By Cathy Leman, MA, RD, LD
How much time have you spent mourning the body you had in the past? Maybe it’s your high school or college body, your pre-kids body, your before breast cancer body. Whatever it is, you want to get your body back.
How much time have you spent wishing for the body you’ll have in the future if you only diet hard enough, deny yourself strongly enough, exercise hard and long enough, or simply find the ultimate plastic surgeon to put you back together in a way that won’t make you cringe when you look in the mirror?
If either of those sound like you, you’re frozen between two worlds – one you’ll never see again, and one you may never see at all regardless of how desperately you want it, or how much cash you’re willing to shell out for it.
You can’t get your body back, or buy a new one.
And here’s why.
The body you had years ago has gone through a myriad of experiences to get you where you are today. Each one left its subtle imprint somewhere on your physique. Maybe you experienced freshman-15 weight gain that dramatically changed your body. Perhaps you carried full-term twins (before or after having another baby!) or neglected your self-care during a period of stress or overwhelm.
And then, there’s the whole breast cancer piece.
Stick with me.
I know this is difficult to read and take in. But trust me, I’ll get you to a place of understanding that just may shift your thinking about that glorious body of yours.
The body havoc of breast cancer
Any of us who’ve been through breast cancer know that no two experiences are the same. There are similarities, sure. Yet even when two women undergo a “standard” lumpectomy (is there even such a thing?), there are enormous differences in the aesthetic outcome.
My own lumpectomy involved a significant skin grafting procedure performed by my skilled plastic surgeon, but no reconstruction. It’s not that I couldn’t use it to create more symmetry between left and right, or to create the breast I had before, but I’m not up for that. I’ve chosen to live with it.
I recognize, and never minimize, the significant physical repercussions from the surgeries we endure in order to save (or prolong) our lives. The scars and asymmetry left behind are extraordinarily difficult to accept, let alone embrace. And let’s not forget those medications that serve to reduce our risk of recurrence, yet wreak havoc on our metabolism, weight, and body fat distribution.
Unfortunately, this post-surgical, medicated-out-of-fear place in which we find ourselves creates the perfect storm for body loathing, disgust, and even hate.
No one’s immune, but if you struggled with body image issues before that breast cancer diagnosis, you may be hit unusually hard when staring down the collateral damage reflected in the mirror.
A downward cycle threatens
I’d like to suggest that this is the time when collateral damage and negative body image begin to magnify. Not caring about your body leads to not caring for your body. And so begins the slippery slope of neglect.
Weight escalates, muscle deteriorates. You have less energy to move (or have none, thanks to treatment and medication side effects) so you move less. You and your sofa become joined at the hip. Hanging out on the sofa demands snacking, so you eat more – and of course cookies, not carrots, make you feel better.
You feel guilty about eating junk (breast cancer nutrition isn’t built on candy, chips and ice cream), and you’re afraid your diet will make the cancer return. You feel terrible and look like someone you don’t recognize. And right about now the depression and desperation kick in because you’re at a loss over how to even begin to find your way back.
You. Are. Worth. Caring. For.
Damage control requires BELIEF
The decision to take care of yourself isn’t made by following the latest diet, attempting an unrealistic workout regimen, or throwing out your entire stash of chocolate bars.
It comes from your mind.
When you KNOW that you’re worth it, when you BELIEVE that, you decide to make your self-care non-negotiable.
When you focus on the amazing things your body CAN do, you start to believe. When you shift your focus from chasing perfection to reveling in simply being alive, you start to believe.
Body acceptance may still be out of reach, but is it possible it’s within view?
3 questions to reflect on when you can’t get your body back
- Did you wake up this morning?
- Does your “imperfect” body get you through a grueling, demanding day?
- Are you mobile and able to do the things that make your “imperfect” body uniquely you, such as hugging someone who desperately needs it, planting flowers to add beauty to the world, cooking a nourishing meal, or dancing?
Answering yes to any of those means you already are perfect.
Cathy Leman has over 20 years of experience as a registered dietitian and nutrition therapist, certified personal trainer, speaker, writer, and most recently a breast cancer risk reduction strategist, educator, and inspirationist. Through her own breast cancer experience, Cathy witnessed the positive impact healthy lifestyle behaviors have on treatment and recovery, and founded “DAM. MAD. About Breast Cancer.”® BITE BACK | MOVE BACK | STRIKE BACK to provide nutrition, fitness, and wellness resources for women newly diagnosed.
If you enjoyed reading Cathy Leman’s insights in this article, check out our two podcast interviews with her: Breast Cancer Nutrition from a Dietitian Survivor and Breast Cancer Body Image Issues. You might also be interested in checking out our Finding Your New Normal page.