I was 24 years old and had just swapped out my college books for a sleek M16 in the U.S. Army. I dropped out of college in hopes of finding financial stability and a promising future defending my country.
About six short months later, after completing basic training and AIT (Advanced Individual Training), I found myself in the heart of the Middle Eastern war—Iraq—and I was in complete shock.
Before you say, “Well, Brandi, you did join the military. . . of course you were going to get deployed.” While I believe this is true, I could not for the life of me understand why I was going so soon.
I had just learned how to throw a grenade, shoot a gun, manhandle a 50-cal, and use a compass, along with other life-saving skills.
While I was in Iraq, I kept wondering what it would be like when I got back to the States. Would I come back with any missing limbs? Would I engage in firefights? Would I return with PTSD? Would I die?
Death constantly toyed with my imagination. The one thing I did not imagine was returning to my homeland with an enemy inside me—Ewing’s sarcoma. We didn’t learn how to prepare for an illness or an attack from within our bodies.
Instead, we learned how to pack bullet wounds on the bloody, we learned how to clear a room, how to administer an IV, and how to tell if a lung had collapsed.
I remember it like it was yesterday, the day my life changed forever. The team of doctors surrounded the foot of my bed and were so hesitant to deliver the plan to me.
“Brandi.” The doctor shuffled the notes in his hand like a nervous college student reluctant to turn in the test. “We may have to cut your leg off … but, but we will try to do everything we can … to save it.” He was stuttering.
Ewing sarcoma is a very rare and aggressive cancer, about 12,000 are diagnosed nationwide, nearly half of those victims perish, and only 3,000 make it past the five-year mark. Ewing sarcoma is unheard of. It is like the stepchild of cancers. My team of doctors had never seen such a case, and only studied it off of the medical pages in medical school.
“This cancer is very aggressive; if we do not catch it early, it can spread to your lungs, brainstem, and spinal cord,” he said as he parted his lips. “We won’t know until we are in your leg and testing the margins. So, we cannot promise you.”
The cancer was very high in my leg. It destroyed and attached itself to my adductor muscle and my groin. It was like the disease had a death grip on my leg—slowly devouring everything in its path.
“Please let me keep my leg; I am an athlete. I need my legs to run.” I glanced at my left leg with a tumor the size of a small watermelon protruding from the hospital cover. “Cut as much as you like, but please let me keep my leg.”
I begged, and I pleaded with the doctors before my 13-hour surgery. I was unsure if I would have both of my legs when I woke up or just one. It was pure torture, but the operation had to be done.
With more than half of the day spent on an operating table and my left leg sliced in half, I woke up with both of my legs and a new me. But the new me was flawed. Traumatized. Insecure. Scared.
It took a while to understand that the old me was gone. I looked different. I felt different. I acted differently.
I remember clearly seeing a dramatic difference in both of my legs. My right leg was thick, curvy, and healthy. My left leg was thin and disfigured. I had a huge scar that marched up my leg; the surgeon tied my left quad and hamstring together to give me a fuller look.
Despite their creative efforts, I could see my left butt cheek from the front. I had a massive chunk of muscle missing and I felt so ugly; I knew there would be no one that would accept this new Brandi.
I couldn’t even accept her myself. I thought the most challenging part was over—the cancer was gone—but now I was forced to live with this new me that I hated.
I slowly understood the term “outcast” and yearned for acceptance from the world. Was I worthy of love? Would I ever feel self-love again? Would people point and stare at me? Can I handle this new life? Will I become suicidal? Who is going to love me with a 24-inch scar on my body?
I had all these questions and no answers— I had just begun my journey of survivorship. I remember going back and forth with myself about getting plastic surgery done on my left leg.
I could care less about the scar, but I wanted to be able to look into the mirror and not see my left butt cheek from the front any longer.
I had talked myself into getting the surgery done on my leg to try and fill out the gap. I had a tissue expander put into my leg, and a few months later, there was enough stretched skin to pull over the hole; but it was still not enough to fix the problem.
I needed volume. I needed mass. Pulling the skin over a sunken pit did nothing. I was so discouraged and upset that I was not only disabled, but now I looked disabled.
I ran from myself. I ran from self-love. I hid in the shadows of my past life and didn’t dare explore the new me. I was scared to see my opinion of myself and see the new responsibility I had acquired along the way due to cancer.
I ran away from me. I cried myself to sleep for months, and no one knew how distraught I truly was. I had a version of who I wanted to be, and who I was now did not match.
The woman I envisioned was carefree and lived without labels. She was label-less. I romanticized the idea of her but had no roadmap on how to birth her. Yet, she was unwavering and unapologetic for whom she was. I loved that about her.
As time went on, I started to realize that this was my life now. Why am I pondering the past? I needed to make peace with this new me and love her. I needed to rebrand myself. I needed to find out what I was great at and what my boundaries were.
I needed to be constructive with how I lived for the future and not destructive by continually living in the past and reliving things that were out of my control.
Self-love is heard in your guttering sobs. True self-love is accepting all of you—there is no ugly in you or bad in you; there is just you. Even though I felt broken, I was adding to the problem by allowing myself to feel unworthy of love and attention from others.
I was so lost in the past that I couldn’t heal the me in the present. It took many years of therapy, exploration, and grief to understand that our physical scars are more beautiful than a baby’s laugh. That part of the body was tried, and it won. Those scars are our battle wounds of survival.
My left leg has more character than Prince Charming. My 24-inch scar is the most loveable thing about me. Whatever you are insecure about makes you stand out in all the best ways.
What we go through to get to this point is impressive. We are worthy of love, but most of all, self-love. I have gained a respect for my body that I never knew existed. I love myself and all my flaws. I am beautiful. I am unwavering and unapologetically me.
Don’t be ashamed to be different! Remember, celebrities at red-carpet events look for months to find those outfits that stand out and pray they don’t run into someone else wearing the same thing; our disabilities are our red-carpet outfits. We look different! And we look damn good that way, too.