By Felicity Gibson
Finding body confidence in a life after breast cancer
When I was six my father made me and my brother stand facing the wall so he could compare the size of our bottoms. He then declared, much to his amusement, that my bottom was considerably larger than that of my ten-year-old brother.
From that moment on I was classed as a female with a big bum. From that moment on I became hyper aware of my body image and how people regarded it. Thanks, Dad.
My weight fluctuated over my teenage years. It was always within healthy realms but I wasn’t ever happy with my body and would cover it up with long skirts, thick tights and baggy tops – thank goodness for 90s fashions!
I didn’t have an eating disorder but I did have a warped sense of how I looked and I carried this into my twenties and thirties, through pregnancies and motherhood. I was never happy.
40 came along and something changed. It didn’t happen overnight but I became increasingly less concerned about how I looked and how others perceived how I looked. I had a (second) husband who adored me, two super boys and loads of lovely, decent girlfriends.
In the scheme of things it really didn’t matter if my bum was a 12 or a 14 and when I looked in the mirror I quite liked what I saw. And about time too. I liked entering my 40s.
Then it all went tits up.
Just after I turned 43 I was diagnosed with invasive breast cancer in my left breast. There were two lumps a few centimetres apart so the only option was a single mastectomy. I was offered a reconstruction at the same time and opted for the non page three type of implant so it would look more natural.
I could’ve had fat taken from my tummy and shifted up to the new boob but at the time I wanted the path of least pain. I had an emergency C-Section with my eldest so know how painful tummy surgery can be.
At this time the medics considered that my cancer would be dealt with just by surgery, which is why I was offered the reconstruction at the same time. If they’d known the true extent of growth it wouldn’t have been an option, but it was only after they took it all out and put it under the microscope they saw how bad it was.
That was when they told me, ten days after surgery, that it had spread further than they had anticipated and I would have to have chemotherapy and radiotherapy. Brilliant. That meant not only that my hair would fall out but also that my new implant would shrivel and pucker as a result of the radiation. Double brilliant.
I had no choice but to accept what was happening to me, it was, after all, going to keep me alive.
I had my hair shaved off before it fell out, I bought old woman bras to support my scarred, sore breast, I joked about being at least guaranteed some weight loss with chemo. I took it, as you say, on the chin. I’ve not met a single cancer patient who hasn’t. We’re a tough bunch.
While I was in treatment I could hide behind the trappings of my illness; the scarf on my head, my lack of eyebrows and eyelashes, the bruises on my hand and arm, my steroid puffiness and my constant look of being about to throw up.
To top it all my weight increased by nearly three stone – the guaranteed weight loss wasn’t guaranteed after all. These things were a barrier for me, a security blanket which said to people Don’t question how she looks she’s got CANCER! and which meant I could look the way I did without reproach.
Treatment finished, my hair started growing back and I didn’t have to wear the scarf anymore. For the first few weeks I felt great; the joy of finishing treatment was such that nothing else mattered but this quickly dissolved when that insecure voice from my pre 40s came back in with a vengeance. Once again I hated what I saw in the mirror.
My old clothes wouldn’t fit, for a brief time I even went up a shoe size (horrifying!) and my hair remained steadfastly short. Not only was I a changed woman on the inside but I was a different woman on the outside.
I’d like to say I had some sort of epiphany and stopped caring about it, but that hasn’t happened. I’ve had to work really hard against the ghosts in my head to get to the point where I feel okay when I look in the mirror again. Okay is about as much as I can claim right now and it just doesn’t seem fair.
The child in me – that child who had the size of her bottom laughed at – wants to scream and shout and give cancer a kicking for taking my confident, secure, post-40 self away and replacing her with someone who no longer feels good enough.
I’m not one of these oh thank you, cancer, you’ve changed my life types. I’m furious with cancer, I hate cancer, I’m not grateful or lucky or special. I’m heavier, I’ve got short hair, crap nails and a puckered, nipple less boob which lies two inches higher than the other one.
And when I put like that it doesn’t sound so terrible. Maybe I need to be less of a child about it. Maybe I need to take back control and reclaim that post-40 vigour. Maybe, just maybe I can do something about it.
Cancer affords the bearer lots of time to think; too much time to think. I have analysed myself until there was nothing left to analyse, I have over thought every insecurity, worry and anxiety that’s popped into my head and I have probably spent an equal amount of time fiddling with my hair to try to make it look normal. I know, radical.
In my early thirties I had my long hair cut into a bob. I’d gone to my usual hairdressers in Bristol and explained what I wanted – which wasn’t what I got. Despite the hairdresser proclaiming ‘Don’t worry, darlin’, leave it with me!’ I hated it; it was too short.
Much shorter than I’d wanted. I cried all the way home then took myself to bed and mourned. I didn’t recover for days. Can you imagine?! A fully grown woman and everything! I never went back to that salon, mind.
It was because of this that I was so worried about having my head shaved before chemo. I know I could have hung on in there but I really didn’t want to be in the position of getting out of bed one morning and leaving my hair on the pillow. My hair was shoulder length and curly and it was only in the last few years I’d decided I liked my curls and stopped straightening the hell out of them every morning. But you know what? It wasn’t that bad.
My hairdresser – who is also a dear friend – was the best person she could have been that day. We laughed and joked and my youngest son filmed the whole thing. My hair piled up on the floor and eventually all of my head had a number one. I thought I looked like a skinhead from the 80s. I certainly didn’t look very friendly! But, it wasn’t that bad. And it’ll grow back. Eventually.
So what about the weight? How do we reconcile three stone accumulated on a body of five foot six? I have to say it was a bit gutting that I didn’t go thin but I’ve since googled it and 50% of women having chemo for breast cancer put on weight. I harrumphed a fair amount about that.
Chemo made me feel sick all the time but eating made me feel better for a few moments and my comfort food of choice was cheesy mash and beans which of course stacked on the pounds. So I was fat, or at least fatter than I’d ever been before. But was it that bad?
Then we’ve got the boob. It’s not a thing of beauty. The skin is stretched tightly around it, there’s a two-inch scar where the nipple ought to be, it’s got no sensation and over a year on it’s still uncomfortable to lie on that side. Is it that bad?
Yes. I have to say that positive thinking doesn’t go far with this one, it’s a rubbish boob. It doesn’t have cancer anymore but that’s no assurance it won’t get cancer again, it’ll just be harder to detect because of the implant; it can’t have a mammogram. And it doesn’t match the other one, of course, but we’ve discussed this.
The purpose of this picking apart was to come through the other end and be able to say hey, it’s not that bad, but I have to tell you, it’s not that simple.
I could compare what’s going on with my body to what’s going on with other people’s bodies but that can work both ways. I could pretend I’m grateful to cancer for making me see past the visuals of a person but I’ve only ever been critical of my own body, no one else’s.
I could pretend I’m so thrilled to be cancer free I don’t care about anything else but that wouldn’t be true because I’m terrified it’ll come back.
My biggest hope is that in time I will regain that post-40 vigour. I’m keeping my fingers crossed.
In the meantime, I’m going to try to grab hold of some of that post-40 vigour and shove it up cancer’s arse. I expect it’s even bigger than mine.
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Felicity Gibson lives in Somerset with her children, husband, two dogs and four cats. She likes to laugh a lot which is a good job because life throws a lot of curve balls at her. She has written for The Huffington Post, Mumsnet.com and Henpicked.net. Her blog www.baldybitesback.weebly.com has garnered considerable praise, much to her delight. She’s also written a novel, Silencing The Ghosts, a tale of a woman’s struggle to keep herself and her children safe against the odds of domestic violence. It’s available on Amazon.