Body Image & Self-Image After Breast Cancer, Part 1

Breast cancer can and often does do a number on a woman’s body image. You’re saying, “duh,” about now, right?

When you stop and really ponder this, it’s quite remarkable how well most women do manage to adapt and carry on following a cancer diagnosis, surgery (prophylactic counts too) and whatever else is involved in their experiences.

Often we have our breasts chiseled away at, amputated altogether, reconstructed and revamped, sometimes with much success and sometimes not so much. Others opt totally out of that kind of thing, choosing for personal reasons to forge on ahead without breasts at all.

For still others, due to stage at diagnosis and/or other various reasons, there is no mastectomy and/or reconstruction option. This, too, presents challenges. And it doesn’t just end with breasts. Many of us also have inner parts removed or literally sucked out. Sorry, but that’s how some of these procedures are done.

(Of course, there are many other things that add to our sometimes diminished self-image too. Like no longer being able to hold the job we once held. Not being able to finish tasks we used to do and so on. But that’s a post for another day.)

Before my diagnosis, a dear aunt of mine (yes, she had breast cancer) remarked to me one time in a joking manner, “Gosh, I’ve had so many of my female parts removed, I could just as easily be a man.”

Of course, we laughed at the ridiculous notion of that statement, but in reality it wasn’t all that funny.

Regardless of what sex a person is, we all know it’s not the outside package that counts the most, but in the world we live in, it sure as heck counts.

We all know and proclaim that inner beauty and inner qualities matter most; but after cancer wreaks havoc on your body, try telling that to yourself each day before or after your shower while gazing into the mirror at the reflection that doesn’t even look like you any more.

Added to the removal and revamping of body parts, and not just any body parts, but the very parts that epitomize your femininity, sometimes there are also hair, weight gain/loss, libido, pain, lymphedema, neuropathy and a whole host of other issues to grapple with which directly impact your body image and therefore your self-image as well. And of course, let’s not forget all those scars permanently etched onto our bodies and into our psyches.

Saying it’s a lot to contend with is more than an under-statement for sure.

And yet we do contend, adapt, adjust, and carry on; but many of us (including me) work hard to reclaim and/or retain a positive body image and self-image as well, post cancer diagnosis.

I maintain that body image and self-image are not the same. They are intertwined of course, but you can, and many of us do, struggle more with one than the other.

My body image has never been stellar; I would call it adequate and fluctuating, but my self-image has always been relatively solid.

But after a cancer diagnosis, it is harder (and it wasn’t all that easy before) to maintain either one of them and I don’t think I’m alone here either. Post diagnosis, maintaining, rediscovering, redefining or reclaiming your body image and/or self-image takes a good deal of effort, plenty of practice, loads of self-compassion and as much time as necessary. In fact, for most of us, the process never ends.

As you probably know, I also maintain that you cannot really move forward with this reclaiming process until you’ve allowed yourself ample time to grieve for the old you, the you with all your original parts in tact.

And this kind of grieving might have to be revisited from time to time too. Doing so does not mean you are trying to rewind your life, it means you are trying to do the exact opposite, forge ahead.

Skipping this part is like fast forwarding through a movie, you miss important parts.

A very helpful step in all this rediscovery and reclaiming for me anyway, is keeping body image and self-image separate. Again, they are intertwined of course, but they are not the same. Either or both can be damaged, yes even destroyed. But each one can also be built back up, but it won’t be easy.

Finally, always remember that you are enough, just as you are right now, this very minute.

You are worthy just for being you.

So go ahead. Say the words to yourself right now, I am enough. I am worthy just for being me, exactly as I am.

Because it’s true.

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14 thoughts to “Body Image & Self-Image After Breast Cancer, Part 1”

  1. Your words rang a bell inside of me.

    I just wrote a huge long paragraph about why…then decided to delete it all and just say, “Thank you”.


    1. Kim, Well now you have me pretty curious about what you wrote in that deleted paragraph… But you’re more than welcome. Thanks for reading and sharing what you feel comfortable with. I’m glad the post resonated with you.

  2. Nancy, I had a lumpectomy in the right breast and it looks a lot smaller than my left. Before all this happened, my right breast had always been smaller than the left one but now it’s too noticeable. I have a long scar going across it but it doesn’t bother me as much as the size difference. Although I was comfortable with the decision I made to do a lumpectomy, I sometimes have a hard time looking at them because they freak me out. Not because of how they look like but because I know what they are capable of doing to me (“the mental game”).

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts about this subject.


