What does body positivity mean to you? At it’s most basic it’s about self-acceptance and self-care, but the way we view ourselves as individuals is embedded in a range of feelings, both physical and emotional, guaranteeing that no one view will be the same. Throw cancer into the mix and it becomes more complicated.
Personal injury of any kind whether due to an accident or an illness forces a “new normal”. Whilst this may seem obvious, what doesn’t is the inevitable challenge of how to embrace it.
We live in a world where external expressions of concern over our body image are frowned upon, especially in terms of the example we as parents set our children. It is not deemed acceptable anymore to talk about being disappointed with our looks lest it spark a series of obsessive body image issues with far reaching health consequences, in those who follow our example. Sometimes though this is easier said than done. We are only human after all.
I confess to having had a love hate relationship with my body image over the years but particularly since the advent of the peri-menopause in my mid 40’s. I battled with the changes to my body but confronted them proactively with hormone therapy, exercise and an attempt at a positive mental attitude – albeit I admit not always successfully.
Then just when I thought I had the midlife changes sussed and I was feeling good about myself, along came the diagnosis that threw a spanner in the works and has forced me to revisit my relationship with my body all over again.
As a cancer patient you are constantly encouraged to ask questions about your proposed treatment even up until the last minute, when dressed in surgical stockings, pants and gown you meet the team in charge of creating your “new normal”.
Abdominal surgery of any kind is major. There are a lot of crucial organs to navigate so it stands to reason that there will be some physical changes as a result, but nothing can fully prepare you for them and actually to be brutally honest if your surgical team elaborated on all the nitty gritty, ie the stuff you can’t find via Dr Google, it is likely you would either walk away or drive yourself mad thinking about the “what ifs”.
So what is the new normal? Well for me I have lost those parts that fully defined me as a woman, that not only helped to create but then go onto carry and nurture my teens during those all important formative stages of their lives.
How do I feel about that? Well I would be lying if I said it doesn’t feel like an assault on my femininity but one thing I learnt early on in the treatment process is that there is no room for sentimentality. Aside from the ever ready box of tissues, “feelings” are relatively immaterial. It is all about the practicalities and getting on with the job in hand – i.e to fix you and hopefully to save you; after all as a cancer patient that is what you really want - to be saved.
As a 50 year old woman I had as my surgeon so delicately put it “no need for all that anymore” and my proposed surgery would not only deal with the current cancer crisis but also diminish my chances of a recurrence. Put like that I would have had to be mad not to sign on the dotted line.
Eight weeks on and I am in a much better place than the early days post surgery when the focus was on pain relief and restoring a whole range of normal bodily functions that as a healthy individual you take for granted, but which the surgery disrupts.
At this point it is about rebuilding my strength and fitness, but not to the detriment of the healing process which as I am discovering daily, has its own agenda and won’t be rushed, so my parameters are still relatively limited as my cancer nurse keeps reminding me - walking yes but absolutely no Pilates, Barre or core exercises, which as a previously very active person is tough.
The other challenge at this stage is the perceptions of others. “You look so good, not like someone with cancer.” What does someone with cancer look like exactly? Well I suppose the archetypal image is of someone who has suffered not only weight loss but hair loss. But for every cancer sufferer that displays those outward signs there is one who doesn’t, whose cancer badge is not obvious to the naked eye.
One thing for sure,however, is whichever bracket you fall into, you are united in a battle to appear normal in whatever way you can. In the hospital waiting room there is an unspoken code of conduct between patients, a shared smile (sympathetic or otherwise,) a joke, a laugh or merely an acknowledgement that you are still here and doing “normal”.
But although you may appear normal on the outside and go through the motions with those around you, there is an omnipresent internal battle with your own view of what you are. You aren’t the same as you were anymore, the old normal that you have lived with for years has gone. Adapting to that takes time and therein lies the biggest challenge of all and one that no-one else can help you with.
Even without cancer no-one wants to stand out in a crowd - at least not for the wrong reasons anyway, so a huge part of feeling better with cancer is looking better. It’s not about vanity, it’s about restoring a positive body image and boosting your well-being along the way and if that is getting your nails done and donning something other than loungers, so be it. It's about whatever works for you.
There are many positives on this unplanned journey, not least the fact that illness is great for reminding us just how tenacious we are as individuals. I am alone with my cancer among my friends and that is tough for them as well as me, because sympathy doesn’t equate to understanding, but they are there for me. I am also lucky to have a husband with broad shoulders who reminds me during my occasional "poor me" rants of what lies beneath the body image i.e me. Then there is the unswerving suppport of my mother who has herself survived cancer against all the odds and her strength and resilience and those of others I witness each time I visit the hospital, is something I strive to emulate.
So where to now? Well my surgeon’s greeting of “how’s life?” is a pertinent reminder each time I see him that I am here and that is something to hold onto and be thankful for.
Developing a positive body image after cancer is a huge part of the recovery process and adjusting to this newly normal status is made a lot easier if your sense of yourself has a broader meaning and purpose. That can mean many things to many people but on a simplistic level the role of family, particularly children in this cannot be underestimated, neither can the importance of looking outward beyond the cancer and forwards to the future. Only that way can embracing and feeling positive about the "new normal" seem possible.