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Melissa's kids holding up a mirror so she can see her reflection
April 23, 2019

The thing about cancer is… it changes your reflection

By Melissa Powell

What Makes Me A Woman?

The thing about cancer is it changes your reflection, slowly morphing the way you see yourself with each physical alteration. The person you once saw staring back is so unfamiliar that it makes you catch your breath as you glance in a large window, or do a double take when you look up while brushing your teeth. A cold reminder of your trials, your new reality, with each glimpse.

A wife and mother, my detour from my regularly scheduled programming began only a few short months ago as I was told I have breast cancer. With treatment plans in place, I often ponder over all the physical transitions to come and the idea of womanhood, its definition – and evolution. It was during this time that this simple and honest question made its way to the surface: What makes me a woman?

A question that might seem simple in appearance, but one that I had to ask myself as my body changes in ways I would have never imagined at the age of 38. Currently, in chemotherapy, most of the strands of my golden-brown hair have now abandoned my head, leaving a round, hairless figure in my mirror. In the months to come, the breasts that I have known for most of my life, that have given me my curvy frame and nursed both my children, will be removed from my body, creating a void.

I am someone who has fought hard to stand confident in my skin

A lot to take in when you consider how society has viewed a woman’s worth. Being a woman is so often evaluated from the outside-in and we are defined by our appearance, rather than our presence. Growing up as a girl in this world, it’s understandable that I am taking some time to process these alterations to my outer shell. Now don’t get me wrong, I am someone who has fought hard to stand confident in my skin and self-worth, to showcase my body in a world where it is scary to put yourself out there and be someone others can see themselves in. I strive to be vulnerable and aware of my actions. I do this even more so, as I have a young son and daughter who I pray will never know the pain of being uncomfortable in their own bodies, ridiculed for differences, or feel the need to conform to fit in. I intentionally choose my words carefully, as to not perpetuate this cycle.

Melissa, her partner, and their two kids

As I continue to fight breast cancer, I look forward to more conversations with my children about what it means to be a woman. I want them to draw their own conclusions and explore the answers. This is where real change will begin. I’m excited for them to witness first hand that long hair and boobs are not the recipe for a female, but are merely pieces of the design. Pieces of design, that we can alter for our expression, health, or happiness – but that the home remains the same. It is made clear that being a woman is not these social constructs we have lived by for so long. That hair and boobs, ovaries and reproduction, are not what defines me. As my body changes inside and out, my spirit remains the same.

Melissa receiving treatment

In a perfect world where a book is not judged by a cover but rather by its story, I could thrive as my newly found battle with cancer is a real page-turner. But how do I share my conclusion of womanhood in a world that still markets photos of one small demographic in their ads and magazines, where our appearance is how we are evaluated, and where the measure of a woman is determined in a matter of seconds and not a conversation? My only conclusion is to let my female spirit soar!

That’s right, by stepping up to show you another silhouette of a woman. One with no hair, and soon to be flat-chested and nipple-less with large, laborious scars across her chest. In a place where self-love and embracing your body is making its way to the forefront, I’m happy to join others in representing women battling breast cancer. A disease that does not make us or rob us, but simply transforms us.

So what makes me a woman? Well I can tell you today, it’s heart, not hair. It’s brains, not boobs. It’s spirit. I take these as my own valuable lessons and happily pass them on.

Melissa Powell is receiving treatment for breast cancer at Hamilton Health Sciences’ Juravinski Cancer Centre. Follow her journey on Instagram @mellyjoypowell.