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The M Dash

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How Cancer Changed My Personal Style

October 12, 2018 | Filed in: Humans of MM

Figuring out your personal style at work is challenging on its own—when you add in the complication of a chronic illness, it can feel downright impossible. Below, writer Deanna Pai shares how her personal style priorities changed after her cancer diagnosis—and how dressing for work with a chronic illness led her to embrace comfort as her bedrock style principle. 

When I graduated from college and out of my daily wear of jeans and T-shirts, my mom took me to a very preppy clothing store, where we enlisted an in-store stylist to put together a few office-appropriate looks.

“That looks cute,” my mother said as I walked in front of the communal mirror wearing a silk bomber jacket over a striped dress. The stylist put a leather belt over both at the waist.

“I mean, it goes,” I said. It was a cool look. But there’s a big difference between the outfit being cool and the woman wearing it being able to claim any of the cool factor. My mom and I both knew the truth: I wasn’t wearing the clothes, as they say. The clothes were wearing me.

In my defense, it’s not like I was born without a sense of style. If anything, it was squashed out of me by 12 years in a Catholic school uniform, a blur of pleats and jumpers and knee socks that I had to yank up every few minutes. In the real world, without school administration-imposed rules and regulations, my style was as earnest and try-hard as an Academy Award speech.

Once I graduated into the working world, I did what I thought I was supposed to do and stocked up on blazers, silk button-downs, shift dresses, and pleated skirts (old habits die hard). But even with objectively stylish pieces of clothing, I’d never been able to rifle through my closet and just “throw together” a great outfit. I remember what I wore for my first day as an assistant at Vogue only because it was so bad: an ill-fitting silk T-shirt and one of the aforementioned pleated skirts. As soon as she saw me, my new boss steered me as far away as possible from Anna Wintour’s office.

When I was diagnosed with cancer a few weeks into that job, my effort to develop some semblance of personal style took a backseat. It had to: After abdominal surgery to remove the tumor, blood from my incision would seep onto my good silk blouses at random. I became very good at explaining away fresh stains to coworkers who noticed (“It’s ketchup,” I once said, never mind that it was 10 A.M.). Once, I found myself in the bathroom dabbing at a speck of blood with water while Grace Coddington stood beside me, washing her hands.

Still, I tried. I added more gauze in the mornings, tried to dress up, and basically had a small stake in the dry cleaning business down the block from my apartment.

I started chemotherapy the year after I left Vogue. The cancer had returned, and I spent my winter undergoing a brutal treatment regimen: Eight hours hooked up to an IV, two hours the week after, another two hours the week after that—then wash, rinse, repeat.

My style went from “try-hard” to “as if.” I was so weak that I had to sit down on the floor of the tub while taking a shower—forget about trying to find two matching socks in the morning.

I just wanted to feel comfortable and cozy, which is why I shoved my wig in a drawer after a few weeks and instead wore a gray knit cap. (So soft! No headaches!) I bought a pair of loose black trousers, which go with everything—seriously, try me—and skinny charcoal jeans with so much give that I could still curl up in the fetal position without ripping them. And then I doubled down on soft tops and as many warm, fuzzy sweaters as my budget could bear.

I embraced my new minimal-effort, minimal-impact look down to my shoes—I had to break up with heels for good. Chemo had damaged some of the nerve endings in my feet, and they were prone to cramping up painfully and at random. I couldn’t force them into heels anymore, so I practically lived in flat leather boots. (In the summer, I swapped them out for flat sandals or canvas sneakers.)

Eventually, I found that I had discovered my personal style by no longer trying to have one. Rather than carefully assembling an outfit, I just chose the pants I liked and the sweaters that gave me comfort, like the sartorial version of chicken noodle soup. I ended up with another uniform—clearly, I’m a bit of a creature of habit—but this time it was dictated by my own preferences and needs.

I’m healthy now, but that attitude has stuck. I now spend my summers wearing simple A-line dresses in fabrics that don’t make me nervous around a glass of wine. But come fall, I’ll be back in my usual pants and sweaters. I don’t care that I’m basically wearing a different iteration of the same outfit every day of the week—because nothing makes me feel more on my A-game than putting on those easy black trousers and oversized sweaters, and heading into work with my hands in my pockets and my shoulders back.