Anyone who has had cancer knows that it changes you. It changes all of us differently and in many ways. Emotionally, we are changed by the experience of having to accept a diagnosis of cancer and the reality of the possibility that our lives may be shortened as a result. Physically, we are changed in lots of different ways. If we have had surgery, our bodies now carry scars and possible physical limitations that the surgery created. Chemotherapy and radiation also affect our bodies. These changes can be short term or long lasting. They can also surface years later. The challenge of making peace with the changes in our bodies can be huge.
How do we proceed and continue to care for ourselves when those changes may include physical limitations and possibly disfigurement?
Acknowledging and Mourning the Loss
Before we can get to the place of accepting what is the “new normal” for us, I think it is really important to acknowledge how things have changed. One way to do this is to write a letter to the body we used to have and honor what it looked like and how it functioned. Ironically, particularly for women, many of us were at odds with our bodies prior to our cancer diagnosis. I have heard many women say how sad they feel about the fact that they were so tough on themselves and their appearance BEFORE they had cancer and now things looks even worse. They look back and wished that hadn’t been so critical of themselves.
In your letter, it may be helpful to acknowledge what your body looked like before your surgery and treatments and what changed in the aftermath of it. Many people tell me that they can’t really allow themselves to look at their post cancer body naked. If you can do it, take an honest look at your body in the mirror. Note all of the changes that have taken place and write them down. Write down the internal changes that are not visible as well. This can be an emotional experience, but the end result is the letting go of what “used to be” and the acceptance of what “is” now.
Making the Connection with the New You
One of the most amazing things about the physical body is the way that it can adapt, adjust and continue to function. We are really quite remarkable creatures. We don’t have the ability to grow new limbs, but we certainly can learn how to function without one. We learn to move differently and compensate for what has been lost.
Part of making the connection with your body after cancer is to really look at it and how it has learned to adjust to what has happened. Do an assessment of how your body has learned to cope with the changes. For me, my digestive system was affected by radiation treatment and I have had to change the way I eat. This was very hard for me at first, especially because I have always been committed to eating a diet that contained a lot of fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Unfortunately, I can no longer eat some of those foods.
The remarkable thing is that my body has learned how to adapt to the changes. I have come to understand what works for me and what doesn’t around food. At one point, I thought I would never be able to enjoy a meal with family and friends again and now it is a regular activity. Have I had to make concessions? Yes, I have, but it is working for me and I appreciate how far I have come.
Accepting the changes that have occurred as the result of cancer is a process of grieving the loss and appreciating the miracles of how our bodies can adapt. We all go through the process of loss and acceptance. It takes time and work, but getting to a place of appreciation of our changes can happen.