Hearing the words “you have cancer” at age 29 was the single most important moment in my mental health journey. This March, I celebrated four years of being a breast cancer survivor, the founder and CEO of StyleEsteem Wardrobe, and an instructor at Columbia University. However, getting here required me to unlearn everything I knew about mental health and build a completely new approach forward to creating a purpose-FULL life. Something that really helped me in my journey is using one of these key mental health affirmations for accepting big changes at different points of my journey.
My journey started with the initial shock of the diagnosis, countless scans and testing and uprooting my entire life for the foreseeable future around my treatment and surgery plan. At a time when most of my friends were getting married and starting families, I was starting a year-long chemotherapy regimen. By the time I lost my hair to chemo (three months after discovering my lump) I felt completely disassociated from myself physically and mentally. That isolation drew outward into a feeling of being displaced within my community and ashamed of my diagnosis.
The final straw came when I was told to buy a wig and “simply deal with” my hair loss. I didn’t recognize the woman in the mirror anymore. I didn’t feel at home in my own body. I was merely a petri dish at that point. I found myself at what was undeniably the end of my life as I knew it. But I decided I had a choice. I could treat this as the end of life – period, full stop. Or I could treat it as the end of one life, and the beginning of the next.
Here are four mental health affirmations for accepting big changes that helped me choose life every day for the last four years, and how they helped me grow and heal.
This is your story and you are the main character
From a young age, we are taught to believe in lead characters, underdogs and happy endings when it comes to movies, music and even sports. Should we not apply this same optimism to how we view our own life? If you are facing a challenge — big or small — teach yourself to see it as part of a bigger story where you are the protagonist who has every right to a happy ending.
Although my cancer diagnosis was certainly life-changing, I decided that I did not want it to be life-defining.
By shifting the narrative to revolve around me, rather than my diagnosis, I felt more empowered and in control of my future. By seeing myself as the heroine, I romanticized my own strength and valor and began to experience greater gratitude for every inch of progress I made during treatment. This mental health affirmation really put me at the center of my experience.
Find your own superhero cape
Superhero capes in fantasy stories are known to carry superpowers — like the ability to fly. While we may not be able to fasten on a piece of fabric and soar toward the clouds, the power of a symbolic cape cannot be overstated. As human beings, we can naturally become overwhelmed by fear or anxiety in a challenging moment. A tangible symbol can help create an important mental queue when you are facing difficulty, to remind you what you are made of. The symbol can be a special piece of jewelry or clothing, a genre of music or anything else. By being near this symbol, you are reminded that you are capable of strength and bravery. It is something that helps you channel your best self even in moments when you are unsure of yourself.
In my journey, wearing wigs and chemo beanies only reminded me that I was a sick person. So, each time I went for chemo, I brought home a few yards of fabrics to create fashionable turbans. Wearing my turbans, whether I was going to the hospital or to a day at the office, reminded me that I was full of hope, vibrancy, and of course, style! When I looked in the mirror wearing a turban, I finally felt like I recognized the person who was looking back at me. And looking more like myself, helped me feel more like myself. All of this gave me the confidence I needed to go forward, day by day. This mental health affirmation helped me find strength within myself.
Focus on where this could take you
Understand that great outcomes exist in the most unlikely places. To see them, you may even have to mentally squint. When faced with the uneasy and unfamiliar in life, it is the perfect time to choose — roll backward into the old, or strive forward into the new. Moving forward means accepting that in your hardships, you can find hidden doors to your dreams and goals. And this becomes your new focus in healing. This doesn’t mean you deny the emotions that come with the hardships, but you make space for both — pain and growth. This mental health affirmation helped me tap into hope and look ahead.
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Own every aspect of your story
Accepting both the positive and negative experiences in your life is a significant step toward healing. Through self-acceptance, you can realize the full power of your story. The moments that break you down in the first place are often the same ones that allow you to grow. Through self-acceptance, you learn to take pride in what you have gone through and find the courage to help others along the way too. This mental health affirmation helped me look at my life holistically, outside of diagnosis.
At first, the trauma of my cancer diagnosis was so overwhelming that I decided to keep this news private, and to focus on healing — mentally, physically and spiritually. Keeping that focus inward helped me eventually find the strength to share my story and become a breast health advocate in the desi community. Changing fashion and beauty standards for women of all hair journeys, and teaching our mothers and grandmothers how to do breast self-exams has become my calling. Now, my low points serve as my greatest inspiration as I look forward to the coming years of survivorship.
Through these four mental health affirmations for accepting big changes, your mental health has the power to transform your life against all odds. I hope you’ll use them to unlock your most purpose-FULL life.
Sonya Keshwani is the founder and CEO of StyleEsteem Wardrobe and an instructor of Strategic Communications at Columbia University. She is a self-taught fashion designer and native New Yorker whose turban creations have been featured on Good Morning America, New York Fashion Week, and more. Sonya is also a young breast cancer survivor and breast health advocate in the desi community. She is the pioneer of the #GlamSelfExam movement, which she launched to encourage women to get to know their breast health. Sonya loves how fashion can perfectly capture her roots, and on most days you can find her rocking a couture turban with a perfect pair of jhumkas.