One of the bigger issues facing cancer patients and survivors is body image and sex appeal. It effects survivors of all ages, races, and genders and gets little to no attention from the medical community. It’s also something that very few survivors also talk about amongst each other.
Well, I’m talking about it today!
During chemotherapy and radiation, your body changes and it changes quickly and permanently, sometimes. The photo on the right was taken two weeks after the photo on the left. In two short weeks, all the hair on my head and pubic hair (I wasn’t prepared for that part!) fell out. In four weeks, my eyelashes were gone. After four months of chemo, my eyebrows finally left.
Your hair falls out which can be permanent. Some people have lost a limb or have under gone a biopsy which has left a scar. You’ve got either a port installed or a PICC line sticking out of your chest/arm like some new weird invention put out by Google. The removal of your port or PICC also leaves a scar. I have a scar between my breasts from the pericardial catheter was inserted and one on my arm from my PICC line.
And if you’re prescribed steroids, like I was, your face is now swollen and you look like a chipmunk.
And while all of that is going on, you feel cranky, nauseous, and overwhelmed. Your body is no longer responding or looking like it had in ways that are familiar to you. You look bad and feel even worse.
As a cancer community, we’re not talking about the emotional and psychological impact these changes are having.
We, as patients and survivors, are too overwhelmed with what can be done and just getting through the day. Our doctors aren’t bringing it up because there isn’t enough research to nor is it really on their radar. They’re trying to get us through our days as well. And our family and friends? I think they have no idea where to even begin if they’re to talk about it.
My hair fell out in big fistfuls. I was leaving odd dark brown tumbleweeds everywhere. I finally decided to take matters into my own hands and had the SGT shave my head. When my husband was done, I looked in the mirror and burst into tears. In high school, I had a lime green mohawk. I did that on my own and I proudly rocked it. This? Was suddenly very different. There was nothing punk rock and anti-establishment about having my head shaved.
Seeing me break down in sobs over my hair was difficult for him. I avoided looking into mirrors or talking about how I felt. I thought I looked horrible and wigs made me look worse. I felt like my body had betrayed me and I had no real idea why. One my hair started coming in, I again didn’t want to go back to those dark times that I had just escaped.
So what can we do about this?
We, as a community of doctors, survivors and family/friends, can talk about our body image issues. Telling our loved ones that we are feeling low, asking our oncologists to hook us up with cancer support therapists, and for survivors to bring it up with doctors and loved ones.
As a survivor, I’ve found that that there’s a new normal with my body. As more time passes between my last chemo and today, I’ve learned that “normal” has a fluid and evolving definition.
Cancer patient or not, you need to figure out just who are you? What does that mean to you? What makes you special? What do you want from life, from your loved ones and from your body?