    1. Rebecca, Ah yes, the mental game. I am more than familiar with it. It’s natural that the size difference between your breasts bothers you. I’m glad you are comfortable with your decision to go with the lumpectomy. The science backs up your choice. You’ve had what I referred to in my post as the ‘chiseling’ done. The changes that are forced upon us aren’t easy to adjust and adapt to, but we do the best we can. Thanks for sharing your thoughts too.

  3. Nancy, your distinction between body image and self-image is spot-on. For me, they have become blurred at times. As you know, I’ve written posts on body image because this is a huge thing for me. I had three lumpectomies, and my right breast looked awful as a result. Finally, due to a scare, I had a prophylactic bilateral with reconstruction.

    Doctors tell me the plastic surgeon’s work was phenomenal, and it is. But when I look in the mirror, I grieve. I should be happy I’m alive — and I am — but everyday I see my torso (under my belly and up), I just don’t feel like this is my body. It’s sort of an out-of-body experience, if that makes sense.

    Excellent post, and I’m looking forward to reading Part II.

    1. Beth, Body image and self-image do become blurred at times and that’s why it helps me to remind myself to keep them separate. I know you have some fabulous posts on this topic. I know what you mean about that grieving and this most certainly doesn’t mean we aren’t grateful at the same time. It’s all so complex. Thank you for reading and sharing some thoughts.

  4. YES. I am also on a shopping spree to beautify myself now that I lost my hair again. I told my husband I need new pretty things to make myself feel pretty (excuses excuses). All of the things you describe are so true, and so tough, especially to a woman in her 30’s. Most of the time I don’t see the scars in the mirror, but some days I do. There are a lot of them, and swimsuit shopping… Oy!

    1. Mandi, Breast cancer does such a number on our appearance and on our very femininity. It’s way harder to feel pretty now, for me anyway… I’m sorry you lost your hair again. That’s so hard no matter what your age. Good luck with your shopping spree. Thank you for sharing. Hope things are going alright.

  5. For me it wasn’t just the loss of my left breast. It was the sudden switch from being in my prime at 45 to being bald, missing a breast, and completely into menopause with no warning or preparation. Before my diagnosis I was fit, slim, fresh out of a bad marriage and feeling exhilarated with my new freedom and joy in life. I was dating a guy who said I was “hot”. And then, BOOM! After cancer it has taken me another 8 years, which I am grateful to have, to feel beautiful again. I am just starting to. For several years I stopped bothering to have a style any more and just embraced “frumpitude” (my teenage son’s word). Now I have given up on frumpitude and decided that hot is a state of mind. Not easy, but worth the effort! I’m 53, plumper than I was, mostly undiminished but with cleavage envy. Sometimes that’s the best I can do and it’s enough. Thank you for writing about this!

    1. Elizabeth, Gosh, your comment is so spot on in so many ways for me. None of this is easy is it? That word your son came up with made me chuckle, especially since here I sit in my comfy sweat pants and sweatshirt. Oh well… like you said hot is a state of mind. This is such an important topic, I’m sure I’ll be writing about it again. Thanks for commenting.

  6. Omg, Nancy, this hit dangerously close to home for me right now. At time of my DX, I was a 5’6″, 115 lb, size 2, with energy to share and a positive self image. I maintained that for about 4 years until the cumulative effects of treatments just started snowballing. Lung issues landed me on steroids for an extended period of time and then regular menopause (as opposed to chemically induced-Tamoxifen menopause) took over. In the last 3.5 years I’ve gained 60 lbs and am now a size 16. I stopped having any fun because of my negative body image. Until this last weekend. I stepped out of my comfort zone and repelled off a 42 story building to support an animal rescue group I’m passionate about. I’m fat, out of shape and can hardly breathe. I almost backed out at the last minute, but with encouragement, I did it. Let me tell you, repelling down a 42 story is an intense workout. I’m still feeling it. But when I finally let go of that negative body image, if only for a short time, I enjoyed the ride. Then the pictures came in and I saw how huge I look. Trying to find the positive in all this and looking forward to your follow up blog post.

  7. Yes to both problems. I’m a larger person, didn’t date a lot and am not one for playing games with people, so I was not Miss Popular at any time in my life. And to be BRUTALLY HONEST (keeping it real), my husband is a breast man. So when I had 2 lumpectomies, I really felt awful about my body. After brain surgery I lost 60 pounds so I felt like a goddess for a while, breasts be damned. But with the latest diagnosis of MBC, my self-esteem plummeted and I had to seek psychological help. Am I enough? I have to be; I’m all I’ve got!
    Cancer sucks.

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