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After the cancer is gone, the real work starts

We've partnered with Inspire, a company that builds and manages online support communities for patients and caregivers, to launch a patient-focused series here on Scope. Once a month, patients affected by serious and often rare diseases share their unique stories; the latest comes from New York's Britta Aragon.

"You have cancer."

For many, these three words feel like a death sentence. I was only 16 years old when I heard them.

I had Hodgkin's disease, diagnosed after I found a strange lump on my neck. I went through surgery and chemo, and after about six months, I was pronounced to be in remission.

Cancer and I came to a fairly quick understanding - physically, at least. But as many survivors know, the disease's emotional impact was much more difficult to manage.

I was bald, overweight, bloated. My skin had lost its radiance, and my peers felt sorry for me. That was the last thing I wanted.

My friends, family, and relatives wanted me to "move on," but I was confused and had no one to talk to. I now know that survivors need support groups, counseling, and other types of therapy to manage their experiences, but I had none of that, so I turned to the only thing I could control - food.

For the next several years I would battle with an eating disorder without even really knowing why. While I tried to recover, cancer came back into my life - bigger and meaner than before.

In 1999, my father was diagnosed with colon cancer. He was my hero and my best friend, so the news was a huge blow to me. Still, he was full of strength and optimism, so I was sure he would get through it, just like I did.

I was right. He beat the cancer four times. But the fifth time, it formed a tumor in his brain, and after an exhausting eight-year battle, it took my father's life in 2007.

I had crying spells that seemed uncontrollable. I felt like I was in some other world between here and there, and not really present in my day-today life. And I was angry. Why should cancer have taken my father, when it didn't take me?

Psychiatrists now know that many cancer survivors go through something similar to post-traumatic stress. I'd venture to say that many caregivers do, too. And while our medical professionals are trained to deal with the cancer, for a long time there have been few resources for dealing with its aftermath.

Fortunately today, cancer centers and hospitals are starting to put into place programs to help people cope. In the wake of my father's death, the one thing that helped me was finding a way to help others with my experience.

I dove into creating a new blog that would provide needed information for survivors like me, and after a couple years, also wrote a book about the experiences my father and I went through. Working on these projects not only helped me make meaning out of the challenges I had faced, but helped me to build a new, healthy life for myself. Today, I eat a healthy diet that nourishes me from the inside out, and I have a spiritual practice that keeps me grounded. My work fills me with joy and a sense of purpose. I love interacting with a community of people who experienced the same things I did, and I'm always looking for new opportunities to expand the knowledge I've gained.

Cancer changes us - there's no doubt about that. It's up to us to decide who we will become.

To honor her father's legacy, safe cosmetics expert, author and entrepreneur Britta Aragon created the Cinco Vidas blog, wrote a book to help the newly diagnosed called When Cancer Hits, and created CV Skinlabs, a safe skin care line for those with sensitive and medically treated skin.

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