Why I Renovated my Apartment While Getting Cancer Treatment

illustration of eleni cocores
Why I Reno'd My Apartment During Cancer TreatmentThe Red Dress

The day my kitchen cabinets were finally going to arrive, after months of waiting, I was rushed to the hospital with a neutropenic fever—and ended up being there a week. This was a little frustrating because I couldn’t oversee the install, but it all turned out well. It’s been a dream of mine to own some type of home. I used to tie that together with having a family of my own—I’ve kind of been waiting for that moment to figure it out. But my life took a little bit of a turn when I was diagnosed with cancer about a month after my 33rd birthday.

There are a lot of things that maybe I’m not going to be able to do in my lifetime, but making a home was one that still felt attainable.

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Prior to my diagnosis, I'd left my corporate job at Google and had the opportunity to travel and volunteer around the world for about a year. I knew that I didn't want to return back to a big company, and as much as I loved living in San Francisco it didn't make sense if I wasn’t going to make a big salary. So for a few reasons, I decided to move to DC—a little bit on a whim. My prior jobs were at big corporations, media, and tech companies. I wanted to follow my passion and see if I could do something on my own, so I started doing some consulting for some restaurants and food business owners.

A year after moving, the day before Halloween in 2019, I was having some GI issues. I thought it was just the usual and wrote it off. But I ended up having stabbing pain in my stomach so went to the ER. They did a scan and said there was inflammation in my colon, gave me some antibiotics, and that was that. They told me to follow up with a gastroenterologist a month later, so I did. Worst case, I thought it was gonna be Crohn's disease or something.

They went in and did a colonoscopy. As soon as I got out, still coming off the drugs they use to put me to sleep, they were like: “You have cancer.” They’d found a tumor in my colon. So that was quite the shock. At the time, I was just thinking it would just be another chapter in my book—I was going to get over this fast. They got me into surgery within a few days and removed a foot of my colon. I was scheduled for chemo a month later.

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Prior to all of this, I’d been thinking of freezing my eggs. Ever since I was little, I knew I wanted to have kids—growing up Greek, life is very family-oriented. But I was now in my early 30s and hadn’t met the person I wanted to start a family with. After being diagnosed, I had to fast-track that procedure, because you don’t know how much chemotherapy will affect your ovaries and all those parts. Unfortunately, it ended up being a failed attempt, but at least I have one little frozen egg somewhere. I would need many miracles for it to come into use, but at the time it was really important to me. So I went through that whole IVF process between getting my diagnosis and getting my first round of chemo. It was just this whirlwind of trying to do everything. It was crazy.

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This is during one of my first treatments in D.C. I had a lot more and curlier hair then.Eleni Cocores

The chemo took place over six months. They required infusions every three weeks and pills as well. I had lots of different side effects, like I couldn't touch anything cold. It was very weird. But by June of 2020, I was done and the scan looked clear. Then they went in to finish the colonoscopy that was cut short when they found my tumor, and unfortunately found something else: abnormal cells where they reconnected my colon after removing a foot of it.

This was mid-COVID, so when I went back to DC for a biopsy I was staying in a hotel by myself. They opened me up and found out that the cancer had spread to my peritoneum, which is kind of like the lining of your abdomen. That was a really big blow. That meant it had gone from Stage Three to Stage Four.

Suddenly everything was fast-tracked. I was like, "What am I going to do? Where am I going to live?" I had to start hemotherapy as soon as possible. So I ended up moving down to Sarasota to stay with a friend in Florida. It’s an hour from Tampa, which has a big cancer hospital. The plan was to do a different type of chemotherapy there in hopes of stabilizing the disease, in preparation to do a bigger surgery. That ultimately took place at Memorial Sloan Kettering in New York in November of 2020.

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They cut me open from my face, my breasts down to my groin area and removed everything—cancer and all these other extra organs and things that they thought the cancer could attach itself to. I had a full hysterectomy. I had an appendectomy. It was considered successful. Three or four months later, I went back for my follow-up scans. I had like felt something in my abdomen. The cancer was back and had spread everywhere.

I decided to go out to California to San Francisco to stay with a couple of my best friends while I got more treatment. I had a great month; the cancer responded to the chemo and shrunk a little bit. The doctors were supportive of me taking a break, so I traveled to Greece for a month. I have family there and was able to go to a wedding and see family and friends. It was really wonderful. When I came back, however, the cancer had grown back. That's when I decided I needed to like more permanently settle.

I wanted to make a home somewhere. I decided to move back to Florida.

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Being downtown, even if I don’t feel well enough to go out, people I know can stop by on their way to restaurants or shops.Eleni Cocores

I was born in New Jersey, but we moved to South Florida when I was 11, and I've lived away from Florida for my adult life. For the past 15 years, I’ve lived in big cities. To be honest, I never thought I was gonna move back to Florida. I didn't really feel that connected to the place. That's changed a bit now. To be honest, I don't know how much time I'm going to have left. Your life is who you spend it with.

One of my sisters lives in Miami and is a physician and her husband is a doctor. They have a good cancer center there as well. So initially, I was staying with them to be closer to the hospital. But I was having a hard time, being sick with all the side effects—I needed a little bit more care. So I moved in with my mom. Then I kind of realized that Palm Beach County, a little bit north of Miami, is where I grew up. I had a community there.

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The Red Dress

But if you're not a cash buyer in that area, you're not going to get the place. So we tried to try to cobble together the money that we had. I cleared out my 401k. And I was really lucky: My grandfather contributed a good sum, because he knew I wanted to fulfill my dream of having a home. For the year I was traveling, I hadn't really had a space of my own, and then I was kind of bouncing around apartments in DC. Now I was 35; I really want to create a space for myself.

