I was hesitant to glance at myself in the mirror in the year after my breast cancer surgery. But I soon learned that I was more than just my image, and I encourage others to do the same.
My husband and I love to watch episodes of “Shark Tank”. On the show, industrious entrepreneurs present products to a panel of savvy businesspeople in hopes of receiving an investment to propel their business. Sometimes, the sharks live up to their names and chew up the presenters, refusing to give an investment. Other times, the sharks circle, fighting over products, making offers that entice entrepreneurs, ultimately ending in partnership.
Those entering the shark tank hope for a deal but more often than not, they walk away with nothing. It’s a very entertaining show. Each shark has a different personality and business acumen. We enjoy guessing the outcome of each presenter’s efforts.
On a recent episode, a woman presented a product called “Skinny Mirror.” As the entrepreneur made her presentation, she asked for volunteers to try the mirror. Lori Genier and Kevin O’Leary stepped forward. As each took turns standing before the mirror, they noticed a marked change in their reflection. Each looked thinner.
The inventor tried and tried to get the sharks to see the worth of her product. She explained many clothing stores had purchased the mirrors for their dressing rooms in hopes of enticing customers to buy clothing. If a consumer may have tried on a larger size than normal, the mirror told another story, duping the customer into thinking perhaps size didn’t really matter.
Mr. O’Leary refused to invest in the product because of the deceptive issues associated with it, and as I listened to his remarks toward the inventor of the “Skinny Mirror,” I had to agree with him. Seeing isn’t always believing.
After I had surgery for breast cancer, I avoided mirrors at all costs. I did not want to see my reflection. My body had been drastically altered and I felt so abnormal that I couldn’t bring myself to look into a mirror. Whenever I’d pass a mirror, I’d turn my head. I did this the entire first year post-surgery.
But as my body began to heal and the scars were no longer angry and red, I began to sneak peeks occasionally. Sometimes, after a shower, I’d let the towel fall to the floor and for a brief moment, I’d make myself look. It was challenging, I’ll admit, to see what was no longer there. Instead of two voluptuous breasts, there was a long, deep pink, horizontal incision.
That’s when the “stinkin’ thinkin” crept in. I began to feel depressed, unlovely and unworthy. Before I knew it, I was in the middle of a full-blown pity party. I decided it wasn’t a good idea to look at myself in the mirror and did my best to avoid them but realized the mirror didn’t tell the whole story.
Just like the “Skinny Mirror,” I was being deceived. What was on the outside of my body didn’t necessarily reflect what was on the inside. The mirror couldn’t reveal my kindness. It didn’t display other good qualities like love, compassion and mercy. The mirror couldn’t see what I knew to be true, and though I’d been through a horrible ordeal, I was still valuable and more importantly, still alive.
I couldn’t help but wonder why I was tying my self-worth up in my outward appearance. Why was I so critical of my body? Why did I carry around the weight of a poor self-image? Those questions caused me to rethink my post-cancer appearance. I was still the same person I had been before cancer came into my life. The only difference was I’d lost a couple of body parts.
Many women suffer from poor self-image after surgery to remove breast cancer, especially those who have endured mastectomies. Not only is body image affected, but there are often emotional changes leading to depression and anxiety. Social interactions may also be affected as feelings of inadequacy prevail.
So how do we help women understand that the loss of a breast doesn’t offer a true representation of her self-worth? How do we help her see that her value doesn’t come from the mind or the mirror, but from the heart?
Survivors should never fear looking in the mirror. While it’s true that losing a breast is devastating to many, it doesn’t have to be. It’s all about perspective. Finding courage to look for the positive in the midst of the negative is powerful.
Patients and health care professionals need to develop an understanding of body image issues associated with surgery and treatment. Knowing what to expect beforehand can help prepare a woman to face all aspects of care. Too often, doctors and nurses don’t adequately prepare their patients for the trauma associated with losing a breast, but if they start taking time to listen to the women’s stories, they’ll gain more insight to help future patients.
Mirrors don’t always speak the truth, and that’s no lie. It takes strength to survive and that means choosing to see what isn’t always visible. Scars are a necessary part of removing cancer. Learning to love and accept them takes time. Don’t be afraid to look at them, touch them and allow them to be part of your story. They don’t completely define you, but they are an important part of your survival.
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