Reclaiming Body Image
Our bodies are changed by breast cancer--and never are they changed for the bettr (or, at least, I have never met anyone who thought so). I do know a few women who claim to prefer a reconstructed breast to the natural original, but they, too, have other differences they may like less. The obvious changes are to breasts--whether or not a mastectomy is part of the equation. Many lumpectomized and radiated breasts look different, too. And then there is hair. Bald is the worst, but new hair is often unlike what was there before. I well remember looking at my mirror image with very curly short hair and thinking I must be in the Witness Protection Program. Who was that woman? Several years later, many women still feel that their hair is changed in color or texture or thickness. Finally, there is the weight gain that so often accompanies breast cancer treatment and, perhaps, the sudden onset of menopause. A little pot belly, thickness around the waist and hips, and much more trouble in losing pounds--all are common.
This is a quote from a Living Beyond Breast Cancer presentation by Helen Coon, PhD about acceptance of our changed bodies. She talks about other psychosocial issues as well, and this is worth reading. Here is an excerpt and then a link to read more:
In addition to it being a shock for so many women who weren't at high risk and didn't expect to get breast cancer, it came out of left field; for many individuals, the diagnosis is associated with a disappointment in one's body or oneself.
For many individuals-especially because breast cancer, while we see it in younger women, we see it in so many older women—it's on top of other medical conditions. So [some women feel] a sense of, "Okay, it's one more medical problem." Or, "How could my body fail me?"That's different than feeling like you caused it, but a common way to feel worse about your body.
For some individuals, [they ask], "I always took care of myself; how could I get breast cancer?" For other individuals, [they acknowledge], "I never took care of myself."That's a double-edged sword.
Of course [there is] the fatigue and pain associated with the actual cancer surgery. Any kind of treatments: surgery, radiation, chemotherapy and a whole host of other medications, which I'll talk about in a few minutes, can be associated with changes in body image as well as sexual health.
Another category of large factors, which we talk about, are some of the psychosocial issues. The many, many stresses that so many of us face all day, every day: multitasking, the economy, war, violence, a busy workplace, those kinds of [dayin- day-out] stresses. Teenagers, toddlers. The kinds of cumulative stresses that can affect how we take care of ourselves and how we feel about our body and our sexuality. I'll be talking quite a bit about depression. I mentioned pre-cancer body image. Certainly I can't do a talk like this without talking about past or current trauma as an issue that's highly relevant to women's experience of their body, their body integrity and their sexual health.
In addition, [your experience can be affected by] relational issues. What were your intimacy issues like with your spouse or partner before cancer? They probably didn't improve during cancer treatment if they were very, very poor before. In addition, for some individuals, depending on your age, the timing of cancer diagnosis creates a considerable challenge associated with fertility decisions, pregnancy options and adoption. These are areas we don't talk as much about. And these issues arise for single women, which I'll be talking about towards the end of the workshop, as well as for women in coupled relationships.