Cancer is no beauty pageant. There’s nothing inherently “pretty” about incisions, lesions, ports or drains. Nothing sexy about accessorizing with a walker and toilet riser. It’s even tough not to pull a party foul, when suffering from diarrhea and vomiting.
I call myself Frankenbelly. After 3 major surgeries so far, one that required two surgeons playing tag team for 12 hours, it ain’t what it used to be. None of me is. I’ve always been a thin woman, by genetics; certainly not buff, but at least my ass came up the stairs at the same time as the rest of my body. Things are just different, now. I’ve finally stopped looking behind me when I peer in the mirror, startled by whatever stranger must have snuck into the room. Nope. This is it. Me. The new “me”. A roadmap of scars and scabs where organs have been plucked out; flabalanches included. A good portion of my intestine is missing and, as the rest of it unhappily adjusts, I’m mortified by the incredible noises produced. I keep the dog nearby and blame her.
It’s weak, now. My body. Hopping out of bed was never my forte, but these days it involves a great deal of groaning, positioning, and usually finally a call for help. (I’ve gone supine and I can’t get up!) My partner thinks his full name is, “Seamus I Can’t Reach That.”
The changes brought about by gravity as we age can be difficult enough. Waking up one day, it seems, to find yourself in a body that you barely recognize or understand can be absolutely horrifying. Most of us identify very closely with our external appearance — as do those who know us. It startles everyone. Folks who love us try to disguise their own shock: “It’ll get better, just a little excess fluid.” Others, less adept at social niceties, recoil with, “Holy Mother of all things Holy, you look…you look…good…really…”.
The truth is your body will never again be as it was. It’s yet another thing to be Accepted, on the cancer journey. It takes time, and patience with yourself, but if you can let go of What Was, you may just find that What Now Is is actually well worth celebrating.
Lock the bathroom door. Look at yourself. Head to toe, buck naked. I know; it seems a form of torture. Go ahead and have a cry if you need to.
Now look again. With all the unconditional love and confidence you can muster. And yes, with a certain amount of resignation.
Your body is a Hero. Think of all it’s been through, that others can’t even fathom. It’s not letting you down; it’s fighting with every ounce it has to support you, just as it has every day of your life. It just has more to handle, now. It may complain about it, but it’s trying. Every lump, bump and even missing part tells the tale of what you’ve conquered. Yours is no weenie body. It’s made of pure grit and determination. The pressure has created a diamond.
Some thoughts to help your beautiful inner, and new outer, self get along…
- Don’t delude yourself into trying to wear your old jeans, unzipped. Mine spontaneously dropped to the floor of a crowded elevator that way. While Commando, because underpants also bugged my incisions. While things are tender, invest in a few “stretchies”: my wardrobe consists of a black pull-on skirt; a few pair of leggings, I don’t care if they’re in style or not; slip-on shoes that don’t require bending over, and comfy T’s. It all accommodates the fact that my new body has a habit of changing, daily.
- Hair Loss. Mine has been mild so far. I cannot speak about how to embrace it fully. I volunteered in a wig shop that assists cancer patients. I have never seen more dignity, humor…and grief, as women entered a world so foreign to most. It holds huge impact on body image and morale as a whole. The women I’ve spoken to who seem to manage it best were honest with themselves about their needs; some felt best in a wig, others a scarf, others yet went bald ‘n beautiful. I’d be grateful to hear from more patients who are dealing with it, and how.
- Exercise. Check with your physician. But whatever you’re allowed to do — do it. Then call me and remind me to. As onerous as it may seem, if you even just take a daily walk your body will reward you for it. Teamwork. Don’t forget your needed Vitamin D is best absorbed via 15 minutes of direct sunlight a day. Unless you’re on antibiotics.
- Positive affirmation. It works. If you tell yourself every day you’re a hideous heifer, you’ll surely feel that way. Even if you don’t quite yet believe it, replace negative thoughts with positive ones. I am a Survivor, I am Glorious (you are!)
- Set small, realistic goals to improve your self-image. Treat yourself to a pedicure; everyone feels better with their talons painted. If you can’t get out, have a hairdresser come to your home. Wear lipstick. On your eyebrows, if it suits you. If you can’t manage a full shower, Pits-n-Puss will do. Just one little thing can help.
- I’ve seen mastectomy patients elaborately tattoo their scars and proudly expose them. That may not be your style, but the point is you really are allowed to celebrate and even heartily display your “imperfections”. It’s hard for people not to smile, when I at least wear my hot pink “F*ck Cancer” socks. If you feel like sporting a bikini, you go, girl (or for the guys, perhaps a Speedo). Give new meaning to the term “let it all hang out”. Kinda like this:
None of this is expected to lift your spirits on a particularly bad day. You may find a Support Group helps. Whether it’s a tribe of friends you met at chemo, or a formal organization, sharing experiences with others who understand can be incredibly healing. Bring your fabulous body to one. I’ll be posting a list of some nationally available groups; ask your doc about ones local to you.
It is of course possible, even normal, to become seriously depressed over body image, especially with the added stress of extended illness. If you find yourself in that space, please call your physician or hotline immediately for referral to professional help. Most cancer facilities also offer Behavior Health services.
In the meantime, try to remember that your Body is not your new enemy. It’s the same temple that’s carried you through many joys as well as disappointments. Mine has created 3 children, who now are creating more of their own. I find that incredible. It’s earned some “slack”.
I try to Celebrate The Belly. Celebrate whatever you have as well!