Restoring Body Positivity with Cancer

Restoring Body Positivity with Cancer

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.

 

Restoring Body Positivity With Cancer

 

 

 

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18 Comments

  1. April 24, 2018 / 11:04 pm

    What a weight on your shoulders Jo. Not only for you but all others around especially the children. Your progress though sounds phenomenal and I like that you shared what the doctor said too. This will give hope to many other women in the same boat that could be reading this even if they’ve had a dodgy smear test.
    Anyway, hurry up and get better, I want to join you for that cuppa!
    Laurie xx

  2. April 24, 2018 / 9:34 am

    This post just oozes positivity. I am in awe at how you are dealing with this. Major surgery like that alone would bring the self pity out in most people . Body positivity is hard enough a a woman without as you say losing something which you feel is a huge part of your feminity. I hope your new normal gets better and better everyday

  3. April 23, 2018 / 3:32 pm

    Well, having seen you, I can certainly say that I think you are little bit gorgeous my dear. The whole body thing is very difficult at our age anyway isn’t it Jo. So many daunting changes to face and I haven’t heard you say ‘poor me’ once. And you are absolutely entitled to. I cannot imagine how this must feel for you and it is by sharing this that you are making us stop and think and educating us on how things look and feel from where you stand. I can identify with the feeling you describe of feeling very alone. Similar to how Sharon describes above – losing a parent as an analogy. When we lost our dad at a young age, it made me feel very different, no one else had and we weren’t like other people anymore. It changed many things and I understand now that people genuinely do not understand or know what to say. It is often the case that we have to experience something to really feel it. You have shown such great strength here throughout all of this and we are all cheering you on x

  4. April 21, 2018 / 3:41 pm

    I greatly admire your strength for working towards being so positive. It is true; you are alive but it is also true that dealing with the loss of something so personal in order to live can weigh on a person’s mind and confidence. You are an amazing and strong woman and no one can take that from you. If anything this experience has made you so much stronger and your mission to look at body positivity only makes you stronger:) #TweensTeensBeyond

  5. April 20, 2018 / 7:24 pm

    Jo, you are truly an inspiration. I’m sure trying to remain positive cant always be easy. However, you are getting there and I look forward to reading many more blog posts from you. #tweensteensbeyond

  6. April 18, 2018 / 3:09 am

    Jo, you’ve been through so much in the past 8 weeks, i can’t begin to think about how much you’ve taken on and how much you’ve been through and had to come to terms with over such a short period. I hope your positivity and recovery continue in the same vein, thank you for sharing #tweensteensbeyond

  7. April 18, 2018 / 2:06 am

    Such a wonderful positive post, Jo. I hope it helps to talk and share things – a trouble shared is a trouble halved, they say (though apart from supportive words, I’m not sure what virtual friends can offer) – and your mother seems such a great inspiration. I hope things continue to go well, and that you’ll soon be putting all this behind you xx #tweensteensbeyond

  8. April 17, 2018 / 8:11 pm

    Wow Jo what a strong character you have! As a 45 year old woman who has had a hysterectomy, I could identify with your worries about losing parts that define you as a woman. I know I struggled with this and I still find it hard when people make comments about periods or having more babies. Like you said it can be people’s preconceived ideas that are the problem. Stay strong lovely, you’ve got this! Thank you for hosting #tweensteensbeyond

  9. April 17, 2018 / 5:58 pm

    You express very complicated issues so eloquently Jo, this post is wonderfully written. Every word is brilliant but I was most struck by your thoughts on sympathy not equating understanding. I remember feeling like this when my father passed away 10 years ago. I sought out the company of other bereaved people. I only really wanted to talk to people who had themselves lost a parent. I guess at that time, I wanted understanding rather than sympathy. Over time, as my friends have lost their own parents, I have found them turning to me and so perhaps they feel the same? Thank you for sharing this with us. xxx #TweensTeensBeyond

  10. April 17, 2018 / 4:50 pm

    I’m amazed how strong and brave you sound, and maybe that’s in part due to the amazing sounding support network you have. It must be such a tumultuous journey with new hurdles to cross at every turn. The body image is a big one, especially as it’s your body that in some way you may feel has let you down. I wish you all the strength and patience you need for the days ahead.xxx #Tweensteensbeyond

  11. April 17, 2018 / 4:39 pm

    I think about you Jo and wonder how you are doing. Sorry I haven’t been so regular on your blog of late. But I am happy to read how you have shared with feelings and emotions. There is so much we take for granted. I am glad that you are getting better. Your post makes me think. I really don’t have any answers but I hope writing it down makes you better. It is a very tough phase in your life and as far as I can see you are holding up with fortitude and grit.

  12. April 17, 2018 / 1:13 pm

    I’m glad that you can share your journey via your blog. I hope writing about your new normal is a bit cathartic–it seems to be from reading it. I don’t have any pat answers, but I wish you a good recovery and continued positivity and healing as you adjust.

  13. April 17, 2018 / 11:56 am

    Fantastic post. So well written, but saying it like it is. My wife works in a hospice and tells me many tales of everyday folk in not so everyday situations. Thanks for sharing your story so honestly and affectingly. I am sure it will be helpful to others in a similar situation, #TweensTeensBeyond

  14. April 17, 2018 / 11:12 am

    I was wondering how you were getting on. I’m glad to hear you’re recovering (slowly) and beginning to feel more like yourself. Long may that continue!

  15. April 17, 2018 / 10:36 am

    A thought provoking post which addresses something really important to us women – our feminity. Whilst I wouldn’t presume to understand everything you are going through, I think strength under pressure is a key feminine trait which can be more important than having a flat and unscarred abdomen – as is bravery. I am sending you healing prayers x

  16. April 12, 2018 / 12:20 pm

    Hello Jo,
    This is such a positive post lovely. I wondered how you were getting on and often think of you. I’m glad you are building your strength back and wish you well for the future. Xx

    • Jo
      Author
      April 16, 2018 / 11:48 am

      Hi Sophie, yes I have definitely turned a corner and am making progress every day, if not as fast as I would like. The last 4 weeks has definitely been slow and I need to get my patience in check. Thanks for your kind thoughts as always. Jox

      • April 17, 2018 / 12:32 pm

        I’m just popping back with #tweensteensbeyond. Xx

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