I Have Stage IV Metastatic Melanoma — I Use Fashion As My Armour

Natalie Fornasier

In her first column for TheLatch—, writer, skinfluencer and stage IV cancer fighter, Natalie Fornasier, shares how she uses fashion as a form of armour. Fornasier reveals how important clothing became after being diagnosed with lymphoedema in 2015.

When you look at me, I look like an ordinary 26-year-old. I’m tall, I have big, owl-like eyes and a laugh that can be heard from around the corner. I like fashion, read copious amounts of books, listen to podcasts and enjoy a good binge Netflix binge. When you look at me, you may think I have an odd obsession with pants. Kick-flares, palazzo, wide-leg, ordinary flares, straight legs. A different style for every day or maybe the same pair of pants but in two different of patterns. As the old saying goes, looks can be deceiving. In my case, they completely are.

What you don’t see is that I have stage IV metastatic melanoma cancer and with that diagnosis, came something else. Something that requires me to put on those pants as a suit of armour for me to face the world every day for the past six years. Those pants that I wear every day? They help me with my lymphoedema.

What is lymphoedema I hear you ask? Lymphoedema is a condition that can occur whenever the lymphatic system is disrupted. It is a painful, swelling of the limbs due to surgery, cancer treatment or you can just be born with it. There’s no cure.

How does this relate to fashion? Like how a metal suit of armour protects the heart, fashion protects my soul. Lymphoedema isn’t sexy. It’s all swollen limbs, unpleasant nude compression garments and the constant pang in your chest to have a body like the majority. It’s also a glaring reminder that you’ve been welcomed to the cancer club.

When I was diagnosed with lymphoedema in 2015, I had no idea what it was or what it could become. All I knew is that the surgery to remove lymph nodes needed to happen to save my life because melanoma is a vicious silent killer and doesn’t respond to chemotherapy. Six months after the surgery, I began to notice it. I detected my left leg was puffy and felt heavy — like a forever expanding water balloon that was struggling to hold its fluid. It then began to lose its shape and my foot no longer fit into standardised shoe sizing.

Skinny jeans, shorts, skirts — any type of clothing that showed my legs came with crippling anxiety and self-consciousness. Quickly, I learnt it was a magnet for curious eyes and awkward questions. I didn’t know how to navigate this on top of cancer, and I was tired. I was awfully tired of being the centre of attention for the wrong reasons and I was tired of carrying on my shoulders raw grief because others considered me brave for fighting a disease that I didn’t ask for.

Every day I’ve questioned where I belong. Where do I fit in a world that clearly doesn’t cater to me. I’ve questioned my talents, my capabilities, even my own opinions. I’ve asked myself how do I live in a body that doesn’t match my desires? That is constantly roadblocking me from a life I want to live? The answer I keep coming back to is fashion, because fashion can do that for you — or at the very least, set you on that path. ‘Enclothed cognition’ gives scientific proof to the notion that you should dress not how you feel, but how you want to feel. Our internal self is shifted when we focus on what we wear, and that’s how I learnt to use fashion to make me feel confident. To navigate this Natalie that I had no manual to.

Your 20s are characterised to be the time you’re allowed to f*ck up. The time where you’re discovering your career and your goals. A time spent laughing rather than worrying, a time to make mistakes, and enjoy sexual freedom. I feel cheated that I didn’t get that. Instead, I was fighting cancer and contemplating how to get out of the group beach trip because my left leg is double the size of my right.

Whilst my friends enjoyed the liberties of wearing beautiful skirts, skinny jeans and colourful barely-there high heels; I was sitting on the floor in tears with my stocking leg flared out in front of me; fed up with the fact my foot couldn’t fit into a boot. When a guy asked me why I always wore pants; I had to gauge whether being honest was right, or self-edit and give an excuse like I hadn’t shaved my legs.

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Cruella de Vil vibes.

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Mari Andrew taught me about sustainable gratitude. “To be grateful is to live in a state attentiveness, not a state of bliss”. That’s how I live my life most days. I’ll catch myself staring longingly at the legs of men and women with deep envy. I’m envious of their ease and ability to enjoy forever what I was initially born with and will never get back. I tell myself it’s okay to be envious because constantly reprimanding myself for thinking certain thoughts isn’t fair to my existence. I’m so loud in my gratefulness to be alive, to have legs that can carry me… yet every day I struggle and feel overwhelmed by the heavy weight of such a responsibility. The privileged burden of survivor’s guilt, which is actually survivors’ grief.

Some would say ‘but at least you have a leg!’ and that’s right — I do. I’m grateful I have a leg. But I can also be outraged and resent cancer for handing me something that presents as an emotional and physical challenge daily. I crave the freedom of shimmying into skinny jeans and instead, worry about doing up the zip.  I crave having not to worry about standing in the shower for too long because my leg can’t handle it. I crave walking along the beach barefoot. I crave mornings that don’t involve the routine of putting the compression garment on my leg, which has blown up overnight and now doesn’t fit into the one pair of boots I’ve got expertly stretched.

