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My Story

look and touch and squeeze and rub and prod me. Suddenly I can have no shame; there's no time, no place for it.

So I lose my embarrassment. Stand naked in front of a camera while the plastic surgeon takes pictures? Sure. Let six—count 'em, six—interns put their hands in my armpit at 6:00 a.m. on a cold December morning? No problem. And magically, as I shed my feelings of embarrassment about my body, I shed other inhibitions, too.

I'm Norwegian. Cold. Not physical. But now I find myself thanking people for little things, complimenting, being nice. It's hard—really hard—but I reach out and touch my friends. Grab a shoulder. Hold a hand. Even give hugs. And, finally, I'm able to say "I love you," words I've needed to say for many years but never could.

Cancer takes away every uptight feeling I've ever had. And it replaces those feelings with strength, love, and, most important, the ability to reveal the person who's been living unseen, inside me, all of these years. At last, I've become the woman—the caretaker, the friend, the lover, the mother—I've always wanted to be.

On January 6, 2002, I begin the final leg of this cancer journey: six weeks of radiation therapy. I have the barest hint of peach fuzz covering my skull. And I'm an old hand at this cancer business. I know the hospital inside and out: where the freshest coffee is served, the location of every out-of-the-way restroom.

I stride confidently into the radiation suite on a Monday morning, say "Yes, yes, yes" to the receptionists at the desk, and settle in with the usual pile of six-month-old People magazines. I've made an 8:00 a.m. appointment—less chance of hitting a radiation traffic jam so early in the day. Did I mention I'm an old hand?

My turn comes and I take off my clothes, lie on yet another cold table, stay perfectly inert as a pair of technicians tug and nudge me into position for the 10 minutes or so the machine will hover above me. I hoist my arm uncomfortably over my head and hold it there, counting tiles in the ceiling. It's unnerving when the techs and med students scurry out of the room to the safety of their protected cell, leaving me naked, spread-eagled, exposed under the massive machinery as it clicks and hums.

Hamel, right, and King Arthur Flour photographer Brenda Hickory confer during a photo shoot of Easy Strawberry Shortcake Trifle; the resulting image ended up on the company's website, where Hamel blogs about baking. She has also blogged about her experiences with breast cancer since shortly after her diagnosis in 2001.

At that moment, I discover something about myself: I have great willpower. Me, who always gave up when faced with physical adversity. I can face down nausea. I can bend it to my will. And I do.

And then it's done. I get up from the table, put my clothes on, head off to work.

I do this for 35 days, without incident. No burns; no fatigue. My final radiation treatment is on Valentine's Day. I leave the room. Outside, the techs congratulate me, hand me a Mickey Mouse graduation certificate. We laugh. I leave the hospital for the last time.

And just like that, after nine months, my cancer treatment is over. I walk out into a surprisingly balmy February day. The sun warms the top of my head. It feels good.

As I leave the hospital without the tank, without the tubes, I realize that cancer has changed me. I'm not embarrassed to stand out in a crowd. And I'm not afraid anymore. Of anything.

I feel good. I made it.

Living life
Since that day seven years ago, I've felt an inner tectonic shift, my mind and soul rearranging themselves into a much more solid, more comfortable position. I've given up guilt (for the most part). I'm no longer into blame, regret, or fear of the future. "I should have" and "If only I'd" no longer cross my lips. Instead, my mantra is "The only thing I can control is my own attitude." I work hard every day to think positively and remain stress-free, no matter how many work deadlines loom or how tall the stack of bills in the desk drawer grows.

Has it been smooth sailing, these past seven years? Of course not. I have lingering, irritating aftereffects. I gained a lot of weight, then lost it. My bones are thinning; osteoporosis is a known side effect of chemotherapy. I've been on tamoxifen; I'm now on Arimidex. My joints ache, my ribs are sore, I'm itchy, and one shoulder is permanently stiff—all reactions to drugs or radiation or surgery.

But I've gained confidence in myself. I know that I can fight for my life—and win. I've surprised myself with what a good friend I can be, especially to women going through cancer treatment. And I've discovered that life—just life, nothing more than living and breathing—is good. Very, very good.

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