After beating cancer, Rosaliz Jimenez gained a new appreciation for the body she was born with—and a passion for helping women embrace their curves.

By Nicole Sforza

Rosaliz Jimenez is at an event hall in downtown New York City, about to walk the runway for the plus-size shopping site Full Beauty. She takes a last look at her outfit—black jumpsuit, turquoise platforms, citron jacket—draws a deep breath, and struts onstage, in step with the music (the Robert Palmer tune “Simply Irresistible,” blasting from the sound system). The lights are incredibly bright, and the crowd—celebs, stylists, models, and media folk—enthusiastic. Rosaliz reaches the end of the runway, strikes a pose, pivots gracefully, and strides offstage. The thrill is intense.

“I felt like a superstar,” recalls Rosaliz, 42, the photo director at the celebrity fashion magazine StyleWatch (a Time Inc. publication). She was one of only three non-pro models in that April 2015 show—a far cry from the shy teen who was teased about her weight. After the show, Ashley Graham—the plus-size model who made headlines as the cover girl for last year’s Sports Illustrated Swimsuit issue—gave Rosaliz compliments and a hug. “It was surreal,” says Rosaliz, “like if Einstein said you’re smart.”

Killing it on the catwalk that day was especially magical because of what Rosaliz had been through a few years before.

More Than Her Share

In 2011, when she hadn’t been feeling well and was mysteriously gaining weight, Rosaliz went to an endocrinologist, thinking that it was a thyroid issue. “My blood levels were normal,” she says, “so the doctor just told me to lose weight. In my experience, when you’re heavier, there’s an assumption that you’re not well because of your weight.” Second and third opinions yielded no further insight. Then one day Rosaliz noticed a lump on her neck. A sonogram showed that her thyroid was covered with nodules. When the gland was removed, it was revealed that “every single nodule was cancerous,” says Rosaliz.

She went through radiation, but this was only the beginning of a harrowing health odyssey. In early 2012, doctors found a tumor on her pancreas. During the surgery, in which half of Rosaliz’s pancreas was removed, her spleen ruptured. She began bleeding out. The doctors cut through abdominal muscles to take out the spleen. In December 2012, in an episode unrelated to the cancer, Rosaliz was hit with excruciating gallstones, and her gallbladder had to be removed.

This string of setbacks forced Rosaliz to take a leave from work. “It was like my body was imploding,” she says. But somehow she kept her cool: “I think it was the universe trying to be funny.”

Her outlook wasn’t always so sunny. “When I was little, I used to pray I would die, because I thought it would be easier than living as a fat person,” says Rosaliz. She was on medically supervised diets, and in school, kids called her “Miss Piggy.” But, admits Rosaliz, “no one bullied me the way I bullied myself.” Her agony led to an eating disorder in her 20s. “I lost a lot of weight, but I still didn’t feel pretty,” she says. Rosaliz would cloak herself in black and pull her hair into a tight bun. “I wanted to be invisible,” she says. “If no one could see me, no one could make fun of me.”

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Getting sick changed all that. In January 2014, feeling better, Rosaliz made a vow to remain grateful and to present herself differently: “I used to make fun of my body. But when my body broke down, I realized how lucky I always was to have it.” Her new openness came out in prints and colors, high heels, and loose hair. “I started getting excited about getting dressed,” she says.

Passion And Purpose

Rosaliz feels that her medical challenges were meant to give her a mission: to inspire others to love their bodies. “It took cancer to transform my body image, but people shouldn’t have to endure hardship to get to that point,” she says. “I hear my friends say their butts look big, and it makes me so sad. I want women to realize how blessed they are. To be like, ”OK, this is what I have to work with, so let’s look as cute as possible!“ It’s about changing the conversation you have with yourself.”

Rosaliz spreads her message in various ways, including a Facebook page (a self-empowerment forum with almost 10,000 followers called “xoxo, Curvy Girl”) and sitting on a panel for TheCurvyCon, an annual event in New York City. “One woman came up to me afterward and was really emotional,” says Rosaliz. “It felt great to know that my story inspired her.”

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Life now is not all leopard prints and hugs, though. There is still medical fallout: Not having a spleen makes Rosaliz prone to infection. And though she’s cancerfree, the disease is with her in a certain way. “Cancer leaves you living in terror,” she says. “It’s like having a restraining order against a crazy boyfriend. You’re always wondering when he’s going to show up again.”

She copes with the uncertainty by focusing on the present and letting go of destructive habits. “I’m learning to take care of myself better,” says Rosaliz, who used to be the type to push through, going to work with a fever. “Once I even came to the office with an IV in my arm. Now if I’m not feeling well, I call in sick.”

Still, there are days when self-doubt creeps in. “But then I remind myself,” she says. “I’ve survived cancer, radiation, and several surgeries and have lost 4½ organs.” Occasionally Rosaliz stands in front of the mirror and looks at her stomach. “I hate those Frankenstein scars, but I also love them,” she says, “because they remind me that I’ve been given a new life.”

And she knows just what she wants to do with it.

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