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What Breast Cancer at 30 Taught Me About Body Image.

 

Shortly after I turned 30, I was diagnosed with breast cancer, pulling the rug out from under my professional life, my personal life, and my relationship with my body.

With cancer and chemically induced menopause, my body wasn’t my body anymore. My breasts, my hair, my reproductive system and my weight — they had all betrayed me.

Of course, when I first got the diagnosis, death was a concern for me, but honestly, I was mostly afraid of losing my fast-growing hair.

From 17 onwards, I donated my hair every two years to make wigs for cancer patients, even when my college boyfriend said he didn’t think I’d look great with short hair. At 28, I had gotten a pixie cut, with the support of my current partner, partly, I think, to prove to myself that I would look good with short hair and to do it while it was fully within my own agency.

As it turned out, losing my hair wasn’t the biggest change to my body because of chemo. Movies always show cancer patients as skinny and wasting away, but I actually gained 30-40 pounds. For my body, this felt like a huge amount. I had to buy new clothes as the old ones didn’t fit, and then had to buy new new clothes because the new ones didn’t fit.

Clothes shopping itself was awful, having to constantly look in the mirror at this new body, and wondering whether this weight gain was permanent. Early on in my diagnosis, I tried to find a positive side to everything: I had joked about weight loss as one of chemo’s perks. It was a bad joke, and it felt like fate was trying to prove how wrong I was.

And then I lost my left breast. I’m writing this exactly two weeks after a single mastectomy, which replaced my breast with tissue from my stomach.

Hair loss, weight gain, one breast taken away from me and a medical port in the other… my body just didn’t feel like the one I had been used to. While my partner consistently told me he thought I was as sexy as ever, I still didn’t feel the same. I didn’t feel comfortable in my own body or seeing myself in the mirror.

My therapist suggested trying out some new things, like sexy costumes, new bras or role-playing to increase my desire and sense of sexiness. I bought a bunch of lacy bras, and wore the clothes I felt most beautiful in when I was together with my partner. That actually led to some improvements: I felt sexier in my own body, and felt more like having sex because of it.

I really yearned to enjoy sex again, but with everything going on, it was rarely possible in the last few months.

Along the way, I have found ways to love my body no matter what happens to it, and I think that’s pretty damn important.

When I started losing my hair, I had my head shaved at a black barbershop to get a nice fade and asked for daisies in my buzz. When I finally lost all of my hair, I painted my bald head and dressed to the nines, I felt like a goddess or a queen from Game of Thrones.

When I look in the mirror now, I try to focus on the parts of my body that I love, and I accentuate those. I’ve discovered that blush and bright lipsticks make me feel more whole.

I take a moment every day to be grateful for the parts of my body that are working perfectly. No matter how short the list, there’s always something. Some days that list could simply look like gratitude for the beauty in my forearms. No matter the day, there is always something.

I talked to fashion-conscious friends about what clothes would work best with my current body type, and I went to consignment stores to seek those out. As a result, there are now so many days when I look great  —  and more importantly, when I feel really really good.

Long before this all started, a friend once told me while we were chatting about body-image, “You’ve got to love your body as it is right now. Your body might occasionally get better, more like you want it to be, but the only guarantee over a lifetime is that your body is going to get less like that ideal you strive for.” That ideal, most often shaped by what others tell us is attractive and sexy, isn’t often realistic.

She reminded me that the things I dislike about my body have actually never changed. No matter how much weight I’ve gained or lost, I’ve still found things to hate about my neck and the way my thighs touch. Reframing that, it means that no matter how much weight you gain or lose, you can always find ways to love your body, and I am glad I was already practicing that self-love before my diagnosis.

There have been moments where I haven’t been able to make it work, but there have also been moments where I have loved my ever-changing body so deeply, simply for breathing and having a heart that continues to beat. So, a promise to you, dear reader: if you can love your body as it is right this very minute, you’re set for whatever comes your way.

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unsplash-catherine-stevenson-profileCatherine Stevenson is a 30-year-old breast cancer survivor in a long-term relationship. If you’d like to read more articles about intimate life struggles and experiences, sign up for cambyo’s free newsletter so you can learn about intimacy through real stories.

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Rebelle Society
Rebelle Society is a unique, revolutionary online magazine reporting daily acts of Creative Rebellion and celebrating the Art of Being Alive. Rebelle Society is also a virtual country for all creatively maladjusted rebels with a cause, trying to lead an extraordinary life and inspire the world with their passion. Join us on Facebook, Instagram & Twitter for daily bites of Creative Rebellion. Join our Rebelle Insider List along with over 40k Dreamers & Doers around the world for FREE creative resources, news & inspiration in the comfort of your inbox.
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