Most of my adult life, I had an image of my body— long, lean, athletic and full-breasted. Then, seemingly in an instant, it changed. One of my breasts would have killed me so I had a mastectomy and reconstruction, with a reduction of the other breast to achieve relative symmetry.
Suddenly, the reflection I would see in a store window as I passed by surprised me. I didn’t recognize my body. Friends and colleagues would steal furtive glances, wanting to see the new me. I was happy to be rid of the cancerous flesh, but I wanted to shout, “I am not my breasts!”
We live in a culture that is sometimes bizarrely, and hypocritically, obsessed with breasts. We pore over magazines showing us every star’s bodyhugging, plunging neckline fashions. The ubiquitous Facebook allows an endless stream of scantily-clad photos of women, but only recently began allowing pictures of mastectomy scars after much controversy for banning them previously.
For women going through breast cancer treatments, there are lots of programs aimed at improving self-image. There are free makeovers to help women feel good in their wigs or with their new hair as it comes in curly or to perk up with some new makeup. But no makeup or haircut could really change how I felt about my body.
I decided the best way to feel good about my new body was to stand up straight and get strong enough to continue doing all the things I love. So I began the long process of stretching out scar tissue and strengthening weakened muscles. I was patient, but diligent. Even if I wasn’t sure how I felt about my new profile, I stood tall and at least looked like I was proud. As I grew strong, I found I did indeed begin to feel pride in my body again.
In some ways, adjusting to our new bodies after breast cancer surgery is not that different from learning to accept and love our bodies in the first place. We all have flaws and certain things about our bodies we would prefer were different. But part of the process of being a happy adult is learning to accept ourselves, and that’s a process that can take years.
The trouble with image after breast cancer is that it’s all so sudden. Overnight our bodies are different. We’ve had some number of decades to get to know our bodies, and in a few hours they change—sometimes dramatically. What we need most is time. It will take time to adjust to our new bodies.
But in the meantime, exercise. You’ll feel better and be a little healthier. Stand tall and proud. Even if you don’t feel that way yet, look like you do. And you might just find that, in fact, you are.
Julie Goodale is a certified personal trainer (ACSM), and cancer exercise specialist. She offers private training in the Hudson Valley and New York City areas and provides online fitness information and training specifically for the cancer community through Life-Cise.com. She also leads fitness workshops and writes about fitness and cancer on her blog, FitnessForSurvivors.blogspot.com. She can be reached at julie@Life-Cise.com or 429-3302.