Here’s How Cancer Changed The Way I Think About My Body
Surviving Stage IV breast cancer has made me appreciate exactly what I can — and can’t — control when it comes to my own body.
Think about your body for a moment: Is it functioning properly? Is your blood humming through your veins? Does anything hurt? Most of us don’t think about our various organs and body parts unless they’re signaling pain or pleasure. Our bodies go about their business, and as long as they let us wake up every day, they’re doing their jobs.
In August of 2015 I felt a pain in my right side, just below my ribs. My doctor thought it might be my gallbladder; I was chagrined at the idea of having to potentially change my diet and lifestyle because of one little organ’s malfunction. I remember rubbing the spot where the pain was concentrated, and telling my therapist, “It’s weird, being this aware of one of your internal organs. You never think about them until something goes wrong.”
After some tests and scans I found out that it was not, in fact, my gallbladder that had been hurting, but my liver. An ultrasound had revealed a marble-sized tumor in my left breast, which had metastasized and spread to my spine and my liver (which, I learned the hard way, has nerve endings on it). I’m 28 years old, and have no family history of breast cancer, plus I’d had a full checkup just weeks prior to my diagnosis and was declared completely healthy. Finding out I had stage IV cancer was a shock, to say the least.
I spent about 12 weeks getting chemotherapy once a week, until the cancer cells had receded enough to be invisible to a PET scan. I’ve often looked back on the week or so when I thought the pain in my side was due to something as innocent as gallstones, and envied my ignorance of what was actually happening to my body. Remembering myself complaining to my therapist about my gallbladder, not knowing the sinister truth, makes me feel nostalgic for the person I used to be.
For better or worse, though, I’m not that person anymore. Cancer deeply changed the way I think and feel about my own body — and in some ways, I live a healthier life now because of that. Here’s what that process was like for me.
1. Realizing that I couldn’t trust my own body was really hard.
I used to think about my body as a tool to be used, and had no reason to fret about its inner workings (unless I ate an entire block of cheese, or had four beers within an hour). After I was diagnosed, I looked at my body as a traitor, an evil conjoined twin that my brain was stuck to. Any trust I’d had in my physical self disappeared.
To not trust your own body is a terrible feeling — anyone who’s struggled with disease or illness, or watched someone they love go through it, can attest to that. One of the hardest things to come to term to after finding out I was sick was that it wasn’t my fault.
2. I had to accept that my illness was outside of my control — but that didn’t mean everything was.
I had no control over what was happening inside of me; the only thing I could do was try to be healthy in other ways. It felt like the only thing I actually had some say in was what I was eating; almost everything else was out of my hands.
I should mention that prior to my diagnosis, I wasn’t particularly healthy. I was prone to eating any cheese I could get my hands on; when I used to live above a Duane Reade, there were more than a few nights I’d stop in on my way home and buy the ingredients to make what I called a “candy salad.” This was just a mixture of four or five different candies in a giant salad bowl. You could say that I wasn’t too concerned about my diet.
After finding out I was sick, I changed my diet completely and quit drinking. I agonized over avoiding things that might exacerbate my condition and focused on trying to get better. Feeling like I was doing something that was making me healthier made it easy; I didn’t even miss my former vices.
3. I started thinking about my body as almost a separate version of myself.
No matter how careful I was about my diet, I couldn’t shake my distrust and fear of my own body. It’s odd thinking of your body and your “self” as two separate entities, and I found myself wishing I was better at mentally detaching the two. Not being able to depend on my body to keep itself alive was one thing, but I found myself constantly tortured by anxious thoughts. If I couldn’t rely on my body to work correctly, how could I allow myself to relax? Forget self-love, how was I supposed to look myself in the eye again after such a betrayal?
The person I saw looking back at me in the mirror was a stranger for a while. I was disappointed in my body for what I perceived as weakness, and I hated seeing the effects of that fragility in my reflection. I was unfamiliar with the version of myself who was bald and covered in scars and bumps, who wore a blank stare on her face, emotionally drained from the trauma of it all. I didn’t want to know that person, let alone be them.
4. I learned that I could make myself feel healthier by looking healthier.
I found ways to avoid having to see that stranger form of myself. I watched countless hours of makeup tutorials, I researched every kind of wig and hairpiece available. I found clever ways to disguise myself as a healthy person. And I was surprised to discover that the illusions of health that makeup and fake hair could provide were as effective as the real thing when it came to facing myself. When I woke up an hour early to make my face look perfect, and styled my wig the right way, I passed for a regular person.
5. But I also started to rely on that constructed version of myself.
The downside of recreating my “normal” self with wigs and makeup was that I became dependent on those illusions. When I was declared cancer-free in December, I expected my hair to grow back within a week or so. Now, four months out from completing treatment, my hair still isn’t long enough to hold a bobby pin in place. I’ve gotten used to people seeing me the way I want to be seen, rather than how I actually am. And because of it, I continued to wear a wig until my hair had grown to pixie-cut length.
I envy people who allow themselves to be vulnerable enough to leave the house with no makeup on, who are confident in their natural, naked faces. But when I was completely bald from chemo, at least one person told me that seeing me without a wig on creeped them out. After hearing that, I never left the house without my head covered up and my face dolled up like I was going on a first date with a billionaire. I never imagined I’d be so concerned with my appearance, but I needed to recognize my reflection, if only to preserve my own sanity.
6. I’m finally starting to forgive my body.
It was only after I was able to stop chemo that I started to forgive my body for what it had done — or rather, what had happened to it. No one else was mad at me for being sick, and I felt I couldn’t stay angry for too long. I’ve tried to apologize to my body for blaming it for what, essentially, was an intrusion upon it. Admitting that I don’t have absolute control over my physical well-being was a tough and humbling lesson. I do, however, have some control over how I treat myself.
7. After feeling so powerless over my body, I now care a lot more about doing what I can to stay healthy.
Forgiving my body was the first step; the second is staying healthy. Sure, I still technically have stage IV cancer, and will for the rest of my life, but I can work on being healthy in other ways.
Many of my friends have asked, “when can you start drinking again?” I’ll have a drink now and then, but the truth is, I won’t ever be able to go back to partying the way I used to. When you have so little control over your life, you cling to the things you can be disciplined about.
That’s not to say I think anyone should have to change their own eating or drinking habits; for me, it’s more about feeling like I’ve got a handle on what’s happening to my body. It’s about control. And since I can decide to make myself healthier, I’m seizing the opportunity.