Embracing My Body and its Accomplishments

As I finish up my shower and move to standing in front of the mirror brushing my teeth then putting coconut oil on my legs and doing my skin routine— all with nothing on but my hair wrapped up in a towel, I am reminded how I used to feel about my body, and I smile as I think about how I am now embracing my body. Flawed and scarred, tall and crooked, it’s uniquely mine for better or worse. I didn’t always feel so comfortable in it. In fact, just prior to my cancer diagnosis I went on a diet for six months to shed 30 pounds because I couldn’t stand the way I looked.

When I was diagnosed with metastatic cervical cancer the course of treatment was a lymph node dissection, external radiation, brachytherapy, and chemotherapy. The night before having my lymph nodes removed, I caught myself in the mirror, naked, and stopped to really look at myself. For the first time ever I saw a beautiful woman. I took time to admire my body for what it had already done. It birthed two children, learned how to walk again after back surgery, and it was about to beat cancer. I knew it was the last good look I’d get at myself before everything about it changed. I had no idea. No amount of googling can prepare you for what treatment will do to your body because everyone’s outcome is so varied, but I knew it wouldn’t be the same.

Standing there that night after finishing my surgery prep instructions, I saw myself on a deeper level. Even with cancer inside of me and the feeling that my body was turning against me, I decided I loved it. In the end, my body came through for me and fought, healed, and became stronger again. Our bodies are remarkable. I wish it hadn’t taken cancer for me to realize it. Society has taught women that they should never put themselves first and that their bodies are open to public and self-scrutiny. It’s a double standard, but I digress.

A well nourished, healthy body is something to have gratitude for, even if that means your particular body stores fat in areas you’d prefer it didn’t. We have the ability to change how it looks to an extent if we want to, in whatever way suits us. I’m a little over a year out of treatment now and whenever I’m around my mom and gobbling down my meal, she becomes emotional. Atfirst I was confused. What was the big deal? And she said “it just makes me so happy to see you eating.” Not too long ago she was desperate for me to hold down one bite. I’m grateful for her perspective and simultaneously can’t imagine what she went through as a mother. It is proof that I am loved and thus deserve to love myself. This body and I have been through a lot. Instead of wishing something was different, I think about what it can do. My daughter deserves the example I set by taking care of myself and taking pride in my body. I hope that it keeps me alive for a good, long time.

My “New Normal” and the Holidays

I am still trying to figure out how to be around myself and now the holidays are here.  I am expected to be around all these other people.  What am I getting myself into?

Over the past year, I’ve been navigating a very new life after whirlwind treatment for metastatic cervical cancer. Immediately after finishing treatment, I felt broken. My normal life as I knew it was over. I didn’t recognize myself.  My face and body didn’t seem to be my own. Throughout much of this year, my recovery consisted of a lot of alone time; time trying to figure out how to be myself. A lot of the time was spent chasing information (and then trying to remember it), advocating for the HPV vaccine, regaining strength, managing menopause, going to physical therapy, and trying to quell pain and anxiety…seemingly all while sitting on the toilet. Thanks to pelvic radiation for all those bathroom trips! I still have so far to go that it’s hard to picture a day when I’ll be fully recovered and be my “normal” self. That’s okay— I’ll manage. I have no other choice.

I’ve developed a lot of social anxiety – I often feel so isolated from others in their mid-30s.  I feel like they couldn’t possibly understand how I’d suffered – how I continue to suffer. It takes a lot of mental energy to function in the outside world.  It is mentally and physically so much easier to stay home than to go in public and deal with being in pain or in embarrassing situations (especially if I eat the wrong thing).  It takes a lot of convincing to even physically get out the door.

I am grateful for the holidays; this time of year, really forces me to suck it up and get out there.  I have found that once I get out socializing, I feel better for having done it and it gives me confidence that it will get easier. I adore the people I choose to spend my time with and laughter heals.

There are still challenges.  When going to a holiday party or night out, do I just pretend that I’m fine? I am surrounded by people who don’t understand what it took for me to even get out the door.  People who didn’t have to take Imodium, remember a coccyx pillow, put on compression garments, and maybe even take an Ativan just to get out the door? Yes, I pretend I am fine and that none of those things are going on. When people say, “oh you look great”? I say, “thank you.” When they ask how I’m doing? I respond the way we have all been taught, “I’m good, how are you?”

I respond in these ways because, I truly believe, people mean well and are being kind and polite; I assume they probably DON’T want to know the state of my bowels this evening or the fact that I used a whole tube of concealer under my tired eyes. While I am there, I’ll order my weak cranberry mimosa because I want to be normal again, but my body can no longer drink OJ, non-carbonated beverages, or much alcohol. In an act of self-care, I’ll allow myself to relax and just be with my loved ones, eat food that I shouldn’t and pretend remember that cancer doesn’t have me!

While out, I strive to continue enjoying the evening, as though my body won’t revolt in horror at the first chance it gets.  I know that this time socializing will come with a cost, it does most likely mean that I’ll spend the next day elevating swollen legs, possibly wearing a diaper, and I remember that still won’t be too much different from any other day when I am home.

My advice to anyone dealing with similar issues as mine and dreading the holiday event calendar due to all of the managing we must do just in order to show up: Be kind to yourself and listen to your body. If it’s telling you to rest, then rest. Show up everywhere or cancel plans with abandon. Enjoy the moments however you choose to celebrate, or not celebrate, the season. And always keep wipes in your purse.

Learn more about my story here: http://cervivor.org/stories/mary/