Does this sound like a loaded question or what? I think it’s a very interesting one, and it’s one I have been thinking about for a long time. Cancer changes things. It just does. One day I was trying to make a list of areas of my life that have not been impacted by cancer, and I couldn’t come up with much to put on my list. So again, cancer changes things. Does it change everything? Well, maybe not everything, but it comes pretty darn close, or at least it feels like it on some days, right?
Throughout my life, I have always felt pretty good about myself. I have always had, more or less, a positive self-image. Now body image, that’s another ballgame. So I was thinking, has this really changed since before cancer?
Yes, it has.
Before cancer, I used to feel pretty confident about how I looked too. I was far from totally pleased about my looks, of course, but I felt mostly okay about my appearance. These days this is not the case. And this is in large part due to cancer treatment, NOT normal aging. It bugs the heck out of me when I hear that this is all normal aging, by the way. That is BS.
These days when I am fully dressed, I look alright. No one would ever know by looking at me I had my real breasts amputated, and no, I don’t think that’s being dramatic. That’s how it feels to me even though technically amputations only refer to limbs, fingers and such. I don’t care. Again, this is what a mastectomy feels like to me, an amputation. When a “real” amputee wears a prosthetic leg or arm, I’m pretty sure they don’t look at their prosthetic body part in the same way they looked at their original part(s). Anyway, when full clothed, no one would ever know or even suspect I am not the real deal physically.
But I know.
I know what’s there and what isn’t. And yes, I miss my breasts. I do not consider my implants to be my breasts. They are not. They are stand ins for the real deal. They are fake. They are not part of me. They never will be.
And saying these things doesn’t mean I am not grateful. I am. But I still miss what I once was, physically speaking. And yes, I know breasts do not define us as women, but they are/were an important component nonetheless.
Some days I walk around feeling like a complete fraud, or more accurately, a complete fake, again, physically speaking of course.
A new online friend, Georgia Hurst, asked me the other day if I felt de-feminized by cancer and all the surgeries I’ve had. I said, yes I do. Not completely, of course, but I’ve been torn down a notch or two. Literally. I wrote about this a little bit in my memoir because I feel there’s this tendency to downplay everything about breast cancer (thank you, pink ribbon culture), including mastectomies, reconstruction (if a woman chooses it) and other surgeries some of us are “forced” to have. Georgia writes candidly about such things on her blog too, btw. She is dealing with Lynch Syndrome and has had some tough surgeries herself.
Removing body parts is no small deal. I have so much respect for women (like Georgia) who are choosing prophylactic-type surgeries. And it doesn’t matter if they are internal or external body parts being removed. In fact, in some ways removing (or shutting down with drugs, who’s nodding her head?) certain inner organs can impact a woman’s femininity even more than a mastectomy. Ovaries, uteri or whatever parts you’re talking about, are there for a reason. They have jobs to do, even after menopause, and it’s not just being a place holder, but even that is a job too.
And it’s not just surgeries that take a toll by any means. There’s the hair (still going to do that rant post). And the lashes. And the brows. And the weight gain. And the achy joints. And the neuropathy. And the fatigue. And the chemo brain. And the diminished libido. And the fear. And the worry. And the damn brca thing. And so on and so on… Cancer treatment baggage is what it is, and there is lots of it to carry around. Some have more. Some have less. And talking about it does NOT mean I am being negative.
So yes, cancer treatment of any kind takes a toll on a woman’s femininity, at least it has on mine. To pretend otherwise would not be honest or helpful.
Still, I am lucky. Mostly because I am still NED (no evidence of disease). My issues are minuscule compared to my dear metster friends’ worries. Many of them would gladly give up whatever body part you might have in mind if it meant staying alive longer. But they understand where I’m coming from too. At least I hope they do.
I am also lucky because I have managed to keep my self-image pretty much in tact. I still feel good about myself as a person. This is probably because I don’t think body image and self-image are the same, though they are of course, intertwined.
Since my cancer diagnosis, I feel more vulnerable in a lot of ways. And I like my physical self a whole lot less. But I’m still okay with who I am as a person, though of course, I have lots of room for improvement. Who doesn’t? My self-image is still in tact. On most days anyway. My body image, not so much. But if I have to pick one over the other, I’ll pick a solid self-image.
After all, I’m still me on the inside. Well, except for those missing organs…
I’m still me in the ways that truly count. (Though I must remind myself of this daily).
And I am enough.
So are you.
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Do you sometimes feel de-feminized by cancer treatment (prophylactic stuff counts too).
Do you think self-esteem and body image are different?
How do you feel about yourself these days?