A few things surprised me about having cancer. One was how important human interaction is for me. When I was diagnosed, we were already in COVID times, but I was still able to be out and about, interacting with others and living my life. But being immunocompromised because of chemotherapy, meant I had to start fully isolating. That was incredibly hard on me. I eventually got a puppy – he’s a Yorkie named Keanu, and he’s 10 months old now – as part of my healing process. Keanu grew up thinking that he and I were the only two people in the world and he’s just a bundle of love.
Another thing that surprised me was discovering how important my physical appearance was to me. I didn’t realize how real the connection is between looking good and feeling good. I used to have long, curly hair. It was my pride and joy. When I started chemo, it was gone within a month. That was hugely challenging for me. I lost every hair on my body, including my eyebrows and eyelashes. When I found out about Look Good Feel Better (LGFB) and its workshops, I almost cried. Taking the workshop was life-changing. My biggest concern was my eyebrows. I didn’t know where they used to be, and every time I drew them on, I looked angry or surprised. I just wanted to look natural and like my old self, and LGFB showed me how to do that.
Taking back control of my appearance helped me to heal. When you’re going through chemo and you look in the mirror and see an unfamiliar face staring back at you – one without hair or brows or lashes, with dull and pale skin – it affects you deeply. You start to lose your sense of self-identity. And once you start losing your physical identity, you lose control of who you are. Eventually I stopped being Merly – I was just a bulk of bones and tissue. Being able to have control over how I looked was very important for me, because I was able to have a vision of Merly that I felt comfortable with again. Sure, my eyebrows were drawn on and I had no eyelashes and my hair was different, but I still felt more like myself again. Being able to transform my appearance and to take back some of that sense of identity helped me drastically to heal.
There’s another thing that surprised me about my cancer journey. It was something that my oncologist said to me, on my first or second session. He said, “Science is going to give you 50%, and we’re going to do everything we can to cure you, but the other part comes from you – your attitude, your desire to get better, and following our recommendations.” This really resonated with me. Even though I don’t drink alcohol or smoke, I understood that my positive effort and attitude were going to be very important during my treatment and healing. Being able to restore my image during treatment was part of my effort to get better. And I watched happy TV shows and movies, I listened to the Latin American music that I love, I spent time with Keanu. It all really helped me to feel better.