When Diem Brown left the hospital five days ago, her friends helped decorate her walker: painted teal, it’s studded with metal spikes and emblazoned with the word “WARRIOR.”
Her goal is to get rid of it.
The MTV reality star and PEOPLE.com blogger, 34, is working to regain her strength after two emergency surgeries in mid-August following the news that she had been diagnosed with cancer for the third time.
“Being home makes me feel that much closer to normal,” she tells PEOPLE exclusively. “It’s a big step in the right direction.”
Still, she adds, “My mind is not really on the same level as my body. My mind thinks I can get up and do anything I want, and my body doesn’t really let me. It’s frustrating to work through. Going back and forth to the bathroom feels like a marathon. It’s like, ‘Why is this taking so much energy?’ I need a chair in the elevator! I hate that feeling.”
A visit with her doctor yesterday “was a mixed bag of some good news and bad news,” she says.
The good news: The surgery proved successful in removing two large masses, including one from her colon.
The bad news: More cancer remains, including in her stomach lining, and she faces chemotherapy and further treatment ahead.
“What scares me most is thinking about how long the road is,” she says. Although she has battled cancer twice before, “this one has kind of thrown me for a big loop, to realize how serious this is.”
I Could See My Heart Beating Through My Chest
But before she can undergo treatment, the Florida State University grad must gain back some of the 25 lbs. she has lost.
“The other day was the first day I actually looked in the mirror,” she says of her 100 lb. frame. “I could see my heart beating though my skin. It freaks you out.”
Recovering her appetite remains a huge challenge. “I used to have the biggest sweet tooth in the world, but now even smelling that stuff turns my stomach,” she says. “It’s the weirdest thing.”
As a vegetarian, she has been working to create new recipes that offer a protein and calorie boost while still being meat-free.
“I never thought that eating would be hard, and it just really is,” she says. “I want to find things that taste good and that I get excited to eat and that also give me some calories and protein. If I can find some cool recipes, maybe I’ll put together a little cookbook.”
Colostomy Bag Is Not Easy
For now, her goals are simple: “To walk without a walker. To go outside and sit and relax. I’m trying to figure out how to deal with the pain without medicating. It’s all trial and error.”
She is also learning to adapt to the colostomy bag that she now has following her surgery.
“It’s a new life,” she says. “It’s not easy. I applaud anybody who’s done it for so many years. At first I would hide it with a sheet because it grossed me out.”
One solution? Colorful cover-ups that fit over the colostomy bag.
“I’m learning that instead of just being okay with whatever circumstances you have, try to find ways to make yourself feel better about the circumstances,” she says. “For me, I’d rather look down and see a pink bag than a clear one.”
Dancing for Diem
Having to lean on others for help with everything from turning on the TV to going to the bathroom has been hard for the “very, very independent” New Yorker, but she says she has been “overwhelmed” by the support of friends, family and fans.
“I feel so humbled by it,” she says. “I can’t tell you how much strength you get from it.”
On Saturday, she participated in Run For Her, a 5K in support of ovarian cancer research and awareness.
“Yes, she was in a wheelchair, but this was a victory,” says her good friend Alicia Quarles. “There she was, lifting all of our spirits with her bravery and courage. Our team was called Dancing for Diem, because no matter what challenges life throws at her, Diem keeps dancing her way through life.”
“I don’t have any choice but to face it and fight it,” says Brown, whose friends have set up a support page on MedGift, a gift registry Brown started to help those suffering from any illness. “I think about all the things I want to do: It’s fall, and I want to go apple-picking, pumpkin-picking. I just want so badly to live normally again.”