Self-Image and Cancer: Seeing the New, Better You


No matter how cancer makes you look, you’re still you—a better you.

No matter how cancer makes you look, you’re still you—a better you.

It sounds like an obvious statement. But cancer wrecks physical havoc on our bodies, which affects our self-images. I state this for the record because recently a dear, sweet colleague I hadn’t seen in a long time approached my table at a holiday book fair. She looked down at my books and up at me, her face puzzled. “You’re not Kelly Irvin.”

“I am,” I said, keeping a smile firmly fixed on my face.

The dear woman is a nurse, as she reminded me at that moment, so she had to ask. “What’s going on with your hair?”

I explained about the ovarian cancer and the chemo. She’d recently fought back from a stroke, so we exchanged the typical affirming “fight the good fight” statements and she wandered away to the next table.

In the meantime, I fought tears. I can’t help it. I say all the right things and smile at all the right times, but I know I can’t be the only one who mourns the loss of her hair or struggles with the changes in her body. For me that include a 25-pound weight gain, scars on my belly, ugly red skin or scarring around my port and dry, patchy skin. That doesn’t even begin to address my horrible posture, dragging gait, and the 20-inch scar down my spine related to my motor neuron disease.

I feel like the beast in the beauty and the beast story.

People keep telling me how cute I look with short hair. I appreciate that. I truly do. But I appreciate my granddaughter’s reaction as more honest. She asked to see what was under my scarf. I removed it. She shrieked and hid her face. “Put it back on.”

Of course, my daughter scolded her and told her she was hurting Grandma’s feelings, but it was Brooklyn’s honest reaction. It was real.

I’m still the Kelly who loves to read mysteries and write stories and play with my grandchildren. I’m still the Kelly who eats too many sweets and likes to go to the movies and loves the ocean. I’m still the news addict who chose journalism as a vocation because I wanted to write for a living. I’m still the struggling believer who turns to God with each new trial because I don’t know how I could survive without Him. I’m still me.

Looks are superficial, but they’re deeply connected to our self-image and our self-esteem. So, what do we do with those feelings of sadness and despair? I’ve realized it’s important for me to recognize them and acknowledge them. To grieve. Then to look in the mirror and seek peace. Seek new beginnings. Remember that what’s on the inside is so much more important than what’s on the outside.

That may be a cliché, but for cancer patients, it’s so true. Fewer cancer cells are something to celebrate. My insides are healthier now than they were when I was diagnosed with Stage IV cancer. To do that, it took scarring and hair loss and skin crud. It’s worth the price.

Eventually my hair will grow, and the scars will fade. But I am a new, better version of myself. I’m changed inside in more than physical ways by my cancer journey. My oncologist gave me a piece of perspective that I have hung on to throughout this journey. She said, “You live in a new world now, and you can’t go back to the old world, but you’re in a really good place in this new world.”

She was right when she said this a year ago and she’s still right as I finished a second round of chemo for a recurrence and start a new maintenance regimen with a PARP inhibitor that has its own set of challenges. I’m still me, but I’m a better, stronger me, made that way by this disease, whether I like it or not. I’m more compassionate and caring about others. I take more time to help those who are struggling. I take more time to express gratitude for all my blessings—which are multitudinous. I take time to enjoy the birds, the trees, the blue sky, the flowers, to be mindful of nature. That’s the new me.

I can grieve the external changes, but I can also celebrate the more important, internal changes. It’s my prayer during this holiday season and in the new year, that each one of you affected by this disease will also find many reasons to celebrate the new, stronger you.

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