In the third installment of our series, humans we admire, the be.come project spoke to Sophie Faulkenberry, an actress, trainer, and all around badass who has been battling an aggressive form of Lymphoma over the past months. Here is what she had to say.
jaime: When you were first diagnosed with cancer, what were your initial feelings towards your body? Did you struggle to overcome any anger or resentment towards it?
sophie: When I was first diagnosed with cancer, I was shocked, confused, and angry; yet at the same time, I felt this sense of relief in knowing that I was right to listen to my body. My body had been telling me for over three months that something was wrong. I had gone to the ER three times before a doctor took my pain seriously and didn’t write it off as muscular pain from overexertion. I was proud of my body for doing everything it could to signal to me that something was wrong, and I was lucky enough to know my body well enough to understand that what was going on was not the result of overwork in the gym. I have always been extremely active, whether it is dancing, running, taking classes, or training in the gym: working out has always been my escape.
I was in the best shape of my life when I was diagnosed and had been training intensely 6 days a week until the pain from the cancer spreading became too much. There was no anger or resentment towards my body when I was diagnosed because I knew that it had done everything it possibly could to stay healthy. There was also this sense of knowing that my body needed every bit of positive energy that it could get because it was about to go to battle with the toughest competitor it had met to date. When you are faced with a disease that is so close to killing you, you don’t have time to resent the vessel that is going to fight with all it has to keep you alive.
jaime: I first found you following the be.come project at the beginning of December when I came across your “A love letter to my body” post. You found the strength it takes to respect your body even in the harshest of situations, even when it would seem impossible to many. Can you tell us a bit about your journey to that point?
sophie: Growing up, I was very active in the dance community and spent my summers enrolled in ABT and Atlanta Ballet’s summer programs. I then went on to study musical theatre at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. After graduating and moving to New York, I became a personal trainer to try and stay in shape and make money as I was pursuing my acting career. Dancing, acting, and training, are all avenues that put your body and your physique under a microscope. I spent years working out with the focus of reaching an aesthetic that others expected of me, rather than focusing on the mental and physical benefits that working out afforded me. I would become stressed if I missed a workout and would push through sickness in order to get to the gym. Although I actively recognized working out as a huge stress relief, I also attached stress to my workouts because of the fear that my body would change for the worse if I missed a day.
When I began treatment, I hadn’t worked out for two months because I was in too much pain to even walk. I was diagnosed with a very rare type of lymphoma, which is also the most aggressive type of lymphoma that exists. The nature of the cancer meant that all of my chemotherapy treatments were that much more aggressive and required in-patient stays in the hospital. My body took a beating every day as it was pumped with drugs whose job it was to kill everything in sight. The week that I was diagnosed, my fiancé and I came up with a daily affirmation: “I am strong. I am powerful. I am a warrior.” I would sit in my hospital bed and rub each part of my body and tell it how amazing it was doing, how proud of it I was, and how thankful I was for it surviving and fighting with everything it had.
On the tail end of each cycle, I would feel ok enough to try and move my body. I would either do the be.come routine, or teach myself a barre class, or even use weights that I had in my apartment. Knowing that my body was in a constant state of war and yet still managing to carry me to and from doctors’ appointments and even allowing me to do light workouts, made me beyond proud. My body is strong. It is powerful. It is a warrior. My body was literally saving my life and yet still expending energy that it shouldn’t have had, allowing me to stay grounded and engaged in activities that for twenty minutes let me feel like I didn’t have cancer. Although a lot of anger was attached to my diagnosis, none of it was attached to my body. If anything, I learned that my body was so much stronger than I had ever thought and its resilience in the face of such a terrifying and life threatening diagnosis surpassed my every expectation.
jaime: What would you say was something unexpected you learned about yourself in the past 3-4 months? What did you learn about the people around you?
sophie: The last 3-4 months have been filled with many unexpected realizations. When I was diagnosed and decided to share my journey and treatment on social media, I began to receive a lot of messages that expressed how brave I was or how inspiring I was. In a way, when I received those messages, there was almost a smidge of frustration because I interpreted those messages as people thinking that I had a choice in this. Was I brave because I was choosing not to die? Was I inspiring because I decided not to crawl into a hole for four months while I underwent the hardest challenge that I had faced in my 26 years of life? There was no choice in this. The choice was either dying or going through chemo and giving my body every opportunity to survive. Did that choice to live make me brave? A sentiment that I’ve shared with other people going through treatment is that a lot of people’s reactions to your diagnosis are ones of self-preservation. They want to know what you did to possibly have gotten this disease; for example, “did you use Johnson and Johnson baby powder when you were child?” or “do the doctors know what you did to get this?” or “have you watched the Netflix documentary on plant-based diets? Your body needs all the help it can get.”
Although I was exposed to these very understandable sides of human preservation, I was also shown the absolute best sides of humanity. My family, my close circle of friends, and even people who I’ve never met but who have followed me on social media, showed up for me every single day. They went out of their way to do anything to make this journey easier for me. I’ve never felt closer to some of these people in my life and I am eternally grateful for everything they’ve done for me. Whether it be answering my sister’s Instagram message and coming to the hospital to cut off all of my hair and dye it purple even though you’ve never met me, or flying to New York from London just to sit in bed with me and watch ‘Say Yes to the Dress’ and eat potato chips and drink ginger ale, or taking time out of your day to do a photo-shoot with me to try and show me that I am still feminine and beautiful and powerful with or without hair, or even putting on tuxedos and ball gowns just to go to the infusion center to celebrate finishing treatment. These people put me first every single day for the last 3-4 months and their truly selfless nature is the most inspiring thing in this whole journey.
As for things that I’ve learned about myself… Besides my newfound appreciation for my body, I’ve also learned that it is ok not to be ok. As clichéd as that sounds, it has been a sentiment that I have carried with me throughout treatment. When I was diagnosed, a wise friend told me that courage does not exist without fear. Allowing myself to feel everything, and not try and push down emotions, has revealed sides of myself that I did not know existed. I have never considered myself a brave person because I’ve never been put in a position where I’ve really felt that bravery was needed. At the tail end of this journey, I am beginning to realize that the bravery that people told me I had, was not the bravery to share my journey, it was the bravery to show up every day for myself even though I was terrified, and to not let that fear of losing completely overwhelm me.
jaime: What can the be.come community do to either help you on your journey or help others in a similar situation as you?
sophie: Be kind. Everyone, whether they are dealing with a cancer diagnosis, or simply dealing with a bad day at work, is just trying to survive. With social media especially, you only see a sliver of that person’s life. Although I shared a lot of my diagnosis and chemotherapy journey with Instagram, there were a lot of moments, especially the ones laden with fear, that I did not share. Also, understand that there is no reason to push blame onto people for things that you don’t intimately understand, and even if you do, blaming people for the things in their lives doesn’t help or encourage anyone. Showing up for people, however, does help. The amount of messages that I received that didn’t involve questions of “what did you do to get this?” but instead were messages expressing the simple sentiment that they were following my journey and sending me positive energy, really made those hard days a smidge easier. The smallest gestures of positivity can really turn someone’s day around, because you may not know how much they needed that encouragement.
Be kind and be gentle and be proud! Don’t only show up for other people who may be dealing with hardships, but show up for yourself as well. Show up and be proud of everything you accomplish everyday. Even if they may seem like small accomplishments to you, they may be huge achievements to others.
thank you sophie for sharing! you can follow along with her journey @justmycupotea