Love, Hair Loss, and MTV: The Anti-Love Story Every Cancer Survivor Needs

t's rare that reality TV can produce some of the strongest role models for a young woman. But their story, even without a fairy-tale ending, is just what people like me needed to see.
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For the past few days, I've been rewatching old seasons of MTV's The Challenge, an all-time favorite show of mine. The more recent seasons have gotten trashy and disappointing (so much so that I wrote the show a breakup letter last summer), but the older seasons will always be near and dear to my heart.

Today's personal goal? Watch all 16 episodes of The Duel, the show's 13th season. I haven't watched the show in a few years, and it was high time to relive some of my favorite moments. But I'd completely forgotten, until I hit episode 2. The 13th season featured a contestant, Diem Brown, who'd recently completed her treatment for ovarian cancer.

I've always looked at Diem Brown as a role model. She's such a strong, beautiful, determined woman who puts her goals first. I thought this of her before I was ever diagnosed with my own ovarian cancer. As I was diagnosed, I made the dumb mistake every young cancer patient makes, and I searched the Internet for advice. But I didn't end up on WebMD or Mayo Clinic. I ended up on Diem Brown's blog for People magazine, documenting her second battle.

I remember reading the article Diem posted about hair loss, and deciding that very day to shave my own head instead of waiting for my hair to fall out. I read along as she battled, and was almost as excited that she was in remission as I was to be in remission myself. Seeing my role model go through what you're experiencing at the same time, and knowing she'd done it before, gave me so much strength and courage to win my fight.

Diem Brown is known for two things: beating cancer twice, and having a tumultuous relationship with fellow Challenge competitor CT Tamburello. CT and Diem's relationship on The Duel has become a legendary MTV love story. And unlike most people who admire it and want to find the CT to their Diem, I understand how she felt. I understand the difference CT made in her life. And I understand why it didn't work out.

When I finished my treatment, I thought I'd feel invincible. I'd just spent three months going through my own personal hell, living in and out of the hospital, being pumped with toxic drugs to rid my system of terminal illness. And I'd won. But I didn't really feel all that invincible. I felt broken, ugly, and unlovable. Sure, I was alive. But who on earth was going to like a girl with half her reproductive system gone, hair gone, and confidence gone?

Diem found CT, who helped her feel as beautiful as she truly was. I found my own CT in Brian, a engineering student who, unlike everyone else I knew, wasn't bothered by the wig, or the fact that I was tired a lot, or by my personal "cancer survivor" baggage. In fact, he wanted to show me that I had every reason to feel beautiful and happy again after winning the toughest battle of my life.

When someone picks you up and helps you begin to live your life again, it's hard not to fall in love at lightning speed. People that knew Brian and I told me that it seemed like we'd been a couple for years -- when, in reality, it had barely been a few months. Everything happened so fast, and I convinced myself that he was all I needed. He was my rock, my reason for being happy again, and all I needed was his love and support.

But Brian didn't have anything to do with me getting a job with a local magazine as a staff arts writer. Brian didn't help me fundraise $1500 for my local Relay for Life. Brian didn't get me accepted to the journalism program in school, helping set my future career on track. He supported me, sure, but my goals and my dreams were coming true because I now had the confidence to work for them.

"Maybe in five years. Career first, baby." Those are the infamous words CT and Diem exchanged during their difficult breakup a few years after The Duel aired. CT was portrayed on TV as a monster, and Diem as a lovesick girl who'd made a big mistake. But I know she didn't. Cancer can either ruin your life as a survivor or it can bring you a new focus and new drive. Once Diem had the confidence and the support back in her life, she went after her goals. Her company, Medgift, is now helping people all over the country raise money to cover the expenses that all sorts of illnesses incur on patients.

While I haven't started a successful national website, I have found my calling as a writer. I've been published on some of my favorite websites, I'm transferring to a school with an absolutely amazing journalism program, and I'm on track to graduate less than two years from now. My dreams are coming true, and while Brian instilled my support and my confidence in myself, he didn't understand those goals and dreams and the importance they had to me.

Diem Brown and CT aren't together anymore. They're friends, according to the most recent Challenge reunion they both appeared on. But Diem is a strong, independent woman achieving her goals on her own terms after two battles with ovarian cancer. I'm not dating Brian anymore, either. He has a new girlfriend, and I wish them the very best. But I'm so proud of the strong, independent woman I can be now that I know how beautiful and strong I am, and how beautiful and strong I was throughout my battle. So to Brian, I owe thanks.

And to Diem and CT, I owe thanks, too. It's rare that reality TV can produce some of the strongest role models for a young woman. But their story, even without a fairy-tale ending, is just what people like me needed to see.

(Oh, and I did finish the entire season today. Without crying. And trust me, that's a sign of strength right there.)