Initially, I was like, "Oh it would be so beautiful to live right across from the beach or have a view of the water." But then I started to visit those places, and it was an older crowd and also a little bit too quiet for me—especially in contrast to some other places that were within walking distance to a downtown area where you could go to restaurants or shops or you could go to a farmer's market.

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For a different apartment, I put together an offer letter to try and convince the seller that I was the right buyer. I laid it all out there: This is my story. Putting it on paper made it clear: Being downtown, being able to walk places reminds me of the places I used to live—San Francisco, New York, DC—which makes me really happy. Being in the liveliness helps me feel more alive.

I didn't end up getting that place, but then a condo came up in a complex in a great location in Delray, about 40 minutes from Miami. It was a two-bedroom, so it would allow me and my other sister to live there. She was relocating to South Florida from Denver around the same time, and we'd decided to be roommates. I edited the letter and we got the place.

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The Red Dress

The building was built in 2004, and the condo had generic finishes: carpet in the bedrooms, a mix of laminate and tile in the kitchen. There was a big column in between the kitchen and the living room. It was totally livable, and a lot of people probably wouldn’t have done any work. But because it was my first place and, considering my health situation, I felt like this was my opportunity to make somewhere that I really loved and that would reflect me. But I had to really think about what that was. I wasn't someone who had Pinterest boards and was always following decor blogs. So I decided: I'm going to take on the project myself.

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Demo Day: April 2022 Just a month or two after we took possession of the condo, they came in and took everything out—except one of the bathtubs.Eleni Cocores
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As soon as the offer was accepted, I reached out to contractors. The way we ultimately worked out the agreement, I was responsible for getting all the supplies. I wanted control; I didn’t want the generic Shaker cabinetry. I did end up working with a kitchen designer because that's where I spend most of my time and where I wanted to invest the most.

My goal was to create a warm, inviting, comforting place where I could heal, recover, and rest. But I also wanted it to be a place where I could host. I love cooking and having people over, especially when I’m stressed. It’s one thing that calms me and keeps me in the present, because all you have to be focusing on is what you're doing. I love building out a pantry and just having fresh ingredients and doing the whole thing, making a whole meal, the whole process of going to a farmer's market and the fish market. I was really upset about getting an induction oven, but gas ranges are not really a thing in Florida, especially in a condo building. In the kitchen, we were able to take down that column and open up the space. There’s a large island that curves at the end; if I’m cooking, people can sit around it and I can engage with them. The countertops will be quartz, white with beige undertones.

We put in light white oak flooring everywhere but the bathrooms. I have some palm tile in one of the bathrooms. The idea was “natural earth tones with a mix of Florida coastal tropical.” I ended up going with sage-green cabinets for the kitchen, with some space for open shelving above so you won't see the cabinets too-too much. I know that color is trending right now. Hopefully I won’t get sick of it.

In the living room, I wanted a really comfortable couch. I ordered one with a loungey feel, and I might get some other loungey chairs for the bedroom. That way I can just go in and relax. I don't love it when the TV is the focal point of the room, but at the same time I do watch a lot of TV and movies these days because I'm not feeling well. So I'm thinking of getting a Samsung Frame, and making it more of a gallery wall so doesn't pop out as much.

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Throughout the place, I'd love to integrate a few different pieces that I've collected along the way: vintage or things that are from my grandparents, without it making feel too cluttered. We'll see again how that comes to life.

The flooring was a nightmare. The first sample came in and was way darker than I envisioned, with like black undertones. I had to return it and pay a restocking fee. Even the one that I have now is darker than I wanted, but I had to just go with it. Obviously you're spending a lot of money, you wanna make sure you love it. I’m a perfectionist. But at the same time, I'm trying to be practical. One of the harder things has been decision fatigue.

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Dry Bar, Summer 2022: This is right when you walk in, by the dining table. I’m not really drinking during this time, but I do have a slight addiction to soda waters! If guests come over, I can still make them a cocktail.Eleni Cocores

During the renovation, I would say my time was split maybe 50-50: One half was doctors’ appointments and treatments and recovery. And then the other half was buying stuff online or going to different stores. There were countless times that I was too ill or nauseous to do any research or ordering, which probably ended up delaying things a bit.

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The Red Dress

It’s been good and bad, juggling a project while going through treatment. It’s been nice to have something to focus on. When I am feeling well, I’m running around, going to different stores, thrifting, trying to do it all. That can get a little exhausting because I don’t have much energy these days.

But I’m a Virgo. I love projects; I love planning things. Just having something to use my brain for—I haven’t felt like I've done that in a while. It's a nice feeling. With this disease, it’s forced me to take things day by day. Having this project has been stressful, but it’s also allowed me to feel like I’m producing something, doing something with my time and energy. It's starting to come to fruition. And it’s been pretty fun to see it come to life.

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A lot of Greek culture here revolves around the church. It's very closely tied. So even though I haven't been super close with the Greek community in this area over the years, that network has been a great support system for me since I moved back. They show up and show me love and reach out if I need a ride somewhere or am not feeling well. They offer to bring me things. A couple weeks ago, when I found out there was like another tumor, they threw me a surprise dinner get-together, which was really nice. I feel lucky to have such a great support system in place. I’m really lucky.

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trust your gut
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“If the current trends continue, by 2030, colon cancer cases are projected to increase by 90% in patients under age 35,” reports Y. Nancy You, M.D. Colorectal cancer screenings are recommended starting at age 45 for patients of average risk.

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