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Don't pity me for having an ostomy, I ab-solutely love it

Melissa Marshall

(left) mid-1990s, (right) 2017

Don’t hate me because I’m beautiful… well, at least that’s how I used to feel about my body. In the 1990s, I took pride in being toned and in shape. Back then, I wore cropped tops and low-rise pants just to show off my abs. I knew that I was being watched and admired by men (and probably hated by women) who came to my bodybuilding shows. My ego and vanity thought that life would go on forever, but on September 24, 2013 life as I knew it came to a screeching halt — I was diagnosed with stage 3 colorectal cancer. My doctors found a golf ball-sized tumor on my rectum that sat 1mm above my sphincter, so colostomy surgery was set up for November 14, 2013 before starting radiation and chemotherapy.

The treatments would continue all the way through the following year, and even in that time of darkness, I knew this had to be done to save my life. Thoughts of fear whirled in my head every moment, yet I put on a strong front for those who loved me as they watched my transformation from a confident woman turn into an ailing shell of my former self. I felt everyone silently had pity for me. I’d hear, “You’re so strong. I would've never known you had a bag!” Then their eyes would look towards my stomach as if wishing they had x-ray vision to see through my shirt and pants. There were many moments I'd look up to the sky and say, “Why God? Why did you take away the one thing I actually prided my self on?” I thought that having an ostomy bag was a cruel joke.

As time went on, I got physically stronger as my muscles regained their memory. I realized that healing was forming not only in my body but also in my soul. In coming to understand that my looks weren't the only thing that people cared about, I started to view myself as a survivor, someone who beat cancer, and that there just might be more in store for me than the person I was before. I felt a sense of purpose and there was a driving force inside me to inspire others. When you have the ability (and fortune) of redefining yourself and what you can do in the world, then you realize you've been blessed. And that's how I feel today —blessed. I am blessed to have survived cancer. I am blessed to see myself, not from vanity, but as someone with so much more worth and real value.

My father used to tell me life is full of lessons and that is how you grow wise. Today, I am kinder to myself, less critical, and will never stop learning. Living with an ostomy remains my biggest teacher. It reminds me that I am alive, that I am living at a time where surgery exists, that I had a gifted surgeon with the skills and knowledge to keep me alive, and that I have access to modern medical supplies. Living in the present moment and being grateful grounds me to appreciate that I have another day to sing, dance, and swing my granddaughter in the air.

I beat cancer on July 17th, 2014, regained my strength and began performing again. With a second chance at life, I found a way to give back by using my voice to send out a message of hope. I want to empower others to say, “No You Cant’cer.” In June 2015, I recorded a theme song and in March 2016 established the No You Cant'cer Foundation as a nonprofit organization. Yes, I have an ostomy but don't pity me. This is exactly what was intended for me. I know to be humble and as positive about life as I can be. Yes, I have an ostomy... and I ab-solutely love it!