As I got older, the envy and the yearnings of what was, have faded as I’ve become accustomed to my new life. It only ever resurfaces when I’m triggered. The hard thing is, I’m triggered every day because not only does my desire to be ‘normal’ follow me in my personal shadow, it walks in front of me as soon as I leave the house.

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No hat, no play ? (seriously, protect your noggin)

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So, I taught myself to be the architect of a new space, a new comfort zone. I confronted myself with my insecurity — my swollen, hot, heavy and painful leg — and built a house that would not only protect me from strangers but allow me to come to acceptance at a pace I could control. Building such a space is also housing the knowledge that at any moment, the wind can change and in through the door comes stormy days of despair and invasive thoughts. I accepted that.

There’s work in knowing yourself. It requires you to be up front with your limits, your comfort zone, where to draw the line, but also where the true line is.

By building a new identity through clothes, namely pants, I learnt fashion isn’t elementary. It isn’t a three-dimensional charade that doesn’t have nuance. Fashion is a lifeline. A glowing light for those who need warmth in a world that sometimes feels too cold. Fashion can be your weapon when you’re feeling defeated or when you want to express your truth. My newfound identity required a wardrobe that reflected not only this new part of my life, but worked with me to make me feel comfortable; to make me feel like I had power when all power had been lost to a set of strange hands at the helm of the steering wheel of my life.

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I am in love with this shirt.

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It was on me to change the narrative. That turning to something that often gets misinterpreted as frivolous wasn’t shallow. It was necessary and it was on me to show people that fashion can be empowering — I just had to be the change.  Fashion empowers me to get out of the house confidently every day. It empowers me to know that I can be both grateful and resentful of my life. It empowers me to keep going because funnily enough, it forced me to — I couldn’t wear the clothes my friends, my idols or my colleagues were wearing. I had to be different.

Five years ago, wide leg pants weren’t as readily available as they are now. I spent countless hours scrolling online or wandering stores to find pants that would suit my new needs. And when I found them, I would buy them in bulk. Soon, people began to notice. They didn’t notice my leg, but they noticed my fashion re-brand. They noticed I could style myself, that my taste had become more refined. They noticed I was confident (despite the cancer diagnosis) and genuinely, I felt better about myself. With time, I got better at fashion. And soon enough, I became the fashion friend — a label I would gladly take and stitch into my skin myself if it meant I could unpick the cancer label that had multiplied all over me like a rash.

For many people, fashion is simply getting dressed. But for me, and for a large population, it’s more nuanced than that. As Bill Cunningham once said, “Fashion is the armour to survive everyday life.” Pants became the one area of my life that was prescribed to me, by me. I craved taking back the puppet strings of my body that belonged in the hands of my medical team so I took refuge in the one remote which buttons I could press at any time I wanted.

And yet, the fashion industry is sadly still an industry that does not wholly support the diversity people like me seek. It’s confronting to go shopping and realise over half of what’s stocked isn’t made for you but that’s the reality for disabled people. Instantaneously othered by society and whoever decided ‘able-bodied’ to be the norm. If fashion was built for people like me, or I saw myself represented in fashion editorials or given agency like the fashion bloggers of the world — I probably wouldn’t feel as much of the despair I do every day when it comes to looking at my swollen leg. But that’s not the case, and even though it’s unasked for, it’s on me to speak up.

Lymphoedema has been one of the greatest challenges I’ve faced in the cancer universe, and I’ve lived with it for all of my twenties. For six years I’ve battled the mental demons of difference and repeated the mantra that the way my leg looks and feels now was to save my life. But it’s tiring being grateful. It’s tiring drumming against my head that it could be worse, it could be worse, it could be worse.

Living with my disabilities is linked to my humanity. It’s synonymous with my existence, with every push and pull of air that is released from my lungs — I can attribute to the surgery that saved my life, to the treatment I’m still on. Having cancer and witnessing daily the constellation of scars that scatter my body, I’ve learnt how to love myself in a different way. It’s not the same love everyone experiences for themselves, but it’s similar. It’s in language only I can understand.

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All black everything is my mood this Sunday.

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When I look into my pantry of possibilities that is my wardrobe, I don’t ask myself who should I be today or who I should be like. Instead I’m given choices that were selected by me, for me. Each garment, some torn, some holey, others with permanently stained hems, is a rung on a ladder to an unwavering understanding of Who I Am. As I move my fingers across the fabrics, feeling the denim of a pair of kick-flare jeans that I found in Paris that fit just right, I see my old self and my new self at a bridge shaking hands.

I’ve come to learn that using fashion to express myself is a moving body of work, a forever fluid form that doesn’t stop being molded unless you are ready to complete it. I’m not done yet, and I won’t be for a long time. There is something both remarkable and extremely confronting of being in possession of a wardrobe that caters to my physical disability, but it is also remarkable these clothes have accompanied me through the vicissitudes of life.

In the waiting, I’m still learning. And even then, between the mountains of uncertainty and questioning, I’m still on a journey — I’m just better dressed.

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