The first time I wrote about body image was for GALTime. I had suggested the topic to my friend Charlene without really thinking too much about it. It ended up being a really difficult article to write – so very personal. Strange for me, since I’ve always been so open about all aspects of my cancer experience. And every time I write or speak about the topic, I’m surprised at how difficult it still is….
I was young, healthy, and very fit when I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Then, it turned out one of my breasts would kill me. Because the cancer had already spread throughout most of my breast, I would need a mastectomy. Initially, I thought I would not have any reconstruction. I would be a modern day Amazon – a warrior, cutting off my right breast to more easily wield my bow. In defiance, I wanted to shout to the world, “I am not my breasts!”
That’s a tough statement since we live in a culture that is sometimes bizarrely obsessed with breasts. I grew up with Ginger and Maryanne, Rachel Welch, and later, Baywatch. We pore over magazines showing us every star’s body-hugging, plunging-neckline fashions, debate Real or Fake? We begin learning from our teenage years that many men don’t understand basic anatomy – our eyes are in our heads. And yet a wardrobe malfunction generates horrified complaints and fines because someone might have caught a split-second glimpse of part of an exposed breast – oh my!
In the end, I chose reconstruction. It occurred to me that in the future I might not always feel so defiant; I might have days when I just wanted to get dressed and not be noticed. I had a free tram reconstruction, in which my belly fat and a small piece of muscle is removed and used to build a new “breast”. But since I was thin, I didn’t have enough belly to equal my other breast. To achieve relative symmetry I had a reduction on the other side.
So, in one day, I went from a full 34D to a smallish 34C. OK, it’s just one cup size. It’s not like I was suddenly horribly disfigured. But, besides all the issues that go with cancer, my profile was suddenly different. I had an image of my body: long, lean, athletic, and a 34D. Now it was different. I was still lean and athletic, but my chest was just average.
I don’t mean to sound like I’m complaining. My beautiful breasts would have killed me; I was quite pleased to change that!
But it’s definitely strange to suddenly be faced with a profile that doesn’t match your self-image. I was frequently surprised when I would catch a glimpse of my reflection in a window or see my shadow on the sidewalk. This was not the body I knew.
And it was equally strange to see friends and colleagues look with surprise at my new body.
For women going through cancer treatments, there are lots of programs aimed at improving self-image. There are free makeovers to help women feel good in their wigs, or with their new hair as it comes in curly, or perk up with some new makeup. I did them all. These programs are great, especially learning how to minimize the look of no eyelashes or eyebrows after they fall out. Let’s face it, looking like a frog is never a fashion statement one wants to make.
But no makeup or haircut could really change how I felt about my body. I decided the best way to feel good about my new body was to stand up straight and get strong enough to get back to all the things I love to do: playing music, rock climbing, windsurfing, skiing….
So I began the long process of stretching out scar tissue and strengthening weakened muscles. Even if I wasn’t sure just how I felt about my new profile, I stood tall and at least looked like I was proud. As I grew strong and returned to climbing and windsurfing, I did indeed begin to feel pride in my body again.
Our surgeries can cause tightness across the chest, stiffness of the shoulder, and a tendency for the shoulder to roll forward, as though to protect the area. Left unaddressed, this can result in serious problems over time, including poor posture, lack of mobility, weakness and pain.
The process of regaining good range of motion is a process of incremental, barely noticeable change. It takes patience – something I’m not always so good at – and diligence – something I’m much better at.
Only after I regained good range of motion did I begin strengthening exercises. Stretching is vital to recovering from breast surgery, but strengthening is equally important, especially the muscles of the shoulder and upper back.
A couple of exercises I did at the beginning for the upper back are the wing pinch and Superman lifts. These simple movements were great for helping me stand up straight with my shoulders back. For the wing pinch, hold your arms at your side and bend your elbows to 90 degrees. Hold your hands, palms up, slightly wider than your body, keeping your elbows at your sides. Draw your elbows back and squeeze your shoulder blades together. An easy version of the Superman lifts can be done sitting in a chair, good for beginning strengthening after surgery, when lowering yourself down onto the floor might be difficult. Sit up tall. Raise your right arm up overhead. At the same time, raise your left knee. Hold, and lower. Repeat on the opposite side.
In some ways, adjusting to our new bodies after breast cancer surgery is not that different than learning to accept and love our bodies in the first place. We all have flaws, certain things about our bodies we would prefer were different; I certainly do! But part of the process of being a happy adult is learning to accept ourselves, and that’s a process that can take years.
The trouble with image after breast cancer is that it’s all so sudden. Overnight our bodies are different. We’ve had some number of decades to get to know our bodies, and in a few hours they change, sometimes dramatically.
What we need most is time. It took us years as adults to be comfortable with who we are; it will take time to adjust to our new bodies.
But in the mean time, exercise. You’ll feel better and be a little healthier. Stand tall and proud. Even if you don’t feel that way yet, look like you do. And you might just find that, in fact, you are.