Rebecca shares her tips on how she reclaimed her body from cancer after her secondary diagnosis, and how doing so has empowered her.
I no longer focus on my scars
At this time, I have eyebrows, eyelashes and hair. I also have, on rough count, six pretty significant surgery scars on my torso, three smaller ones on my neck, five radiotherapy tattoos, and a lump where my chest port sits, which looks like I’ve swallowed a coin. I also sport a rather natty flesh-coloured lymphoedema sleeve. Tres chic.
However, when I get out of the shower (a questionable sight at the best of times), it’s not my scars that I see. Instead, my eyes are drawn to the fabulous tattoo I have on my rib cage (a star constellation, if you’re interested), or the double piercing I have in each ear. Had it not been for cancer, I never would have ventured into the world of body art.
It feels like cancer calls the shots
As many of you will be all too aware, cancer takes over your appearance, be it hair loss, weight issues, skin changes or scarring. I can’t quite get over the number of physical changes I’ve had inflicted on me since my primary diagnosis in September 2016, and then my secondary diagnosis in December 2017.
I say ‘inflicted on me’ because it feels like cancer is the one calling the shots. It’s cancer that caused my mastectomy. It’s cancer that necessitated the operation on my collapsed lung. And why is my arm permanently swollen? Oh yes, cancer.
It’s like I’m a passenger in my own body.
I can’t change what cancer has done. Those scars are here to stay, and I was never going to refuse a mastectomy, for example, on the basis of aesthetics. With cancer, I make decisions based on survival.
How I’ve reclaimed my body from cancer
Having said all that, I don’t have a negative body image because I’ve worked hard to turn negative physical changes into a positive image overhaul. I’ve reclaimed my body as best I can, and it certainly helps me cope with all the physical changes my secondary cancer has caused. In case it's of assistance or inspiration to you, here’s what I’ve done.
1. I got a tattoo over my ribcage
Now I see that, rather than my scars – and what a beautiful work of art it is. (Thanks, Tom Bates!) Of course, this won’t be everyone’s cup of tea but, if you are covered with irreversible cancer-related scars, what’s the issue with a bit of artwork to go alongside? At least you get to design this 'scar' as you please.
2. I attended a Look Good, Feel Better workshop
I learnt how to fill in eyebrows, among other things. I never knew I was applying eyeshadow incorrectly, and now I glide it on with ease, making my eyes look shiny and bright. It gives me great pleasure to play around with different looks, and some of you may have seen my ‘blue eyes’ experiment on Breast Cancer Care’s Instagram stories. Dazzling, or perhaps a little Pat Butcher, but fun nonetheless. Why not treat yourself to a (free) makeover at a department store make-up counter?
3. I get dressed up
I used to ‘save’ outfits, but this ultimately meant I didn’t wear them much. Life is short, and perhaps even more so for me, so what on earth was I saving them for? Now, when I buy something nice, I wear it. And there’s definitely a psychological benefit in looking a bit glam. It makes me want to get out and about, meet people and hold my head high. I have a disco jumpsuit, and I’m not afraid to use it.
4. I try to stay in shape
We cancer patients are told a thousand times over about the benefits of staying in shape, but it’s also worth mentioning in the context of a positive body image. Walking, swimming, cycling – it doesn’t matter what you do, but do something. If you maintain a healthy weight you’ll likely feel more confident about getting out into the world, particularly if you put weight on during chemo. You're also likely to have more energy if you exercise, which means more opportunities to show off your outfit/make-up/tattoo. It can be tough to begin with, but Breast Cancer Care has some tips on how to start exercising, or you could sign up for a Pink Ribbon Walk as your fitness goal.
I don’t have all the answers
I don’t pretend to have the answers. Cancer has messed up my body and I can’t change that, which is a difficult notion to accept. However, I find it easier to get out into the world on a daily basis if I’ve made an effort to put a bit of sparkle in my step, and for the foreseeable future I consider that a winning formula. When I put on a nice outfit, or do my hair and make-up, I see in the mirror someone who looks a bit glam. What I don't see is a victim of secondary cancer.
My secondary cancer may have caused irreversible physical changes. But, rather than focus on that, I think about ways in which I have the power to control my appearance. And that is a great boost to my sense of body image.
Look good, feel better? Most definitely.
Listen to Rebecca’s podcast on self-care and secondary breast cancer on our new podcast channel.