Sunday, November 16, 2014

A Love Letter to Diem Brown

Over the past few months, there have been several celebrity deaths that really touched home for me: Joan Rivers, Tom Magliozzi from NPR's car talk,Tom Menino (Boston mayor), and now Diem Brown. I think when I say that name Diem you either know exactly who I'm talking about or you have no idea. For those on the ‘don't know’ side, Diem starred on several seasons of the MTV reality show The Challenge and died on November 12 after two bouts of ovarian cancer and one of colon cancer.

But before I explain what Diem meant to me, I should explain my relationship with the Real World. I started watching the Real World during its first season in New York when I was 17 years old. At the time, the cast of artists living in the big city represented everything I wanted to be. I related to Julie, the innocent one while I wished I was more like Becky, the confident vixen.  I wanted a boyfriend like Andre the musician, or Kevin the writer. I continued to watch season after season, year after year. The show evolved and I matured. During my twenties, I watched the show - finally relating to it. They even had a season in London and a season in Boston around the time when I was living in each of those cities.

I vividly remember when the spin off show Road Rules premiered, watching with my roommates, excited for another opportunity to follow the adventures of twenty-somethings. The cast members of both shows were like an extended group of friends. I cared about who was hooking up with who, who was coming to terms with their sexuality, and who put their finger in the peanut butter. The best was when MTV started producing the challenges with former cast members of both shows. In many ways, it was like a high school reunion - a chance to catch up with old friends and watch the dynamics when new groups interacted.

I continued to watch the Real World, as well as the challenges well into my thirties. But now I could not relate at all, finding common ground with kids hooking up in hot tubs was in sharp contrast to my life of diaper changes and mortgage payments. Still it served well as a source of entertainment and escapism.

I was first introduced to Diem in 2006, on The Challenge: Fresh Meat. She was everything I wasn't: a skinny hot blond sorority type known for her wild dance moves. She also had just finished chemo treatment for ovarian cancer. At that time in my life, while I didn't know the specifics of being brca1 positive, I did know that I had a strong family history of breast cancer and that the breast cancer and ovarian cancer genes were related. So cancer patients always felt like family to me, particularly when they were female and young and especially when it was breast or ovarian cancer.

Diem changed my vision of cancer. She was young and sexy and hooking up in the hot tub. There were tender moments with Diem portrayed with her boyfriend CT - like the time he took off her wig and kissed her and told her she didn't need to hide from him. She was also a kickass competitor - doing things I would never dream of doing! She was a master at repelling, hiking, climbing, and eating gross things.

I follow Diem on Instagram and knew she was sick again this summer. In fact, it was only days after my mastectomy that I saw she was fighting cancer for the third time. Whenever she posted pictures from her hospital bed, I noted how beautiful she looked. My hospital bed selfies were not nearly as attractive.

The day after I met with the surgical ob-gyn and scheduled my oophorectomy (ovary removal surgery) I read that Diem's doctors had given up in her fight.  I haven't been thrilled about my upcoming oophorectomy (scheduled for the end of December) and the implications of early menopause, but without it, I have up to a 70 percent chance of developing ovarian cancer in my lifetime. And risk factor statistics have not been kind to me so far. Diem's tragic and untimely death served as a reminder for me as to why you don't want to mess with ovarian cancer.

So thank you, Diem. You faced your final challenge with bravery and grace.  You fought to the end and were strong in ways no one should ever have to be. You helped me recognize how small my problems are and how lucky I am that I get to choose to not have ovarian cancer at all. Your death was not in vain. It may have saved my life. RIP

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