One of the things you hear most about life after cancer is that you don’t go back to the person you were before. Things don’t go back to “normal”. You end up finding a “new normal” that works for you in this weird sort of afterlife. Many people find that everything has changed.
For me, there was no part of my life that cancer left untouched. It changed my work, my relationships and it made me realise that I wasn’t invincible. But one of the most dramatic things it changed was the way I think and feel about my body. I had to rebuild that relationship with myself from the ground up.
Cancer treatment strips you down to the bare bones of being human. Through the treatment that saved my life I was cut (surgery), poisoned (chemo) and burned (radiotherapy). Because of the small but feisty tumour that had made its home in my right breast, my body changed in ways I could never have imagined…
Coming to terms with what was left behind
During ten months of active treatment, I lost my right breast and lived “flat” for the next 18 months.
I lost my hair and developed chronic fatigue.
My eyebrows never grew back after chemo took them.
As a result of the surgeries that removed the cancer as well as the ones to fix the damage that was left behind, I am now covered in scars.
A vein in my left forearm is hardened and pronounced because the chemotherapy drugs made it so, and it has yet to recover.
I gained weight, I lost weight. I gained weight again.
There are reminders of what I went through every time I look at my body. It is like a map of every treatment. And those reminders can be hard to take.
Over time however, I’ve worked hard to come back to my body and reclaim it from my experiences of cancer. I’ve made my way back to fitness with aplomb. I’ve worked on being more mindful and more accepting of the challenges my body and I face now. It has been a process, and it hasn’t been an easy one.
I never had a particularly good relationship with my body and then it let me down in the most dramatic way possible. I had always criticised myself for being “too big” or “not enough”, constantly looking at myself in the mirror and hating what was in front of me.
Cancer changed everything. Learning to accept my body for what it is now, and what it can do, has been a journey. I used to see my body as a vessel, the thing that carried me about my day-to-day life, but now I am constantly amazed by the things it does without me thinking about it. It pumps blood around my body. My lungs expand and contract filling me with my life force. My body is made up of beautiful and fascinating constituent parts that keep me alive every day. That’s pretty remarkable.
Taking back control and celebrating my body
One of the biggest parts of the continuing reclamation of my body from cancer was my decision to get a mastectomy tattoo a little over a year ago. I had decided I wanted a tattoo to cover the biggest scar on my body pretty much the day I knew I was going to have a mastectomy to remove the cancer. However, over the course of 2.5 years, I had ten surgeries. With every operation the prospect of getting my get my tattoo edged further and further away. When I was finally given the go ahead from my surgeon, I booked it as soon as I could.
I have seen so many ugly iterations of what was left behind and a tattoo was a way for me to deal with the many, many tears I shed over the breast that used to exist. The battle ground left behind by cancer has been turned into something beautiful. Getting this tattoo was a chance to take ownership of that experience and take some control back of my body.
The feather represents my life as a writer, which has only grown as a result of my cancer experience and the process of moving forward. The words underneath, “to live would be an awfully big adventure” is a reminder to myself that even on the hard days, and whatever life throws at us, there is adventure and joy to seek. There is always hope.
Reclaiming my body after cancer continues. It is a process, rather than a destination. This piece of art I carry around on my chest makes me feel alive, every single day. My body and I may still be at odds with each other, but at least now, we’re on the same page, rather than in completely separate books.
UK/MED/20/0147 May 2020
Introducing AfterThoughts, a podcast by Beyond Arts, sponsored by Teva.
AfterThoughts explores the cancer stories that usually get hidden away. We hope AfterThoughts will make the world of cancer more understandable to those who haven't experienced it, while lessening the loneliness of those who have.