It’s OK to Dislike Your Body Because of Breast Cancer

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My relationship with my body has changed over the years, especially during and after breast cancer. Now, I have accepted the way I look.

Illustration of a woman with short dark brown hair, wearing pink lipstick.

Body image is important to many people but for those affected by cancer, it can turn into an obsession. For me, breast cancer affected my perception of body image.

I never paid much attention to my body until I began puberty. That’s when I realized image mattered.

Growing up, I was always pencil thin. As a gangly legged tomboy, I wore my hair short and was more comfortable in shorts and a tee shirt than frilly dresses. My mother tried her best to encourage me to dress and act in a more feminine manner, but I didn’t care. All of my childhood friends were boys, and I knew I couldn’t join them in playing football if I was wearing a dress. 

As my body began to develop, I got angry. I didn’t want to have breasts. I didn’t want to wear a bra. Those things would encumber me and keep me from being free, so I balked. My mother insisted I show modesty, so I opted for a camisole to wear under my shirts. That lasted a while but as I continued to develop, the bra became an inevitable part of my wardrobe.

Looking in the mirror, I couldn’t accept my image. On the outside, I looked like a rough and tumble boy wannabe. But beneath my clothing, I couldn’t help but see the outer image I was seeing wasn’t true. I was, in fact, a budding young woman.

Fast forward 40 years. After pushing and prodding by my mother and sister, I had my first mammogram. I was embarrassed to death to do it and to say I’d rather have eaten a sack full of nails was an understatement. But I got the mammogram done.

When the tech took hold of my small breast and placed it on the mammogram plate, I’m sure I turned every shade of scarlet there was. I did my best to avoid eye contact with her and couldn’t wait to get out of there. Thankfully, that test was a baseline mammogram. It didn’t show any issues.

Every two years after that first test, I faithfully went in for another scan. Every time, nothing to report. I was thankful. I didn’t want to be humiliated by showing my breasts to anyone. They were small and underdeveloped. If I’d been more well-endowed, I might have been proud to show off a little, but that wasn’t the case.

As the years went by, I thought my breasts would grow. I’m sure they did a little, as my bra size slightly increased year after year, but I never made it past a 38B and that was mostly because I had a broad back.

After showering, I’d stand looking at myself in the mirror thinking there was something wrong with me. I should have taken more vitamins or eaten more veggies. But the older I got, the more I learned breast size was decided by genetics, or so I thought.

My mother and sister were well-endowed, why wasn’t I given the gift of large breasts from the boob fairy?

And then years later, when cancer came knocking at my door, I hated my body a little more. I cringed when the surgeon told me I had two choices, a lumpectomy (surgical removal of the cancer and abnormal breast tissue) or mastectomy (surgical removal of one or both breasts and sometimes surrounding tissue and lymph nodes). Both of those would disfigure my small, but fairly perfect breasts. Oh, I was assured no matter which choice I made, they could help fix it and make me more cosmetically appealing, but it was a tough decision. With a lumpectomy, I’d have a deep dent in the top of my right breast and depending on how much tissue they had to remove, it could practically take my whole breast anyway. I didn’t want to be deformed, so I decided to lop it off completely. But that posed another problem. I didn’t want to be lopsided either. So, the other one had to go, too.

With both breasts removed, I was definitely forced to deal with body dysmorphia. For months and months after surgery, I hated not only my body but myself. And more than that, I hated cancer because it was the culprit that destroyed my body image.

But, after my body healed and the years went by, I came to accept my choice to remain flat when given the choice to reconstruct my breasts. Oh, I could have been any size I wanted the surgeon said. “If you want them big, we’ll give you big!” But I thought it pointless to endure another painful surgery.

Now, almost ten years post diagnosis, I look in the mirror and no longer hate what I see. In fact, I kinda like it. I’m back to my pre-pubescent state with a lovely flat chest. I don’t have to deal with frustrating bras unless I want to. I don’t have to feel the heavy weight of breasts on my chest unless I decide to wear prostheses. My friends and family have learned I am who I am, with or without breasts, and they like me.

It's OK to dislike your body. None of us are perfect. Of course, plastic surgery offers many the ability to adjust or correct the body issues they don’t like, but those surgeries never look completely natural.

I’ve learned my body is a tool. Basically, it’s a temporary dwelling while I’m here on earth. If I take the best care of it I can, it will last a good while. If I don’t, my days could be shorter.

Cancer isn’t the only thing that can affect a person’s body image. Some suffer warped perceptions brought on by psychological issues and those views can cause unhealthy body image as well.

Many don’t realize cancer is a multifaceted disease. It affects not only the body, but the mind, and spirit as well. That’s why it’s so important to seek professional help when struggling with a poor self-image. Therapists can help a person find tools to achieve acceptance and healthy body image with or without the ravaging effects of cancer.

They say time heals all wounds and while that’s a nice concept, I don’t necessarily believe it to be completely true. I think time has given me the power to deal with what I see in the mirror and come to grips with it. And while that may not be the case for everyone, it sure does help.

Dealing with an altered body post cancer can be extremely challenging, but please don’t forget, even though you may appear to be a little different on the outside, you’re still the same beautiful person on the inside — a very unique and special, one of a kind you.

For more news on cancer updates, research and education, don’t forget to subscribe to CURE®’s newsletters here.

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