It’s a new year and with each year comes more growth from life experiences. I consider myself to be an open book but there are certain topics I haven’t been comfortable opening up about, body image being at the top of the list. But as time has passed and I have become more familiar and fear-less about the issues revolving around cancer, I now find myself able to be a bit more vulnerable.
To recap, as most of you may know, I have been fighting stage 4 metastatic breast cancer for over 5 years and I have been labeled “incurable.” I have undergone multiple biopsies, surgeries, five years of constant chemotherapy, hormonal therapies, bone infusions, lung taps, and recently found out that I was misdiagnosed and had been on the wrong treatments for the majority of my battle with cancer. It is a nothing short of a miracle that I am still alive and thriving. I made a conscious decision five years ago that I wasn’t going to let cancer rule me, and that I would continue living my life without making cancer the focal point.
I can’t ignore the fact however, that cancer has changed my body, in more ways than one.
As if being from Los Angeles and growing up in Hollywood wasn’t hard enough in my earlier years in terms of image and body issues, being smacked with a stage 4 breast cancer diagnosis in my early thirties was the cherry on top. Let’s be honest, dating and sexuality pretty much revolve around physicality and breasts define our femininity as women. The cancer essentially swallowed my right breast a couple of years ago and my chest has been compromised ever since. I could no longer wear most of the shirts in my wardrobe, and forget about swimwear and lingerie. Being from California, I live for summers and swimwear but the recent summer seasons became somewhat depressing. I had to become creative and find ways to make my breasts appear “normal”. I struggled with feeling confident about my “flawed” body, and when you don’t feel sexy in your own skin, it’s hard to imagine that another person would.
In addition to the changes in my chest, I have been in induced menopause for five years to stop my estrogen production. Being menopausal at such a young age hasn’t been a walk in the park emotionally or physically. My weight fluxuates and I have to workout harder than the average person to lose those extra dreaded pounds. I have watched my body change and it frustrates me knowing that I am not in control. The one thing cancer had miraculously never taken from me over the past 5 years was my hair, and I was so grateful for that. It served as my security blanket as it was something for me to hide behind. But it thinned so badly this past year and I was left with a fraction of my hair. I am grateful for the hair that didn’t fall out as I realize I could have none, I wear hair extentions and will continue to do so until my hair grows back. Thank God we live in a time where extensions and wigs are so accessible and real looking. These are just some of the more obvious changes I have experienced as a result of cancer. And although these physical changes may not be noticeable to the outside world, even changes that no one else can see can affect you because body image relates to how you feel about your body, not how it actually looks to others.
With all of these changes, I can’t help but feel somewhat broken although on the outside looking in one would never imagine the stress and torment my body has endured. People often tell me that all things considered, I shouldn’t care about body image, but a cancer diagnosis makes me no less of a woman than the next person. I think I speak on behalf of ALL women with cancer in saying that we still want to be, look and feel beautiful and sexy, and that’s totally OK!….and “normal”. Feeling beautiful fuels empowerment, and there’s nothing an empowered woman can’t do! Why shouldn’t we cancer fighters / thrivers strive to feel beautiful like any other woman rather than succumb to cancer and feel defeated and sick. Not to mention, not everyone is going to kick cancer. According to doctors I might be living with cancer my whole life, and if this is true, I’ll never stop wanting to feel beautiful, sexy and desirable.
I think body image complexes kind of come with the territory when you have a cancer diagnosis. In other words, I think it’s normal to have feelings of self doubt or feel self conscious after experiencing so many physical changes, and often times so suddenly. But just as with any challenge in life, if you do the work, you can get through just about anything.
Here are a few tools that can be instrumental in overcoming body issue struggles:
- Talk to other survivors or thrivers who have endured similar struggles with body image. Often times, just the realization that you are not alone and knowing that other people could relate to your circumstances provides relief and comfort.
- If cancer has altered your breasts, look into the Breast Prosthesis Program at Nordstrom. Their services have really ended my everyday struggle and have helped me regain so much of my lost confidence concerning my breast situation.
- Buy clothing that conceals the physical changes you are experiencing . It took me a long time to wrap my head around this concept. I would stare at the clothes hanging in my closet that I was once able to wear and feel depressed that I could no longer wear some of them. After feeling sorry for myself for a really long time, I finally started buying different styles of tops and bathing suits that accommodate my circumstance and have really grown to like them.
- Eat a healthy diet and try to exercise regularly. I realize a cancer diagnosis can really put you in a super dark space, but understand that a good diet and exercise will not only help you combat cancer, but can also help you maintain a healthy physical body.
These tools really helped me cope with my everyday struggles. But most importantly, I made the decision to change my perspective. Instead of knocking my body for the physical imperfections that have resulted from cancer, it was time to love and accept my body. I have made these my top priorities for the new year: self love and acceptance. No longer am I going to judge myself and feel shame and inadequacy. Statistically speaking, this body shouldn’t even be alive and well. I decided it was long time overdue to start loving and honoring my body for supporting me through everything it has been through….hell and back. This body is a miracle. Cancer may have taken pieces of me, but I am still whole, and very much a woman. Beauty isn’t strictly measured by outward appearance or perfect breasts. Facing cancer or any adversity with grace is what is most beautiful to me . My body may never be the same again, but the scars I am left with are a reminder to me that I am stronger than what tried to kill me. Where we are broken is where the light comes in. This light is blinding and let’s the world know how truly beautiful you are.
Stephanie, you are beautiful.
Thank you thank you thank you … I am humbled
You are amazing——Godspeed to you and your family
Thank you so much!
Tiffany Vowels says
Well said! Thank you for inspiring so many people! You are an amazing lady who’s been through more than most could imagine. Thank you for sharing with us. And you’re doing a beautiful job ‘adjusting your sails.’ (you know that quote, right?)
? Tiff ?
Thank you so much Tiff. I know you can relate as well and I admire you for your spirit and strength. YOU are amazing and inspiring to me. XOXOXO
Susan Natali says
Stephanie, you are helping so many people in countless ways. I continue to pray for your recovery and for that of so many others affected by this insidious disease. It is obvious that your message supersedes and overpowers the negative aspects of your life and is an encouragement to all of us. God bless you!
Thank you so much Susan for your encouraging words… and for your continued prayers. God bless you as well and I really hope I get to see you soon. XO