I’ve struggled with my weight and body image since I was in the first grade.

For years, I would stand in front of the mirror and cry at the big and ugly girl that stared back at me. I hated my body and wished that I could disappear, all because the number on the tag of my dress and the number on the scale made me feel insignificant. I had very little self-esteem and a whole lot of insecurities.

Despite years of therapy and piles of self-help books, my self image didn’t shift until 2011, when at the age of 37, I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. After all the treatments and surgeries, I realized how blessed I was to have a body that was strong enough to fight through illness and withstand surgeries and radiation. Despite the pain and trauma, I was in awe at the resiliency and power of my body—the same body that I had always cursed.

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To paraphrase author Kris Carr of Crazy Sexy Cancer fame, I would never call cancer a gift, because I would never want to give it to you... But it was the best teacher that I've ever had. It taught me to love myself and appreciate my body just the way it is. Here’s how cancer showed me the path to compassion and self-esteem.

Love what your body can do, not what it looks like

From 2011 to 2013 I had several surgeries and treatments, but the last and most intense one came in May 2013. Half of my pancreas was removed, and during the surgery my spleen ruptured and my ab muscles had to be cut open, leaving me unable to get in and out of bed or even walk to the bathroom without the assistance of an army of nurses and a cane.

For so long I had made self-deprecating remarks about my “fat” body, but now that my body was falling apart I came to the realization that my body was, and is, remarkable. I couldn’t stop thinking about how marvelous my abs and all of the organs and glands that I had lost were, and how well they had served me for most of my life. My long lost thyroid had provided me with energizing hormones that I needed to get me through my day; my spleen had protected me from disease; my lovely pancreas provided enzymes to break down my food into nutrients.

But it was my “fat” belly that I was most in awe of. Now that I couldn’t move, I came to appreciate how strong my muscles were—how my abs held me in plank position while I did yoga, and my strong legs and thighs carried me as I climbed inside the Great Pyramid of Giza.

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The greatest gift of this whole experience was getting reacquainted with my body and spirit, both of which have ALWAYS been strong and resilient. Despite the pain, stitches, and wounds, I came to appreciate my body in a way that I had never done before, and I offered myself the compassion, love, and acceptance that I had never allowed before. My perspective shifted from wishing that my body looked like someone else’s to celebrating what had always been mine.

Fake it until you make it

I started off the process of change by just being grateful for each day and being grateful for being alive. As my marvelous body healed, I began using affirmations as a way to show my body and my spirit how much I admired its strength. Then on January 1, 2014, I made a conscious vow to love and respect myself in a way that I never had before.

It may sound superficial, but I used my love of fashion to get me there. For years I dressed like an old woman in mourning (head-to-toe black with a bun to match) and I used clothing to hide my body and become invisible. In retrospect, I now see that by doing so, I was letting the world know how badly I felt about myself without uttering a word.

I decided to say kind things to my body and experiment with fashion. I joined Gwynnie Bee, a clothing subscription site for plus size women, and stopped wearing frumpy dresses with flats. Eventually, I even let my hair down and stopped wearing it in a bun.

At first, I felt like I was faking it because I wasn’t used to showing myself any kindness (or even used to wearing a belted dress!), but I decided to keep going with it. Now I feel comfortable wearing bright prints, high heels and, literally, letting my hair down. But most importantly, I no longer let the size printed on the tag in my dress devalue me.

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People respond to your energy, not your looks

As I shifted my perspective from self-loathing to self-love, people started to treat me differently. And it wasn’t so much how I looked but the energy that I was projecting.

I was literally walking with my head up, smiling more, chatting with strangers, and exercising more compassion with myself and with others. I also changed the words that I used. I stopped insulting myself with phrases like “I look like crap” or “I’m so fat!” Words are powerful and I wanted to make sure that I chose them carefully when speaking to myself.

So many of my friends took notice. I’ll never forget when one of my co-workers, whom I first met before my transformation, told me how proud she was of me. Even though I hadn't told her what I was doing, she had noticed that I was dressing differently (I do work at a fashion magazine, after all)—but most importantly, she told me that I was “projecting a strong confidence” that everyone could see. Something about what she said made me feel like the outside world could finally see me—the real me.

Look at yourself from 20 years in the future

One day while I was recovering from one of my surgeries, I found an old photo of myself from when I was 20 years old and in art school. Despite being a photography major, I hated getting my photo taken because I thought that I was so fat and worthless.

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As I stared at the photo, tears welled up in my eyes. My 39-year-old self finally saw my 20-year-old self for who she really was—I was NOT fat and NOT ugly. My skin was luminous, my hair was shiny, and my athletic body was curvy and strong. I was beautiful!

Now when I’m having an off day or I’m in a funk, I think to myself, “What would 60-year-old me say about me at this moment?” The answer is always free of judgment and always filled with wisdom and compassion.

Loving your body helps you love your whole self

As I practiced the art of loving and taking care of myself, I began to let go of things that were weighing me down, all things that were painful and exhausting—everything from self-loathing and cursing my body to ending an unhealthy 18-year relationship with a man I'd thought I would spend the rest of my life with. As difficult as it was sometimes, the more that I started to treat myself with true love and respect, the less tolerant I became of toxic energy and the more confident I became.

Sharing the lessons that cancer taught me is now my passion. I never want anyone—especially women—to have to experience a traumatic event before they realize what a miracle their body is and has always been. My body went through cancer, several surgeries, and radiation and not only survived, but my body and I are thriving! My scars still hurt but I’m so proud of them—each one reminds me that I’m strong, resilient, and able to thrive in the midst of adversity.

My body is a miracle and my only regret is not falling in love with it sooner—before the cancer, before the scars, before I needed a cane to walk, before the hair loss, before the hospitals. But I accept this as not only part of my journey, but as part of my mission.

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The most important lesson I've learned is that we need to live in gratitude for what we have—it’s the only way to transform into who we truly are. Be proud and let the world see who you are. You and I are beautiful so let’s celebrate ourselves in the New Year!

Rosaliz Jimenez is the Photo Director at People StyleWatch, and a body confidence advocate.