Sometimes working as a television actor, someone who comes into the privacy of your home on a weekly basis, you’re required to share a part of yourself with the public. This is a concept that I understand but am not entirely comfortable with. I am a very private person. My happy place is being tucked away in the Canadian woods, miles from civilization. But something happened a few years ago that made me think that revealing some of my personal life might actually make a difference in the lives of other women.
This fortuity happened when I was asked to appear topless (what the what?!) on the cover of Women’s Health Magazine. I know. Not what you were expecting. Sometimes in this insane industry that I have chosen to be part of, you get these types of requests when you have a project coming out that needs to be promoted. This particular magazine issue was about bodies: how to love your body, how to have body confidence, and how to keep yourself healthy.
It was a very strange day. I was standing in front of a camera lens in my underwear and holding my breasts, all while trying to appear not sexy but confident, not flirtatious but gleamingly positive. Aside from the fact that I had just given birth six weeks prior and was not feeling my physical best, I was still recovering from the overwhelming flattery that someone other than my husband would want to see me topless.
It all made me start thinking about this body that I’m in. And what it has been through. And suddenly this bizarre invitation became an opportunity to share some insight from my experience of being diagnosed with, receiving treatment for, and eventually learning to cure my cancer.
Now, anyone who has been diagnosed with cancer or even known someone who has been diagnosed with cancer is aware of its total mental, physical, and emotional possession. Hell, even if you haven’t been closely affected, I’m sure you can easily conceptualize the thundercloud of shit that rains down on you.
I found myself in the center of such a storm in the spring of 2008, when I was 25. Just when your ovaries should be brimming with youthful follicles, cancerous cells overtook mine, threatening to end my fertility and potentially my life. My fertility hadn’t even crossed my mind at this point. Again: I was 25. Life was pretty simple. But suddenly it was all I could think about.
I’ve always wanted to have kids. I was a fantastic babysitter in my youth. I did the dishes, I was good at finding ways to get kids to eat healthy snacks, and I hid in the places where none of my charges could seek. All the neighborhood mothers wanted me, wanted me bad. Even among my group of friends, I was “the maternal one.” I was the girlfriend who told you to pass on that last drink when you had already had too many and held the hair out of your face when you did not listen. So eventual mommyhood was something I very much thought was in my future. And now I was being told it was most likely not a possibility to create my own children. It felt grossly unfair.
Just before I was diagnosed, I had felt like something was off. My energy was low, I was just so tired all the time, and I felt a constant pressure on my abdomen that I could not explain. I listened to my body and immediately went to my gynecologist. She referred me to an oncologist at Cedars Sinai in Los Angeles who is an angel and helped me to put my fears aside and take action.
When I asked her what I could do to control these cells that had decided to take over my organs without my consent, she told me I shouldn’t smoke or do drugs, and I should try to eat healthy. This was not a problem. Granted, I was two weeks away from going under the knife to remove tumors from both my ovaries, so there was really not a lot beyond surgical intervention that could be done at that point. Keeping that in mind, I knew that there had to be something I could do naturally to help my body recover and fight off this disease.
Thus began the strangest, most bizarrely educational four months of my life.
I went RAW. I forced myself into a devastating breakup with cheese and carbohydrates (fortunately, we are now giving our relationship another chance, but we will never be what we once were). I started meditating. I was constantly in a yoga studio. I went to energy healers who evaporated black smoke from my lower body. OK … sure! … right? I went to a cleansing retreat in the desert where I didn’t eat for eight days and experienced hunger-driven hallucinations. I read so many books (1)*, by Kris Carr, was one of the best). I went to crystal healers. Kinesiologists. Acupuncturists. Naturopaths. Therapists. Hormone therapists. Chiropractors. Dietitians. Ayurvedic practitioners …
I really wish I could tell you what particular combination of these things, along with multiple surgeries, eventually gave me a clean bill of health. I wish everyone had access to all these treatments. I am aware of my situation, that I was incredibly fortunate to have had the means to explore any and all options. The good news is that these options are out there. You can do the research and find many different ways to help your body heal itself.
Thankfully, gratefully, cancer did not get the best of me. The best of me now lives on in my two little women, baby girls I was lucky enough to be able to make with my own body.
So now that I’m on the other side of this, I feel like it is my duty, even if it means posing topless, to spread awareness. Since my article in Women’s Health came out, I have had so many conversations with women about their own battles with cancer, and it feels so empowering to open up this dialogue and learn from each other. But the thing is, I don’t know if I will ever be free of my cancer — or, to be more specific, free from the fear of my cancer’s return. Still, it has become for many people a livable disease, something that you learn to manage. And that’s what I have done.
It has taken a lot of patience with myself to get to where I am today. I am learning that in life it is OK to travel in darkness, not knowing what your next move is. I don’t allow the stress of the unknown to affect my health, and I listen to my body when it sends me distress signals. I wish that we as women spent as much time on the well-being of our insides as we do with our looks on the outside. If you are going through something like this, I urge you to look at all your options. To ask questions. To learn as much as you can about your diagnosis. To breathe. To ask for help. To cry and to fight.
*Cobie Smulders is in the present trying to enjoy every moment of life in New York City.*