally. Like a lot of women, it was easy for me to put myself last. That class, though, drilled into my psyche that I deserve to be safe, that I have a right to speak up for myself, and that I need to defend my well-being.
Those lessons came back to me again years later when I felt a hard lump near the surface of the skin on my right breast. “Don’t worry about it,” my doctor said the next morning during an exam. “It doesn’t meet the characteristics of cancer.”
I got a second opinion. In fact, it was cancer: triple-negative, which is a particularly nasty variety.
“You need a mastectomy. Tomorrow,” a surgeon told me a few weeks later.
I got a second-second opinion. And, in fact, I didn’t need a mastectomy. Ultimately, I had a nipple-saving lumpectomy and saved my breast with the same statistical outcome as a mastectomy.
Throughout my treatment, I questioned my doctors. I asked them to explain again and again the terms I didn’t understand, and I researched alternatives that would enhance my ability to heal.
I traveled long distances to get the best treatment I could find. I listened carefully to the advice of doctors and nurses, and I did my best to follow it.
Like that self-defense class all those years ago, cancer’s assault on my body reinforced the lesson that I am worth fighting for. I learned that I can make my life better through knowledge, discipline, and self-care. I learned that these choices benefit not only me but others around me, too. Especially my daughter, who is watching all the time.
In my 20s, I determined I would regain my strength and pursue my dreams. That decision was a gift.
And although I recently haven’t had to slam anyone in the head with my elbow to assert the same decision, in my own way, I’m happy with my response to cancer. I’ve chosen to heal body, mind, and soul.
My family and I are back, vacationing in Mexico, a country I’ve always loved. I hope I don’t find any more lumps in my breasts and that our only encounter on the beach involves fruity drinks and pretty seashells.
But just in case, I’m ready.
Note: Breast Cancer News is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of Breast Cancer News, or its parent company, BioNews Services, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to breast cancer.