Learning to Love Your Body as Part of Recovery – 2 of 4
Thank you all so much for following along as I share my story here with the Tigerlily family. It’s such an honor to be affiliated with this organization whose mission is to educate, empower, and support women as they journey through breast cancer treatment and to live their best life going forward. By sharing my story, I hope to inspire and empower you to do exactly that. This requires me to step out of my comfort zone and to be brave and vulnerable as I talk about difficult topics like body image and body acceptance. One of my favorite authors and speakers – Brené Brown – often speaks about courage and vulnerability and how one cannot exist without the other. I couldn’t agree more with this symbiotic ideology and when you think about it and apply it to cancer, it couldn’t be more true. We have no choice but to be brave as we are thrust into unknown territory and this fear of the unknown makes us feel vulnerable. But we rise to the occasion. We fight. We stay strong for ourselves and our loved ones. We put on a brave face and walk with courage into treatment sessions but feel vulnerable at the same time. Being vulnerable truly is a courageous act. I’m going to be vulnerable and share some very personal things in this blog post, and although I’m scared to be so vulnerable, I know sharing it will be cathartic.
I can say with 100% certainty that losing my hair left me feeling the most vulnerable I have ever been. Losing it left me feeling powerless, empty, and bare. But, in some strange way, losing my hair was the best thing that ever happened to me. When I lost my hair, I also lost my self-doubt, negative self image, and my insecurities. I gained perspective, self- confidence, and a whole lot of self- love. Breast cancer recovery is about so much more than physical health and our emotional wellbeing doesn’t get enough attention. For me personally and in my coaching practice with my clients, I’m discovering more and more that body image and body acceptance are key pieces of the puzzle that’s overlooked by the medical system. I used to struggle with my body image and talking about that struggle to such a large audience is something that still terrifies me. It’s a risk I’m willing to take because I know that my story will resonate with so many of you reading it and I choose to own the vulnerability, act with courage, and share my story.
If you’re wondering how a woman could possibly think losing her hair was the best thing that ever happened to her… let me back up a bit and give you some context. I grew up with very thick, frizzy hair, that could not be tamed. Do you remember when the Con-Air straightener was brand new? That thing could not handle my hair at all! My grade 9 yearbook picture was seriously 90% hair, 10% face! I compared myself to my friends and classmates and I felt embarrassed and inferior. I was teased and felt I couldn’t measure up to my friends who I thought were so much prettier than I was because they didn’t have wild frizzy hair. I became very self-conscious about my hair and overall appearance. In grade 7 I applied to a TV talk show program that gave hair makeovers! I was desperate for a change and felt helpless, embarrassed, and insecure. Later on in life when higher quality hair straighteners became available and I learned how to take care of my hair, I wasn’t able to bounce back and see myself in a positive light. Too many years of a negative self-image had left its mark. I became my own worst enemy.
How did this play out? I continued to have a grossly distorted view of myself and I obsessed over my perceived flaws. Self-esteem and body-esteem became one and the same. Because I thought being unattractive was outside of my control, I took extreme measures in an attempt to control the things I could. I would exercise excessively and feel guilty for eating something “bad.” I would think I was fat if I ate one unhealthy meal and would have to over exercise to compensate for this. I couldn’t go out for dinner or brunch with friends spontaneously because I had to plan my workouts around them. I couldn’t be out in a bathing suit unless I exercised first. I was trapped in a negative cycle of body shaming. A negative body-image can lead to eating disorders and I was not spared. I began to binge at night on all the things I deemed “forbidden”. I’m cringing as I write this because I can’t believe the prison that I was trapped in! It was a painful prison entirely of my own making that I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy.
Let me try to explain this pain. Imagine you have this deep-rooted belief that you are not good enough exactly as you are. Objectively you know this isn’t true, but you can’t change how you feel. So you try and control everything that you can, but in the process you wind up damaging your body by eating excessive amounts of processed and refined foods. Because you feel guilty for overindulging, you end up punishing yourself physically at the gym and mentally and emotionally with negative self-talk. This vicious cycle of physical and mental abuse continued for about eight years. Something had to give. My body had had enough.
It was right around this time that I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I’m convinced that the negative relationship I had with myself and my body was a contributing factor in my diagnosis. At the time of my diagnosis I knew nothing about natural medicine. I had never even heard of a naturopathic doctor! Given that I knew of no other options, I followed the advice of my oncologist which was to undergo chemotherapy. It’s really interesting to me because knowing what I know now about natural medicine and my particular diagnosis, I would not have put my body through chemotherapy or radiation. Hindsight is twenty-twenty. However, I’m so grateful that I didn’t know about natural options because honestly, losing my hair from chemo was truly the best thing that ever happened to me.
When I lost my hair, I saw the real me for the first time in years. I saw a beautiful woman who was just scared to be herself. I saw a courageous woman who was just scared to be confident. I saw a brave woman who was stuck in her own shadow. Looking into the mirror and seeing myself this way was beautiful and empowering. It’s like I saw myself with a new set of eyes. So what was the next step? I took action and started to show up for myself.
Acknowledging and owning the pain and the struggle was a critical first step in my recovery. After this true healing really began. I can’t emphasize enough the importance of self-care here. And I’m not talking about getting a massage once a month – I’m talking about cultivating a daily practice that suits and honours your needs on an individual and daily basis. That means resting when you need it. That means moving your body when you need it. That means saying no to obligations you don’t want to actually go to. That means saying yes to things outside your comfort zone. That means nourishing your body with whole, nutrient dense foods. The list goes on and on and on. The point is that when you prioritize YOU and you honour and take care of YOUR needs, you are sending a powerful message to yourself that you are here, you matter, and you are taking ownership of your life. When you prioritize your own needs, you actually create more space in your life to better serve others and you are more present with the people in your life who matter the most to you.
Life after breast cancer has many challenges. For me personally it was about letting go and accepting myself. I see this all the time in my coaching practice as well. Finding it difficult to accept the changes that conventional treatment may have caused to your body and feeling insecure is a very common feeling and there is no shame in this. I mean our boobs tried to kill us – so its only natural to have a little resentment toward your body! However, true healing begins when we shift this thought and begin to look at our bodies with unconditional love and complete reverence. Maybe the idea of viewing your scars/implants/prosthetics with love sounds insane right now, but trust me – this is possible. You can learn to love your new (and beautiful) body with softer eyes, a less critical mind, and a more loving and open heart.
Where am I now? After healing from the unhealthy relationship I had with food and body image, I became a holistic nutritionist. Instead of using food as a means of punishment and restriction, I use it as nourishment and preventive medicine. Instead of punishing my body with excessive exercise, I partner with my body and make choices with food and movement that honour my highest self. My body is now my ally and advocate, not my enemy. Instead of looking at my body with resentment and anger, I view my body with love and complete reverence for all that she does for me. Instead of living in pain, I am living my most nutritious, delicious life and I coach others to do the same!
I’d love to connect with you outside of this blog! If you have questions, comments, or want to hear more from me, connect with me on Instagram @Nutritious_Delicious_life, on facebook Nutritious Delicious Life, or through my website www.nutritiousdeliciouslife.com. Thank you for reading and I hope you walk away feeling inspired and empowered.
Until next time!
Lauren, ANGEL Advocate