Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Bringing A Knife To A Gun Fight

I have written a little bit about body image and the effects that breast cancer has on how we see ourselves as women but I really don’t think I have explored it or given it as much attention as it deserves.

I remember when Keith and I had a discussion about mastectomies/reconstruction, etc. after someone close to the family was diagnosed with breast cancer and before I had found my own lump and I said ‘If I was ever diagnosed with breast cancer, I would get the sweetest rack ever’ (yes, that is verbatim!). If only it was that easy. I didn’t realize that you lost your nipple, that you lost all sensation due to the incisions and mostly, when they take your breast and replace it with an expander, for me anyway, it is no longer a breast, it is now just the location where your breast used to be. It is now just a lump on your chest.

I had this perception of what losing a breast would be like and let me tell you, the reality is nothing like that. I am very aware of my chest anymore, the way someone who has a broken arm is all of a sudden very aware of her arm. I guess that’s a good way to put it, ‘I have a broken chest.’ Even though my breasts look even underneath my clothes, I am aware that one side is ‘normal’ (although after the reduction, it is so small and I have no sensation left) and the other side is part expander/part face cloth to even things out. It is that awareness that constantly plays in my head and makes me feel like less of a woman. Needless to say, 'sexy' is no longer part of my repertoire.

I think we all have body image issues – regardless of how nice our eyes are, how flat our stomach is or how long our legs are, we all have something we don’t like about our bodies. Many times, women call these areas their problem areas – in my case, I think my entire body is my problem area and only a few features are my ‘solution’ areas (I don’t know what to call non-problem areas other than non-problem areas so now they are ‘solution areas’.) So, if you take the average woman, along with all of her self-identified problem areas and then remove part of her womanhood, I feel like it really rocket launches her to the front of the body image issues line.

In a weird way, even though I am more aware of my chest than ever before, and I am relatively self-conscious about Righty, I have become somewhat desensitized to the whole situation – it’s like my chest is now the place my breasts used to be. It is safe to say that my chest no longer carries any of my sexual pride when only a little over a year ago I feel like my chest was my sexuality.

I think as women, it is so natural to compete with each other (and that just breeds insecurities and jealousy – both of which are just time-consuming, energy spending, useless emotions and yet a part of every woman's life). I felt like physically, when I was compared to another woman (let’s be honest, I think we are the ones who compare ourselves to other women more than anyone else) I was able to at least rely on my boobs when I didn’t have a lot to bring to the table otherwise and I certainly don’t feel like that anymore. I feel like I am ill-prepared for the daily self-induced prove-your-womanness-by-having-a-small-waist-or-big-boobs-or-baby-making-abilites fight. I feel like I am bringing a knife to a gun fight. Physically, what do I rely on now? My long blond hair has fallen out because of chemo and although I have good skin and ‘nice eyes’ they don’t have the same importance as breasts do when it comes to defining a woman. I can just hear the women in my life right now saying ‘well then, it’s time to change what it means to be a woman then’. And that’s good advice but I will never feel as much of a woman as I did with two breasts that filled out a dress, that were able to nurse a baby and that made me feel like my womanhood was intact.

Now, the last time I wrote about self-image/body image/my outer beauty I received some incredible messages and in no way am I trying to fish for compliments (although they were lovely to read). I just want to write about how breast cancer didn’t only rob me of a breast, but also robbed me of part of my womanhood. I feel as though if my cancer was in a different location, a location that would have left a scar on my stomach or back or neck, I wouldn’t be experiencing the same body image issues. I’m not saying that a different cancer wouldn’t come with its own issues, but I really feel like my sexuality has been affected by cancer in a way that is irreversible.

As I hit different issues in this cancer journey, I am told ‘it does get easier’ and I am sure that is the case with the loss of a breast as well. I can tell you that I have come leaps and bounds from where I was post-surgery and I am sure that I have many, many, many leaps and bounds to go from here but I can safely say now, ‘it does get better’ for any of you who are about to have surgery or who are only a few weeks or months out.

