Confronting the Person in the Mirror: Cancer Survivor Shares How She Changed Her Perception of Self


It’s easy to internalize the way other people treat you, but oftentimes it’s merely a result of their own inner struggles, a cancer survivor explains.

I have worn many occupational hats during my 48 years on the planet, from lifeguard to bartender to advertising assistant to dental assistant. I landed in my current state as a water and land fitness trainer about five years ago and I truly believe it was the universe working the idea of the dynamic exchange of give and take energy from myself to my clients I felt so purposeful being able to share my knowledge of water and how to utilize it to benefit the body, which can help so many with their comorbidities and handicaps. Sharing my story as a four-time cancer survivor who went through nine surgeries, three chemo series and heavy radiation to the chest and abdomen was empowering to my population which consisted of other survivors, people struggling with weight, cardiac issues, diabetes and arthritis. This was more than a position as a trainer. One of my clients called me a “minister,” saying I inspired people towards change.

I’ve realized somewhere around the age of 40 that it is way easier to see other’s faults, what they’ve done to you or how they have caused you to react. It’s not as easy and sometimes damn near impossible to look in the mirror and see yourself or even meet yourself for the first time. As I became more engaged in my job, I would look to motivate my clients with fun themes for my workouts, which had them laughing and singing along as I dressed as Elvis with his sideburns, Princess Leia with her cinnamon roll bun hair or Wonder woman complete with her entire star-spangled banner suit (my favorite). I was a stickler about having them work hard but to keep having fun as they did it. I was unprepared – or maybe my ego was, which I didn’t realize was so fragile – at any critiques that would come my way. I was equally unprepared for how defensive I would get and how I would ruminate after. “I worked really hard on that playlist and that costume and those moves! That class was put together perfectly! They just don’t know how to work in the pool. They don’t listen! They are obnoxious and entitled! They aren’t very bright!” I had a thousand reasons that it was their fault for not enjoying what I was doing. The onus was on them though.

There was a regular client who had been coming to the center I worked at for years. She almost immediately had an issue with me. “Why is your music so loud?” “No one can hear you!” “Why are you getting in the water for exercises?” “No one can see you!” Her hazing was consistent and brutal as she would doggy paddle around the deep end with one arm reminding me of Nemo floundering around with his one good flipper. Mind you she would join my classes a half hour after they would start and ferret her way through 20 other clients to find her spot to travel around in her own circle. I began referring to her as “The Bulldog.” I felt hatred for this woman. She was embarrassing me. She was rude. She had no respect for me or anyone else in the pool. At times I would shoot back an angry reply to her, having been reminded of my childhood when I felt so many times like a weakling, defeated by my mother’s criticisms and disapproval as well as disappointment in me when I didn’t meet her expectations. “Everyone else in the pool can hear and see me just fine!” I yelled back at her. Undaunted, she rattled on and then would start talking to other clients in the middle of my classes. I was not going to let her get away with this. In fact, I was determined to let all my clients know that I was not this passive beta female who would be kicked around. There would have to be rules instituted before my classes so they would know I meant business.

One morning, after yet another exchange with this woman, I met up with my supervisor. “You know, I don’t think it’s right that we have to take abuse from clients. I have no idea why this woman hates me so much and my classes.” He turned to me and said flatly, “It’s not about you Jessica.” What the hell did that mean? Of course, it was about me. She was complaining directly about me and to me! And to anyone else who would listen. “Did you ever think that maybe she is unhappy with her life, or her own restrictions and you just happen to be the outlet?” “That’s not fair!” I screamed back. “Take yourself out of the equation.”

He then repeated, “It’s not about you.” I ruminated over that for weeks. I finally decided to speak with the staff psychologist who worked with many of our clients who had weight issues as a symptom from a much deeper problem. Much like I was about to discover, I had symptoms from something way different than my current circumstance. “Jessica, when this woman sees you, you may remind her of someone, she may be triggered by your music and have sensory issues, or it could be your mannerisms,” the psychologist explained. Post traumatic stress rears its head in many ways. I had never thought of that. I was so busy defending myself that I never thought that they had an entire life that caused them to react to things differently. And what about me in those situations? Was I looking at how I was acting? Was I a part of it or was I able to “take myself out of the equation?”I couldn’t say I ever did. In fact, I jumped right into it to defend my honor.

One day after a class I had given one of my favorite clients came up to me and was recounting how much he enjoyed the class. He laughed because he had seen and heard how I had given a warning to two people in the back who were being too loud and breaking my no talking rule in class. “You are definitely not one I would want to get angry. You don’t want to mess with you.” For a moment I was elated. This kind of helped with my concern that maybe I was still that young girl that was beaten down emotionally and mentally by a disapproving parent. “You mean you think I’m strong?” I asked sheepishly. “You are like this little petite thing but when you get in front of that class it’s like you are a giant!” It made my eyes fill with tears of pride. I went home that night and decided to start a new ritual of looking in the mirror, not to fix my makeup but to see me – the good, the bad and everything in between. It really wasn’t fair for me to take the easy road and just constantly play the victim, and this man had reaffirmed I wasn’t. I had to take accountability for situations in life too and participate in the human experience. It’s a give and take and you play the leading role in the story always.

For more news on cancer updates, research and education, don’t forget to subscribe to CURE®’s newsletters here.

Related Videos
Image of a woman with short blonde hair wearing a white blazer.
Cancer survivor, Frank J. Peter, playing an original song on the piano
Brandi Benson, sarcoma survivor and military veteran, in an interview with CURE