I Was (Not) Born This Way

After years of struggling with her body image, Melanie learned how to love who she was. Then cancer came into her life, and she had to rediscover herself once again. Read more to find out how she was reborn.

I love Lady Gaga. I love her anthem of individuality "Born This Way." I applaud anyone who can accept the way they are, be tolerant of others, and accept them as they are.

I have a mother who believes in individuality. All my youth she preached to me the importance of being true to yourself and to think less about what you look like on the outside and more on who you are on the inside.

For years, I thought I was ugly...

I wanted to do whatever I could to fix my looks and blend in. I had a long, awkward adolescence: bad skin, a bump on my nose, skinny, angular face and tangled, unruly dishwater-color hair. Boys teased me and called me names. I had lots of gal pals because I was smart, witty, non threatening in my looks and my parents looked the other way when we snuck beer into the house, made frozen daiquiris my the pool, and stayed up all night giggling and gossiping.

It took many, and often strange, dermatological treatments, coloring my hair, fixing my nose and developing a dancer’s physique to gain confidence about my looks by the time I was seventeen. I started getting dates and the teasing stopped. But I was still booted off the cheerleading squad at the local boys school for not being pretty enough (I was originally voted on for my agility and rhythm). It was hurtful.

To retaliate, I kept diaries, wrote for the local newspaper and kept up my dancing and workouts. I left Tennessee for good for college and then a career and focused on becoming a success.

"I'll show them some day..."

And I did. I became a success. I built my own PR and events firm from scratch. Created amazing programs, made hundreds of contacts and defined myself by my achievements. But I went through another awkward stage pushing 40. I was dumped by a man who broke my heart and my self-confidence. So, I underwent another round of shots, surgeries and expensive treatments to sooth my spirit and freshen up my exterior. Then I set to work on my interior: taking on new clients, having international adventures and supporting various charities. It was an interior-exterior makeover.

I felt beautiful inside and out! And during that time, I fell in love with a great man, who didn't steal my heart or my sense self-worth but instead gave me strength and support and unconditional love during the ups and downs of my life to come.

But then came cancer...

In 2009, cancer took away my breasts, my hair, my eyelashes, my eyebrows and my skin tone. It gave me fresh new scars. It was a study in being stripped bare physically and emotionally. Except contrary to my childhood, by this point in my life I learned to focus inward on staying strong, resilient and outward on thinking about other people facing similar or different challenges and how to use my experience to help them. I learned to work around and through the physical challenges and used it as an opportunity to reboot myself. My emotions were written down in a diary, unloaded onto pages, now on a shelf.

Today, I don't look like the same person. On the outside I have new breasts, new, shorter and blonder hair and a smaller, more slender body. Inside, I am different as well: more tolerant of imperfections in myself and in others and less tolerant of people who are insensitive, rude and intolerant. My perspective has changed as has my definition of "achievement," "beauty" and "perfection."

I was not "born this way." I am one part original Melanie, one part medical intervention and one part new person, "Mighty Melanie." I am "reborn this way." The definition of "born" is "to begin one's life." We all have one true "life" but many ways to live it and to view ourselves in it. We can't go backwards. But we can choose how we begin anew.

How did you overcome your struggle with finding your cancer identity?