Leisse Wilcox, speaker, podcast host, life coach

My breast cancer diagnosis was, actually, a really positive experience. That statement pisses a lot of people off –  but it was! It took me through this rabbit hole of facing all kinds of shadowy things in myself I’d been subconsciously avoiding. 

In my profession, I use the term “emotional alchemy” – to take something that’s dark and heavy and turn it into something beautiful and uniquely yours. Cancer was kind of the pinnacle of that. I remember being on the living-room floor, just primal-screaming, “What the fuck am I gonna do? How am I gonna get through this?” And I heard this little voice that said, “You’re gonna make this beautiful.”

I made chemo very purposeful in my life. I wrote a book proposal from start to finish while on treatment. I was able to launch a podcast because I had so much time to just sit and be with myself. It rebooted the relationship I had with myself. 

Before the diagnosis, I’d gone through some minor ups and downs with body image. The second I found the lump, I thought, “Dear god, if this isn’t cancer, I will never complain about my body again.” I was like, “I have this healthy body that lets me do all the things I need to – why would I complain?” But I didn’t realize I had hidden self-judgment and shame based on an absence of self-worth.

When I made the decision to go flat – to not have breast reconstruction – it was really, really difficult. Part of that was doing a lot of emotional work to accept myself unconditionally, regardless of my appearance.

I was really hungry for beautiful images of women who had also had mastectomies. Nikki McKean did a campaign with Knix, and I was like, “Oh my god, here’s this beautiful woman – I’m gonna look like that!” It was such a redefinition of beauty, and I wanted to pay that forward. Now, any chance I have to share that awareness of what bodies look like and what people of value look like – which, spoiler alert, is everyone – I jump at the chance.

I was always pretty confident, but once I was bald and had no breasts, I realized I no longer had this mask of long, blond, wavy hair or double-D boobs. At first I thought, “If I lose my hair and breasts, I guess I lose my femininity.” It challenged me to go deeper: “Well, what the hell does that really mean? What kind of story am I telling about myself here?”

I eventually realized I had to start leading with who I was as a person. That was a dramatic change – understanding that I, alone, am enough.


Samuel Engelking

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