Our patient’s voice: Courtney E. Young
On Monday night July 22, the local daily newspaper, The Telegram & Gazette, posted a story on its website with the headline ‘Smash Cancer’ model strikes natural pose at Worcester PopUp.
What unfolds beneath the headlines is a look inside the life of our patient Courtney Elizabeth Young. The Hub News team caught up with Courtney a day after she had undergone a double mastectomy to talk with
her about her personal battle with cancer, her experience at UMass Memorial and to find out why she decided to become the ‘Smash Cancer’ model which required her to pose nude for local artists.
Hub News: When the Telegram & Gazette article was published it meant that thousands of people would meet you at “Cancer,” have you had time to process that?
CEY: I never thought about that before, but I think that when people meet somebody at “Cancer,” we believe that their whole life is cancer or that the biggest part of their life is cancer, and, in some ways, it is. But for instance, I know a lot of people where cancer has been their main battle or their main struggle. With me I've had so very many of such magnitude that throwing cancer on top of it was kind of shocking. I didn't want anybody who would meet me to think that this was my whole life or that this is what makes me strong for fighting it. There’s been a lot of things I think that have made me pretty strong. For me, a bigger part of my life – than cancer - has been has been the love of people that care about me. I mean my parents have been amazing, my friends are incredible, my support system of which I had not had before, has just brought me to life.
It can be kind of shocking. You almost revert to thinking that all you are is a cancer patient or all you have is cancer, but that's where those people come in and show you that you're so much more than that and you have to just believe that you're so much more than that. There have been times when mom and I have disagreed on certain ways that I've gone about handling my illness because I’m trying to take care of my mental health as much as my physical health. And this helps those you know, and just you know being there for myself and not kind of going along with whatever body else thought would be best.
Hub News: Was posing nude for the ‘Smash Cancer’ PopUp cathartic for you?
CEY: It was. The main reason I did it was because I have spent a lot of my life being sexualized as a woman. Doing a nude figure drawing is a way for me to be naked and exposed without it being exploited and it felt really awesome to do that. But I think I was more nervous about that actually because as I disclosed to Mark (the Telegram reporter) I have a pretty dramatic history with sexual abuse and trafficking and things like that. He had read an article that came out about me years ago (which) talked about how I used to dance as a stripper. He asked if I was nervous (posing nude for the artists) at all and I said ”Well, yeah, because this time I am not on drugs. I’m clean. I’m sober.” So this is an entirely new experience for me. Why I really did this was because I have spent a lot of my life listening to what other people think about my body and how they perceive me - but I never really learned to love myself and love my body just like I think any woman struggles or any person struggles with that. It was really my last push to stand there and be myself and love myself and be naked. Posing really kind of forces you to do that because you have to stand still while everybody is staring at you.
Hub News: Have you looked at your “whole self” post-surgery?
CEY: I have. I took some photos last night and I posted them online to show people this isn't a boob job. This isn’t whatever you're trying to make it out to be. This is traumatic and is difficult for anybody to go through and it is painful. There a lot of people who have a lot of misconceptions about double mastectomies and breast cancer. It's a scary cancer. It's not a game. It's not a pun - it's a serious issue. I know humor helps and it's helped me but as far as sexualizing the cancer I don't agree with that and I've been very firm about that with certain people. I posted photos online just to show. And this was kind of empowering for me and I was amazed at the way people were responding to the photos. It was really cool, and I feel beautiful. I feel strong.
Hub News: Would you encourage others to get screened?
CEY: Absolutely, and I'm sorry, I meant to add that as one of the reasons I posted the photos - because I was under 30 when I was diagnosed with triple negative breast cancer. People in their twenties and even those in their thirties think “maybe I’ll get screened later on.” I say get genetically tested if you have a family history of breast cancer get the BRCA1 and BRCA2 testing, it saved my life. I knew that cancer could have been an issue which is why I got screened 10-years ago. One of my friends just told me she never thought it would affect her since she is so young. Because cancer runs in her family she decided to get tested. You think it’s going to be the scariest thing in the world, but something kicks in and you have to trust that your survival instincts will kick in - because they will.
Hub News: Can you talk about your experience at UMass Memorial?
CEY: Amazing. Amazing. I have told everybody I can about the relationships that I have with the doctors, with the nurses, with people I've met in the Waiting Room. I mean it's so scary. It's been the best possible network of people that I've met in my life for any circumstance. I mean even if I didn't have cancer and I had just met these people I would just…they’re the most kind and generous people and they have made me feel so safe and so comfortable. My team has been incredible and they've supported me like you would not even believe.
I did some traveling throughout chemotherapy. I visited Mexico and Costa Rica. I did shark diving, scuba diving and with Taxol treatments that can be pretty tough. My mom was really nervous about it, but you know I had a doctor who is very by-the-book explaining to me “this is a risk to your immune system.” But for the most part, everybody was encouraging me to just live my life, saying “you have to, you already have cancer, but you can die in a car accident tomorrow.” They were very supportive of me remaining true to myself in how I deal with this trauma. How I deal with any trauma includes doing something for myself.
Hub News: Is there anything you would like to add?
CEY: I am just incredibly thankful for the support that I have gotten, people have been so kind. It is amazing that there are people that I don’t even know who have been so kind to me, while people that I have known have been absolutely horrible. But the kindness of strangers and loved ones makes a difference. It really does.