Photos and words by Leilani Mitchell
Jaden is from the North Shore of O'ahu, and at 20 years old she has a baby face that a lot of us hapa girls can relate to. She only deals in Earth tones. She's confident, but never to a fault. She always smells like at least five different kinds of essential oils, and for Christmas she made me a personal concoction of oils that is absolutely one of the best presents I've ever received. Don't even get her started on crystal healing. Her best friend is a one-eyed horse named Cece. She is surefooted, which she says, is not the way she's always been. At 18 years old, Jaden was diagnosed with osteosarcoma, bone cancer, affecting her left leg. Jaden opens up to us about what it's like to overcome an illness, realize what self love really means, and ideas of femininity outside of the conventional sphere.
So, I feel like everyone kinda knows you as this cancer surviving beekeeper. Do you think this kinda affects your own self identity?
Okay, I just wanna say I don't like this label as a 'survivor'. I think people are so amazed when they hear that you survived cancer, but that's not how it should be. Survival should be expected! And truthfully in a lot of ways I almost want to forget I ever had cancer. It's come, it's gone, and I'm better, and now I'm just Jaden. I don't wanna be that chick who survived cancer. There's a whole lot of pity that goes on with that. You're instantly kinda like... idolized. I'm just a girl. Cancer is not my identity. But you know, I never liked being in the spotlight, ever since I was little.
Yeah, that's totally understandable. I guess another big question I have for you is, how do you move on from something so traumatic? How do you go from something so big that occupied your every day to just living a normal life again?
Yeah, that was very weird being thrown back into society. You go from being this child who's life is so abnormal, and then all of a sudden its like 'okay! back to real life!' and it can be very strange. It was hard for everyone to let go of this image of me being a really fragile, sick person.
I realized you have to let go of your past. The biggest lesson I learned from this was staying in the present. If you're looking in the present, and only the present, it's usually always perfect.
On the topic of letting go and moving forward and everything, how do you think your whole mindset has changed after going through something like this?
I was very negative. I spent a lot of time worrying about the past and the future, and all the spaces besides the present. I had a lot of self hate. I was moody, grumpy. I questioned why I was here. I had very dark thoughts, that no one should think about themselves. I would say that was my personality before cancer.
Cancer really forced me to take control of my emotions, which I was never good at before. I always let my emotions run wild and control me. When you spend so much time in the hospital where every day is the same, time spent reflecting, you realize you can control your whole life.
I couldn't control anything that was happening in the hospital, but I could control what was happening in my own head. I realized I didn't love myself! I was like, why am I doing this to myself? This is not going to help me get better! I really tried hard to immerse myself in self love. I had to realize on my own that I am a perfect human without other people telling me that I am. Which is hard, I think, because we all kinda look for love from other people, and self worth too. But that has to come from within first, or you're not gonna have a good relationship with anyone else.
I guess that's where that whole like, not wanting to be called a survivor comes from. I already feel like I have so much love for myself that I don't really necessarily need or want that admiration from others.
I'm really proud of myself. Not so much because I 'beat' cancer, but more because I became a better person out of all of it.
So, I know you were bald for a while as a product of your chemotherapy. How did that affect your perception of yourself as a woman? What was that like, honestly? And what about your scars?
I was very attached to my hair prior to cancer, it was long and naturally highlighted. I received a lot of compliments on it so I felt that it was what made me beautiful. When I started losing it I felt like I was shedding an identity. I shaved the rest of it soon after. It was terrifying. It forced me to rely on self love more than ever. In the beginning there were days when I would find myself bursting into tears because I missed my security blanket and I just wanted to be "normal" again.
Eventually I owned my baldness and minimal eyebrow hairs. I accepted the stares and understood that it wasn't everyday that you'd see a bald girl. I dropped my ego and released any worries of what people might be thinking of me. That was true liberation. It was a slow process into loving my bald head, I started by telling myself I was beautiful every day, even if I didn't believe it sometimes. Words are powerful, and eventually your thoughts match up with them. If you really want to test your strength, shave your head. It will break you down but you will have to build yourself up again. On your own. True beauty shines from the soul, not from the physical exterior.
Honestly my scars don't affect me at all. I really learned to love my scars. It's a great conversation starter... some people who are very forward will ask me what happened to my leg, or my chest, which I think is funny, and it's totally fine to ask me about it. But yeah, I think femininity is whatever you make it, I feel super feminine, and this chunk of metal in my leg kinda makes me feel like a boss lady. I try not to keep my leg separate from myself. I hated it when people would say "oh, your bad leg". It's not a bad leg! It's a good leg! It's done so much for me!
I get it, though, why some people feel insecure about their scars. I have this big one on my chest from my treatment, and I think it's really beautiful, and a good reminder of what I've overcome.
So I know you're a pretty avid beekeeper. When did you start that? What do you love about beekeeping?
Probably 6 months after being totally done with treatment, which was in June of 2015, is when I started beekeeping. I specialize in removing hives and dealing with swarms.
Bees really help me stay present. When you're beekeeping, you have to stay present. You have to be very calm, and think about everything you're doing in that moment. That's why I like it so much, I feel like I'm forced to slow down everything, and think about what I'm doing. I'm also helping my friends out... my friends being the bees. I think people have this weird fear of bees! They don't wanna sting you! They're coming close to you to check you out, they're just like hey, whats going on? We need to stop being so scared of them. They're very kind. They're very interesting. They're only here to help. They're very giving and selfless, and I feel like when I'm being selfless and giving, is when I feel like I'm getting the most out of life. And that's a bee's whole job, basically.
Anything else you want to say?
Um...I don't know. I just want to be a little body of love and light. If anything, look at my leg, and realize that you have two amazing legs that will take you wherever you want, and to use them, and to be grateful for them.. and you can do anything you put your mind to.
Jaden is truly a little body of love and light. At only 20 years old, she has a deep appreciation for life that only someone who has gone through what she has can really achieve. We love this little honeybee.