How Do I Love Myself Right Here, Right Now After Cancer?

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After having breast cancer, I worked on learning to accept and love myself.

Illustration of a woman with short brown hair and pink lipstick.

Learning to love oneself is a difficult challenge. While we all have physical aspects of our bodies we don’t particularly like, it’s important to come to a place of acceptance, especially after a cancer diagnosis. For me, it was learning to accept myself after having breast cancer.

I stood in front of the mirror and posed a question to myself, who am I and how can I love myself the way I am. At almost 67 years old, I see more than wrinkles, gray hair and sagging skin. I see someone who’s experienced trauma in her life but tries to hide it well.

To my husband, I’m the doting wife. I do my best to make sure he’s well fed and cared for. For my children, I’m a listening ear, a sounding board and safe place. They know they can come to me with anything, and I’ll be there for them. As a grandmother, I’ve always tried to be fun and exciting. I’ve done my best to make up for the mistakes I made on my own children. And now that I’m a great grandmother, I get one more chance to try again to be the best I can be.

Besides all the roles I play in life, I’m also someone who enjoys photography, writing and all forms of art. Every day I try to create something that brings joy to someone. But I’m not always kind to myself.

After surgery for breast cancer, I had a really hard time accepting the new me. I’d look in the mirror and loathe myself. While I was happy to be alive, I wasn’t happy with the way I looked. My physical appearance caused me to feel sadness, shame, and embarrassment.

Yes, it was my choice not to go through reconstructive surgery. At the time, I didn’t want to endure any more pain than I’d already endured. To this day, I still wonder if I made the right choice, but living in the land of “what if,” or “should have,” is a terrible place to reside.

I’ve done my best to like myself since diagnosis. It’s been a challenge, to be sure. It’s easy to feel proud of my accomplishments, but what about just being proud to be me?

I’d like to be able to say I love myself, but I’m not there yet. Hopefully, I can keep working on things to get there. I’ve realized I need to be more accepting of myself. Instead of striving for perfection all the time, I need to learn to be OK with me just doing my best to make it through the day.

Another thing I need to work on is learning to see the good inside myself. I’m pretty critical of who I am. More times than not, I hear myself saying, “I can’t…” instead of “I can.” Instead of berating myself, I need to whisper words of encouragement and acceptance — “Way to go!” “You did a good thing!” “I’m proud of you, great effort!” In essence, I need to be my own cheerleader.

Self-love has often been mistaken as self-centeredness, but that’s not necessarily true. Just because someone loves and accepts themselves doesn’t mean they’re constantly puffed up with pride and arrogant.

I guess I could have gone to a counselor or therapist to figure out how to love myself after cancer. Surely, there are trained professionals to help folks like me overcome poor self-image, even years after a traumatic event, right?

But in my heart, I know this is work I need to do on me and for me.

Learning to love oneself isn’t an easy thing to do, even without the extra challenges of physical trauma, but it’s possible.

I’ve searched the web for helpful tips on how to practice self-love and most of them say the same thing:

Focus on the things you like about yourself.

Don’t compare yourself to others.

Don’t second guess yourself.

Be kind to yourself when you make a mistake.

Keep a check on your thoughts and feelings — try to add more positives than negatives.

Try to focus on the present instead of the past.

Meditate daily.

Give yourself grace.

I guess the takeaway is to make a conscious effort daily to find joy and happiness in who I am. Doing that will take practice, I’m sure, but I think I’m worth it. No, I know I am.

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