Our Bodies Mean Nothing, Our Bodies Mean Everything: Body Image Post-Mastectomy

The other night, I had a long & involved dream that ended with Robin Williams telling me I “used to be cuter.” The following night, I dreamt that I had a 5-inch-long black chin hair and nobody told me.

Clearly, I’m wrestling with some body image feelings.

Cancer involves a lot of appointments with a lot of different people. Breast surgeons, radiologists, plastic surgeons, mammography technicians, MRI technicians, CT technicians, nurses, breast oncologists, radiation oncologists…the list goes on and on. Every one of these people is highly, highly trained in their field and is excellent at their job. They talk to you about your cancer as if you are one of thousands — because you are. Your body is poked, prodded, manipulated, cut open, sewn shut, scanned, screened, dressed and undressed. All of this is done with the utmost care, but it still leaves you with the distinct feeling that your body is no longer your own.

Right after my surgery, I vaguely remember being wheeled into my hospital room from recovery and being lifted from the gurney to the hospital bed using a sheet. One specific nurse wasn’t being gentle enough with me, and I was angry. I felt like a hunk of meat, not a person. I was in excruciating pain, and to her I was just another broken body that needed to be moved.

But throughout all this, most everyone looks you in the eyes and sees you for what you really are. Your body might be broken (hopefully temporarily), but you’re a person, often a terrified person, with friends and family who love you and are terrified too.

When your body doesn’t work, you realize two things simultaneously:

1) Our bodies are not who we are. Whether they work or not, we’re still in there. I once asked my dad when he felt like a grown-up, and he responded, “sometimes I still look in the mirror and think, ‘who’s that old guy?!'” All the people in the hospital beds, in the wheelchairs, in the nursing homes . . . they are still in there, the same people they’ve always been. Our bodies mean nothing.

2) When our bodies don’t work, life really sucks. We might still be in there, but if you can’t walk, go to the bathroom on your own, lift a water bottle, take your child to school, or — worst-case-scenario — speak, life seriously sucks. So while our bodies mean nothing, they really mean everything. Without them, we can do very little in this world.

My good friend and work wife Amber came to visit me recently, and she recalled a story about me trying to quit sugar. It did not go well. I’ve always felt like I had about 10-15 extra pounds I’d like to get rid of, and that I should eat more greens, eat less animal products, quit processed foods, and exercise more. I also knew I was high risk for cancer, and that sugar feeds cancer. Plus, I suspected I had a dairy allergy that was causing me a lot of discomfort. I’ve always known these things, and I never did a damn thing about it.

Yet, when Charlie was a baby and I discovered she was allergic to dairy and wheat through my breast milk, I gave up both in a heartbeat. Despite suspecting my own dairy allergy, I was never willing to put my own health before a hunk of cheese. Cheese is delicious, so screw it, I thought. Plus, sugar is delicious, and I’m young, and cancer is a threat but not really a threat and I’m sure I’ll be fine.

But I am no longer fine. There is no mistaking it. I have lost both my breasts and I have a long road ahead of me, which I’ll get into later. My body may not be who I am, but I have resolved to take better care of it. I finally understand that it’s the only one I’ve got, and if it doesn’t work right, life is not fun.

My chest may look like a war zone to me, but I’m regaining strength in my arms. I can walk up the driveway (which is super steep) without pausing. I can buckle my own seatbelt.

When I was 35, I kicked the shit out of cancer, and it never came back.

When I think about “kicking the shit” out of cancer, I immediately think of a warrior going into battle. But really, kicking the shit out of cancer is more about listening to your body and helping it heal. It means green smoothies, vegetables, taking naps, and enjoyable exercise. It means letting people help you. It means walks in nature and being grateful for the small things — like for example, this morning I washed my own hair without assistance.

I no longer care what my body looks like. This is not about 10-15 pounds, breast prostheses with scars all over them, or cellulite on my thighs. This is about a functional body — one that can climb stairs, run with my child, and live long enough to see my great grandchildren.

The featured image is an incredible handmade quilt my Aunt Maggie made for me to take to chemo.

One thought on “Our Bodies Mean Nothing, Our Bodies Mean Everything: Body Image Post-Mastectomy

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