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Unapologetically Me

by Christine Jon'elSurvivor, Breast CancerDecember 4, 2022View more posts from Christine Jon'el

On August 25, 2017, I pushed myself out of my comfort zone and boarded a 5:00 a.m. flight from Chicago, Illinois, to Tarkio, Montana. On my way to the airport, it dawned on me that I had just signed up to go whitewater kayaking with a bunch of strangers, and I had no idea how I was going to accomplish it. I immediately began to regret my decision, and over the next nine hours, me, myself, and I had a very intense conversation about how this was going to happen.

I decided to go on this trip after finishing my second battle with cancer. I had just beaten breast cancer at 23, and it was so hard on me. It left me in a very vulnerable and raw state, and I knew deep down that I needed to disappear to find myself again. The irony was, it wasn’t actually my breast cancer that made me want to jump out of this plane to go back home, it was my first cancer. I was diagnosed with rhabdomyosarcoma when I was two years old, and I lost my right leg to it. Growing up, I experienced the darkness of the world and learned that the best way for me to survive was to hide who I was. So, I avoided situations that would force me to expose myself. One of the things on my list was waterparks and pools, because I couldn’t get my prosthetic leg wet, and I knew how the world would respond to my naked, partially missing limb. Now, here I was on the airplane asking myself, what would make me sign up to go kayaking with a bunch of strangers knowing that I would have to take my leg off and expose my residual limb?

As I got closer and closer to Montana, the reality really began to set in. When the plane landed, I knew it was too late to go back and I would have to be brave and conquer my fear . . . though I was still unaware of how I was going to accomplish this. As we congregated in a corner of the airport, I hid inside my fear, a method of protecting myself. I had begun asking myself if I should ask to leave when I got to the cabin. I knew the water was a no-go for me, I had cast that idea out of my head a long time ago, after years of seeing how people reacted to me. I was afraid of experiencing that pain and humiliation again, this time so far away from home.

While we were waiting for more people to arrive, a few of us decided to walk down to the river for a closer view. I am always down to explore, so I jumped at the opportunity as the water was truly calling me. I watched as a few people jumped in, observing as they swam and floated down the stream. I wanted to get in so badly, but the little girl in my head told me not to. The other participants were so kind, offering to carry me or help me stand in the water, but I told them I wasn’t ready.

That night, I tossed and turned in my sleep at the idea of getting in the water with my leg off. “How am I going to do this,” I asked myself. I couldn’t even get in the water earlier, how was I going to get in a kayak and float down the river?

For the remainder of the night, I pondered the idea, thinking of different methods where I could leave my leg on while on the water. It was obvious that the thought wasn’t possible. If my leg were to get wet it would turn into rust, plus I was wearing a newly donated knee and I just couldn’t risk it.

The next morning it was time for us to get in our kayaks. When the time came for us to get on the river I was freaking out, honestly, I was. It dawned on me that I wouldn’t be balanced in my kayak with my leg missing, and I accepted that I couldn’t do it. I must have expressed that to the lead staff, because the next thing I knew they were stuffing an air bag into the right side of my kayak. I tried every excuse in the book for why I couldn’t do this, realizing that by doing so, I never addressed the how question. One by one the other participants pushed off into the river, while I stood on the sidelines afraid to take my leg off. But deep inside myself, I understood what I was missing out on. So, I took in a deep breath and began to hand over my prosthetic. I was going to do this. At that moment I remembered how many times I have stood on the sidelines watching other people live their lives, and I refused to let this become another instance.

I took off my leg, exposing my residual limb and breaking my own rules, and jumped in the kayak. As they pushed me into the river, I looked back and saw my leg on the bank behind me.

I realized I had figured out the how. I won’t lie, the first day out in the kayaks was a hard day for me—it felt like learning to walk for the first time; my balance was off, and I didn’t have my directions right and kept spinning in a circle. My eyes began to fill with tears as I began to think this would be like all the other times when I couldn’t do something because of my missing leg. But I refused to accept it. I took a deep breath and readjusted myself, shifting the weight in my hips to even out in the kayak. While taking it one step at a time, I paddled my way to the larger group, and as I was getting closer, I realized I was doing it.

Over the next few hours, we played games that strengthened our kayaking skills and practiced rolling so that we would know how to turn our boats upright if we flipped in the river. My kayak and I were becoming friends; it was beginning to feel like an extension of me. When we got back to the shore, I was filled with pride as I conquered the day and was ready for what came next.

The next morning, we lined up to get back in our kayaks. I don’t think I have ever taken my leg off as fast as I did; I had to get back in the water. I was one of the first to get pushed off the bank. During that first full day on the river, the water and I became close friends, and I began to love it. Throughout the week, I conquered the river doing things that I never thought were possible, from paddling the meat grinder rapid to even jumping off a 20-foot rock. I began to defy the limits that I set for myself as I morphed into a whole new person. I learned to trust people again—I allowed people to carry me and help me out of the water. I stopped being so self-conscious about my leg and learned to accept it as a part of me.

The woman I am today would not exist if it wasn’t for this trip. It set off a healing process that would later allow me to feel comfortable with having one leg. I went on this trip hoping to heal from having breast cancer, instead, I healed from losing my leg, the greater battle of the two. All my problems weren’t solved within that week, but it was a starting point for that healing to take place. Recently, I took the biggest step of my life and decided to stop wearing the cover on my prosthetic, which was a huge challenge for me since I always tried to hide my leg. This step became one of the best choices I have ever made. It reminded me of taking my leg off for the first time in Tarkio. Today, I live as the woman I never thought I could be, unapologetically me with a missing leg and stolen breast.

This article was featured in the 2022 Body issue of Elephants and Tea Magazine! Click here to read our magazine issues.

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