Finding True Beauty
A local woman’s long journey from breast cancer to life-changing realizations
By Brandi Johnson | Oct. 10, 2020
I’m 45 years old, and I live in Traverse City. You might have passed me on the street or met me on the Slabtown beach in the summer and not know who I am. But you may notice a spark in my eyes and a spring in my step. A friend of mine says I carry myself like a woman with the world on a string. But don’t be so quick to judge.
In March 2007, the cover of Lansing’s Healthy and Fit magazine featured me on their cover, and I figured it was a mark of my ascent to professional and personal success. The cover copy read, “Brandi Johnson: She does it all.”
As that issue was circulating, my husband left me. And then I was diagnosed with breast cancer, certainly not the outcome I was expecting.
The shock, loss of support, surgeries, and radiation that followed lead to a subsequent mental and emotional breakdown and rendered me unable to work. Bankruptcy soon followed. I remember driving to the Audi dealer and handing over the keys to the car I could no longer afford. The image of control I had over my body and my life was shattered at age 31.
Without my vigorous exercise routine and nonstop work-life as a fitness professional, I didn’t know who I was or how to cope with life. I would stare at my half-breast in the mirror and judge how I was permanently — and physically and mentally — changed. I mourned that missing piece of tissue as though it was the loss of self.
I chose breast reconstruction to improve my body image. I also yearned to be whole again, thinking that changing my body would fix what only time and hard work previously had accomplished. I had no idea I’d join the many women who have had surgical complications due to radiation.
The reconstruction process proceeded as follows: three bilateral procedures, two breast lifts, one revision surgery, four implant infections (two of which required hospitalization; my last was August 2019), and more mammograms and ultrasounds than I can count.
As for what reconstruction ultimately looks and feels like: Uneven nipples. Loss of sensation. Tight, uncomfortable scars. In total, I spent more than a dozen years in some form of surgery or recovery.
But I do not regret my decision.
I was given the gift of time to sit still. Being forced to slow down, I was given the opportunity to reflect and rebuild my life slowly. So I began to reconstruct myself from the inside out. I started taking my health one day at a time. For example, I used to not bother working out unless I could commit to an hour of cardio or weights. But learning to play to my energy, some days I could walk the dog for only 20 minutes. I started to pat myself on the back for small accomplishments rather than beating myself up for not burning 500 calories on the treadmill.
I started to become strict with being gentle with myself. I began living life one day at a time, understanding that when I do the footwork in any area of my life, I am still not in complete control of all of the outcomes. Life happens; change is a constant.
I began to reframe my walk through difficulty as a triumphant rite of passage. I can say I have battle scars now. Changing from a body-focused workaholic with a superwoman complex is no small feat. I allowed myself to be vulnerable and asked for help rebuilding my mental, emotional, and spiritual self.
Searching for an identity based on just me — not on what I do for a living, what I look like, or how many friends I have on social media — is work. I take baby steps, like not allowing myself to stare in the mirror or using negative self-talk. I used professional and 12-step support. Last year, I found a church, something I never had on my radar. I joined the local YMCA although my ego said, “You should be working here.” In return, I’ve been able to do workouts just for me, and at my pace. I’ve started to learn the true meaning of self-care.
What my body looks like is not the determining factor in whether I feel pretty or fit; instead, my self-esteem is based on whether I am rested, eating well, and dressed for success. Being softer with myself feels far more feminine than my old push-push-push lifestyle. Simple things like resting when I’m tired and eating when I’m hungry keep me refreshed.
I feel very feminine using my mind, taking classes, or finding solutions to a challenge. I feel really good about my body in an exercise class; I love to move to music. I limit my social media use to avoid comparing my insides to everyone else’s outsides. I take ample time away from my phone.
My confidence now comes from doing business transactions or simply singing in church. Keeping my home beautiful, simple, clean, and organized is an expression of the competent woman I want to be. I purge a lot of “stuff” I don’t need on a regular basis. Coming home to peace instead of clutter allows me to work at home or unwind.
I take steps that keep me in the present instead of obsessing on what could have been, what I don’t have, and what my future holds. My personal wellness routine consists of caring for my spiritual, emotional, mental, physical, financial, and social needs. While I strive to keep them in relative balance, I still have bad days.
This is where I practice mindfulness and gratitude, living in today, and expressing thanks daily for what I have. Today I’m thankful for life, a warm home, and the opportunity to share this with you. I use a simple meditation app on my phone for 10 minutes of guided meditation each day. Making time for prayer and reading books like my favorite, “The Language of Letting Go,” by Melodie Beatie, is essential. I journal and make gratitude lists. I don’t make New Year’s resolutions. I’m grateful for the tough experiences that brought such positive change in my life.
My focus as a fitness professional has changed. I think of how I can serve versus what serves me. My challenges now allow me to reach people from a place of real-world experience and empathy. It is my goal to give back to those who have walked in my shoes and to reduce the length and intensity of pain during their own journeys. Thank you for letting me share a part of my story with you.
Johnson is a life coach, fitness instructor, home detailer, and personal trainer living in Traverse City. Her professional services are donation-based for women at any stage of breast cancer and people in recovery. (231) 631-9314, firstname.lastname@example.org.