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How Having Thyroid Cancer Inspired Me to Create the Last Cut Project

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“Cancer was the best thing that ever happened to me.”

These words elicit a strong reaction from most cancer survivors and patients. Many in the C-word camp would tell you how much they despise hearing how cancer was a gift. Certainly no one would wish cancer, as an instigator of change or catalyst for self-reflection, upon another. Yet, when we are fighting the disease, we are told to put on our armor, be strong and fight back with a smile. Moving directly to this place of strength and optimism can often deprive us of the time and space needed to feel the full spectrum of emotions, which are essential to lasting wellness, happiness and freedom.

What I have personally experienced, as a cancer survivor and previvor, are the most challenging moments in my life, and they have offered me the most profound opportunities for personal growth and change. However, these so-called gifts came in time and with a hefty amount of dedicated self-reflection, healing and work on my part.

Samantha Paige feature

I certainly was not aware of the transformational power of cancer while fighting the disease because I was wholly focused on surviving and moving forward with my life. I only realized years later some of my most important life lessons were woven into the tapestry of my post-cancer life.

In fact, nearly a decade after my illness was when I finally began to cope with the trauma of what had happened to me, and, through the healing process that ensued, I began to make a series of last cuts, or significant decisions that led to my present well-being and the beginning of the Last Cut project.

Almost exactly 21 years ago to this week, I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer at age 21. Just returning from studying abroad and readying for my senior year of college, the news came out of the blue and was shocking. Plans to write my thesis, connect with my dear friends and explore my next steps in life throughout my senior year were all derailed by the words, “The tumor is malignant.”

Prior to my diagnosis, I had never felt better, having found my voice and independence, and was completely blindsided by this turn of events. My physical health was not something I had much considered previously, and cancer was certainly not on my radar or in the plan.

In the months that followed, I lived at home with my parents. My thyroid was removed, and I underwent two rounds of radioactive iodine treatment to ensure any remaining malignant cells were annihilated. I longed to be back at college with my friends and in my classes, where I was most content. Instead, my days passed slowly with the focus on doctors’ appointments and healing.

I put forth my best effort to be happy and optimistic, but was inwardly depressed and passed many hours crying alone in my bedroom. Because I so deeply yearned to be well for myself and the loved ones around me, I hid the painful emotions, always doing my best to keep smiling and functioning.

This began a period of disconnect in my life that would go on for years, until I finally faced the layered ways I had become a stranger in my own life in order to avoid facing the unhealed trauma.

Throughout my twenties, I lived in wonderful cities like Florence and Bologna, Italy, Los Angeles and Washington D.C., working at an Italian school, pursuing a graduate degree in International Studies and assisting a fellow at an economic research think tank.

I perpetually kept myself doing in order to avoid feeling.

My days were filled with stimulating work and study, but my nights were progressively overtaken with paralyzing anxiety. Sadness, fear and disappointment had been denied access to my cancer experience, but in time, all three, and many of their friends, demanded a seat at the table. They crept in at night, and soon infiltrated my days by way of depression, panic attacks and chronic, debilitating migraine headaches.

Somewhere in the midst of this period, I opted to be tested for the BRCA gene due to my own cancer history and my mother’s (successful) breast cancer bout at a young age. I tested positive for the BRCA1 mutation, which indicates elevated risk of breast and other cancers. This diagnosis triggered a deeper wave of angst around my body and health that shadowed the latter part of my twenties.

My ability to function in life diminished.

Finally, when the nearly daily emergency room-worthy migraines forced me to claim disability leave from my job, there was no denying any attempt to live a full and fulfilled life was being thwarted by my untouched trauma. I had no idea what the future would look like for me if I remained on all the prescription medications that seemed to be keeping me afloat.

I was disconnected and aware something had to change.

In the years that followed, I dove into ongoing therapy in order to heal and began to approach my health from a more holistic angle. I met a man and got married. We moved from New York City to Santa Barbara and were expecting our first baby.

My daughter’s long and challenging birth was a gift. Even with late onset pre-eclampsia, I was able to deliver her without a C-section. This harrowing, yet ultimately joyous, experience brought me back into positive dialogue with my body. She brought me a renewed will to find wellness and well-being and a regained trust my body would not always fail me.

I no longer wished to live a disconnected existence ruled by fear.

Within months after her birth, I opted for a preventive double mastectomy and breast reconstruction with silicone implants. I desired to be free of the frequent, and anxiety ridden, testing the BRCA mutation required, and simultaneously began to write about the prior ten years of my life. I began to work on a book entitled, “The Bright Side of the Dark Side: One Woman’s Journey to a Silver Lining.”

Looking back on my cancer experience, I knew the only way to embodied happiness was to unpack and heal past pain and trauma. I no longer could distract myself by intellect and action. The time had come to go within and heal.

For the nearly ten years following my preventive double mastectomy, I began to do the internal work that would ultimately become the focus of Last Cut. I started asking myself the straightforward, honest questions I had been avoiding for years. Deep self-inquiry and raw, black and white dialogue within became my way of life, and in time, that inner clarity bled out into my external actions.

Samantha Paige cancer curtain open back shot

I made a series of last cuts (or significant decisions, as I like to call them) that created greater consistency in who I knew I was and how I desired to live my life.

I got a divorce.

I closed Adesso, the jewelry company I had successfully built but fallen out of love with where it had grown over the years.

I moved.

I walked away from another serious relationship that was based on incongruent values.

Through all of these life changes, I recognized the importance of internal dialogue, honesty with myself about the answers, action where I needed to live a more fulfilled, connected life, and like-minded community.

After clearing away so much, I was able to recognize my silicone implants were another place where my internal and external worlds were no longer consistent.

Samantha Paige post mastectomy photo

In January 2016, when I opted for an explant surgery, Last Cut, a multi-media documentary project, was born from a desire to capture the physical artistically, as well as to create community and conversation around these moments of notable change.

While most last cuts are internal jobs, we are able to move and heal with greater ease, grace and bravery when we know we are not alone. I learned the importance of support and community by living through a series of massive last cuts in a short span of time, and desired to speak with others about their last cut moments.

Samantha Paige mastectomy shadow shot

From there, the Last Cut Conversations podcast came forth. Each episode features a bold, brave individual willing to share their significant life changes, what they believe in most and what they do to feel most connected and free. Looking back, I wish I had known to the importance of having raw, honest conversation about every shift in life, especially the challenging ones.

It’s not that there is always beauty in the painful, but there is tremendous value in taking the time to work through these experiences.

Samantha Paige cancer survivor front shot

A decade after my cancer diagnosis was when I finally began to garner what thyroid cancer had to offer. In the short-term, I adopted the socially acceptable lesson to live life fully, embrace the moment and savor the beauty — but truly embodying those adages did not come until much later and through much more suffering.

What I learned in the long-run is there is no fast track to optimism and happiness. The road is often long, but when we feel all the feels and do the internal work, we find deeper connection and lasting happiness, wellness and freedom. If we own the often less embraced emotions — the ones deemed by society to be negative and lesser — and feel all the emotions through to make space for the beauty, levity and lasting growth, we create space to welcome in whatever is happening in the present moment without the constant filter of our trauma.

Reminding ourselves we do not have to do the healing alone provides great relief, as community in these last cut moments offers support and strength.

Samantha Paige nature shot arms open

As I discovered with Last Cut twenty years after my cancer diagnosis, we never know what doors a painful experience will open, but the surest way to find out is to stay in the conversation with yourself and others.

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All photos courtesy of Lisa Field

Originally published: September 20, 2017
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