Although I continue to deal with the loss of my breast and am still figuring out ways to feel like a woman, I would like to offer some advice that has gotten me through some issues with regaining my womanhood and sexiness. The first is, if your breasts were a major source of pleasure, it is important to mourn the loss of them and then focus of finding new pleasure zones. Now, this isn’t an hour long process, it takes months if not years but let’s be honest, finding new pleasure zones can be kind of fun… And when I say to mourn the loss of your breasts, I mean I think it’s important to deal with the fact that you have lost a breast and therefore lost that sexual part of you. I think in the short term, it’s easier not to deal with it but in the long term it’s more painful that way.

Also, it’s important to find things that make you feel sexy. Ha, sexy, I’m not sure if I even know what that word means anymore – who am I to say ‘you should try to feel sexy.’ However, if you are not comfortable being bare-chested while being intimate, I suggest getting some lingerie that gives you good coverage that way you aren’t wearing a t-shirt (that makes it feel like you are very obviously wearing a t-shirt for a very obvious reason) and instead, you are covered but you’re in something frilly, and sexy, and lacy, etc. and you may have fewer inhibitions. Instead of thinking ‘He’s looking at my scars’ or ‘He wishes I had a nipple’ or ‘This t-shirt is so bulky’ you can instead focus on yourself or your partner. Don’t let cancer take away your intimacy too.

Finally, and I need to learn to take this advice myself, don’t be too hard on yourself. I had my breasts for 26 years and it took me about 26 years to get used to them and to get to know them and to dress them properly and to support them with the right garments, so don’t expect yourself to be used to your new look after only a couple of months or years or even decades. I hear about a lot of women in their 40s and 50s who say ‘I thought I had it all figured out in my 30s but when it comes to who I am, I have never felt so comfortable in my own skin as I do now.’ If it has taken woman 50 years to feel comfortable in their own skin, maybe we should put less pressure on ourselves to feel comfortable in our new skin.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

If I Could Turn Back Time...

Where do I begin? Well, I've taken a few weeks off from writing because I have been in beautiful Alberta; we started the trip with a cancer retreat and finished with visiting some friends. To be honest, it has taken me a while to get back into the swing of things but I am slowly getting there.

The retreat that we went to was for young adults who are/have facing/faced cancer (ages 18-35) and it is put on by Young Adult Cancer Canada and the cool thing was that both survivors and supporters were invited. If you are a young adult who is facing cancer, you need to check out this group. Anyway, we spent from Thursday afternoon until Monday morning together and we discussed issues that affected us youngins in a different way than those who are in their 40s, 50s and 60s who are dealing with cancer. Issues like fertility, financial instability, isolation (from friends, family, or even other older survivors), recurrence, and many many more were discussed. It feels so good to connect with so many other people who 'get it' when the people in your life who are the closest to you couldn't possibly understand what you're going through. I loved that everyone at this retreat understood that cancer doesn't end when treatment does and I think that's a hard one for me to try to explain to those who are around me.

Anyway, I had said in my previous post that I was nervous that I maybe had some lingering issues that I had not dealt with since my diagnosis but after the retreat, I think I am relatively well adjusted. The one thing that I definitely realized was that I need to be as gentle with myself as I am with others. I put a lot of pressure on myself to be the best cancer survivor that there is (whatever that means) and I am slowly learning that there is no right way to do this whole cancer thing - there is only your way of doing it.

As I said, after the retreat, we then explored Alberta a little bit and then headed back to Ontario last week. I am slowly getting into the swing of things but I am a little slow at finding my routine. Now that I am back into my routine, I had agreed to do an interview this week for a cancer article and one of the questions that they sent to me (part of a guideline) was 'If you could go back to your 25 year old self, what would you say to her?'. That question has stuck with me ever since I read it. What would I say to her? Take cancer out of it - what would any of us say to our younger selves?

