Samantha Paige opens up about her struggle with cancer and mental illness, including what it's like to feel like a stranger in her own body.

By By Samantha Paige as told to Faith Brar

The first time I remember feeling independent was when I was studying abroad in Italy during my junior year of college. Being in another country and outside the normal rhythm of life really helped me connect with myself and understand a lot about who I was and who I wanted to be. When I returned home, I felt like I was in a great place and was excited to ride the high I was feeling into my senior year of college.

In the following weeks, before classes started back up again, I went to do a routine check-up with my doctor where he found a lump in my throat and asked me to go see a specialist. Really not thinking much of it, I went back to college but shortly after, got a phone call from my mom letting me know that I had thyroid cancer. I was 21-years-old.

Within 24-hours my life changed. I went from being in a place of expansion, growth, and coming into my own to being back home, getting surgery and becoming totally dependent on my family again. I had to take an entire semester off, undergo radiation and spent a lot of time at the hospital, making sure my biomarkers were in check. (Related: I'm a Four-Time Cancer Survivor and a USA Track & Field Athlete)

In 1997, a year later, I was cancer free. From that point on until I was in my mid-twenties, life was simultaneously beautiful and also incredibly dark. On one hand, I had all these amazing opportunities fall into place-right after graduating, I got an internship in Italy and ended up living there for two and a half years. Afterward, I moved back to the United States and landed my dream job in fashion marketing before eventually returning to Italy to get my graduate degree.

Everything looked perfect on paper. Yet at night, I would lie awake suffering from panic attacks, severe depression, and anxiety. I couldn't sit in a classroom or movie theater without being right next to a door. I had to be heavily medicated before getting on a plane. And I had this constant feeling of doom follow me around wherever I went.

Looking back, when I had been diagnosed with cancer, I was told 'Oh you got lucky' because it wasn't a "bad" type of cancer. Everyone just wanted to make me feel better so there was this influx of optimism but I never let myself mourn and process the pain and trauma I was going through, regardless of how "lucky" I really was.

After a few years went by, I decided to take a blood test and found out that I was a carrier of the BCRA1 gene, which made me more susceptible to getting breast cancer in the future. The idea of living in captivity with my health for God knows how long, not knowing if and when I was going to hear the bad news, was way too much for me to handle given my mental health and history with the C word. So, in 2008, four years after finding out about the BCRA gene, I decided to opt for a preventative double mastectomy. (Related: What Really Works to Lower Your Breast Cancer Risk)

I went into that surgery extremely empowered and totally clear about my decisionbut was unsure about whether I would undergo breast reconstruction. A part of me wanted to opt out of it completely, but I inquired about using my own fat and tissue, but doctors said I didn't have enough to use that method. So I got silicon based breast implants and thought I'd finally be able to move on with my life.

It didn't take long for me to realize that it wasn't so simple.

I never felt at home in my body after getting implants. They weren't comfortable and made me feel disconnected from that part of my body. But unlike the time I was first diagnosed in college, I was ready to completely and radically change my life. I had started attending private yoga classes after my now ex-husband got me a package for my birthday. The relationships I built through that taught me a lot about the importance of eating well and meditating, which eventually gave me the strength to go to therapy for the first time with the willingness to unpack my emotions and rip it all open. (Related: 17 Powerful Benefits of Meditation)

But while I was working hard on myself mentally and emotionally, my body was still acting out physically and never felt one hundred percent. It wasn't until 2016 that I finally caught the break I had subconsciously been looking for.

A dear friend of mine came over to my house shortly after New Year's and handed me a bunch of pamphlets. She said that she was going to have her breast implants removed because she felt that they were making her sick. While she didn't want to tell me what to do, she suggested I read up on all the information, because there was a chance that a lot of the things I was still dealing with physically, could be connected to my implants.

In truth, the second I heard her say that I thought 'I've got to get these things out.' So I called my doctor the next day and within three weeks I had my implants removed. The second I woke up from surgery, I felt better immediately and knew I had made the right decision.

That moment is what really propelled me into a place where I was able to finally reclaim my body that hadn't really felt like mine since after my original diagnosis with thyroid cancer. (Related: This Empowering Woman Bares Her Mastectomy Scars in Equinox's New Ad Campaign)

It actually had such an impact on me that I decided to create an ongoing multimedia documentary called Last Cut with the help of my friend Lisa Field. Through a series of photos, blog posts, and podcasts, I wanted to share my journey with the world while encouraging people to do the same.

I felt that the realization I had when I decided to remove my implants was a huge metaphor for what we're all doing all the time. We're all constantly reflecting on what is inside of us that doesn't match who we truly are. We are all asking ourselves: What actions or decisions or last cuts, as I like to call them, do we have to take to move towards a life that feels like our own?

So I took all of these questions that I'd been asking myself and shared my story and also reached out to other people who've lived bold and brave lives and shared what last cuts they've had to make to get to where they are today.

I hope that sharing these stories will help others realize that they're not alone, that everyone goes through hardship, no matter how big or small, to finally find happiness.

At the end of the day, falling in love with yourself first makes everything else in life, not necessarily easier, but so much more clear. And giving voice to what you're going through in a vulnerable and raw way is a really profound way to create a connection with yourself and ultimately attract people who give value to your life. If I can help even one person come to that realization sooner than I did, I've accomplished what I was born to do. And there's no better feeling than that.

Comments (1)

September 5, 2017
Great story! I felt an immediate relief after removing my breast implants. I chose Fat Transfer, and most women don't know we have better options. The implants came out with mold on the valve, and Biofilm slime. Foreign objects don't belong in our body.