I took a long time with this question and I think I came up with a few answers. First, I think I would give the 25 year old me a hug and without trying to scare her, try to convince her that she was strong enough to do just about anything. I know I wouldn't tell her that cancer was in her future and there would be no 'live life to its fullest' but instead I think I would keep it simple. I would tell her to keep laughing even when it gets so hard, laughter really has been my best medicine. I would tell her to cherish her relationships because it is those relationships that will outlast any careers, money, or belongings. I would tell her to slow down and absorb the day instead of trying to get through it and say 'yes' when a friend asks you to go for drinks - sleep can wait - working early the next morning is no longer an excuse.

Then, once I was finished thinking about the past, I started thinking about the future. Exactly 52 weeks ago from tomorrow, I started chemo. I find it hard to remember my life before cancer, before worry and fear and oncologists and rogue cells. I find it hard to remember my life before I knew what chemo felt like and when I had two breasts and when having a baby was a choice not a hope. I sometimes find it hard not to talk about cancer anymore because it has become such an important part of my life. I find myself trying to change the subject when I was the one who originally brought it up just because I feel like I am making others feel uncomfortable. Every time I look at my hair, it's a reminder that my wish is to have long hair but my reality is that chemo made me bald.

Even with all of these thoughts and the overwhelming impact that cancer has had on my life, I am happy. I'm sure that cancer will not be as consuming as time moves on and my oncologist appointments are farther and farther apart but until that time, I plan on being happy. When I say happy, I don't mean a smile on my face and in a wonderful mood all the time - I just mean doing my best to follow the advice that I would give to the 25 year old me; know that you are strong, absorb the day, cherish all of your relationships, new and old, and for God sakes, keep laughing.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

My Weekend Away With Cancer

It's retreat weekend! Keith and I are going to a retreat for young adults with cancer and young adults who have been caregivers to those who have had cancer. I am so grateful that programs like this exist and I am looking forward to meeting other young survivors and to Keith meeting other young caregivers, too.

Keith works for an NHL team and during the playoffs, time off isn't an option. On Thursday night, his team lost game seven which meant that he could come with me to this retreat (had his team won, he would have had to stay and work). I was extremely anxious while I was watching the game because had the outcome been different, I would be going to this retreat alone, meeting other survivors and caregivers alone and dealing with feelings alone. I fear that I will be dealing with some emotions that I have otherwise suppressed since my diagnosis.

I can't help but wonder what will come up this weekend that I have yet to deal with. Don't you ever wonder if you haven't actually dealt with issues that you've been faced with for the past year, 5 years or entire life and instead tucked them away in the 'to do' folder until it's crucial that you sort out all of your thoughts and emotions? I fear that although I feel like I have dealt with this cancer thing pretty well, this weekend I will have break down upon break down because in lieu of dealing with the hard issues, I use humour to deflect my true feelings.

How do you know if you've dealt with an issue or if you've just ignored it? Can you tell by your reaction to the mere mention of the topic (you start crying when you hear the word 'mastectomy') or is it not until you're in an intensive situation before you let it all out? I sometimes wonder if I should have spoken to a counsellor or a psychologist about being diagnosed with cancer and other times I think that with all of the support that I've been given, I didn't/don't need counselling but how can I be sure?

I seem to have come to terms with what I can't control; fertility, only having one breast, the fear of recurrence, etc. but every now and again a mixture of every emotion known to man seems to come over me and I feel like I have taken ten steps back. By the following day, I always feel better, great even because I've acknowledged how I felt, and could move on. That's what I'm anticipating this weekend will do for me; it will be hard to deal with while I'm in the midst of it but by next week, I'll feel like a whole new me.

It's a bizarre feeling to be scared of yourself - in a way, I don't know what I'm capable of when it comes to cancer (both physically and emotionally) and I'm not sure what has been dealt with and what is left brewing under the surface. You know how you can talk about a topic ten times without crying and on the eleventh time you weep like a baby? That's how I feel, I mean the work 'cancer' has lost all of its meaning anymore but when I say 'I had cancer', every now and again, it becomes real, too real. I guess I'm also a little apprehensive because when it is just me and Keith, I can escape the cancer world but by going to a retreat, I am committing to cancer for the entire weekend. I don't know if I am ready for that kind of commitment.