Body image


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It dawned on me yesterday that this time next week I will have two breasts again. And I can’t quite believe I have finally come full circle. The end of a long journey. There are mixed emotions. Relief, excitement, guilt, apprehension, an overwhelming sense of being able to finally exhale. Because it feels like I have been holding my breath for just this moment. Last summer, battling the prosthetic I called ‘the jellyfish’ every time I wore my swimmers, I knew I never wanted to experience another summer in this way. Small things, yes. They only got a measly 500 grams from me. But sometimes it’s the small things that give us the most grief, isn’t it.

The birth of the bump my girlfriend called it. Stage one of my reconstruction. An incredible gift, worth every cent. Because the joy this bump has given me in the last six weeks is beyond words. The freedom to embrace my femininity again. The joy of normal clothes. I ditched the prosthetic immediately. And the image of swinging my half kilo bra around my head and wildly letting go, prosthetic and all, like some sort of catapult, delights the wickedness in me. I get a sense of why our foremothers burned their bras.

And the really amazing thing is that even though the reconstruction is not complete my brain seems to have accepted my body as ‘whole’ again. I am fascinated by the workings of the mind, the brain in action. Proprioception they call it. That ability we have to recognise ourselves in space. Before, I was so keenly aware of the deficit. Funny, I never hated the scar, I hated the absence of me. But this bump, in all its rawness, has been accepted by my brain as ‘me’ and the sense of wholeness in my quieter moments brings tears of joy.

But the guilt I feel? Because in some ways it is just a small thing. Just a breast. Hidden away, no-one need ever know. I saw a man at the shops in a wheelchair with an amputated leg, and I felt lucky. It’s a strange thing when I work with people facing other challenges, because in listening to their stories, I feel so fortunate. And yet, knowing my story I’ve heard them question their own challenges as being small. But I guess each of us has a story of our own and it’s a wonderful thing when we can feel fortunate in the face of it, isn’t it…

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Note to self: next time be very vague about surgery information when boarding a flight.

Irritated as hell I was yesterday. Arriving at the check in counter 3 days after surgery, busting to get home to my family, I simply asked for a bit of help lifting my carry on luggage into the overhead locker. Due to surgery, I said, couldn’t lift. The smiling, oh too caring, check in chipmunk (at half my age, I don’t think she had much experience of real life) asked about my surgery. As I am a trusting person, I answered honestly. Surgery was Tuesday. ‘What did you have done?’ she asked, feigning caring interest. ‘Breast reconstruction’, I said. ‘Oh, just let me look and see if you can fly’… furious, does not describe how strongly I felt! So she checked her very large manual and decided that I suddenly needed a doctors letter to board the plane. They didn’t tell me that when I booked the bloody ticket. So, happy to take my money, but not happy to let me get home. The airline shall remain nameless – they have been wonderful on other occasions and I am not into slighting. And I understand the need for protection against litigation. I offered to sign a waiver, but that was not acceptable. After consulting her medical advisor they said I needed a letter. So, in 15 minutes I had to get ‘permission’ in writing like a small child to board the aircraft home. So humiliating to have one’s right to exercise their freedom to move around their own country overridden. But as ‘patients’ this often happens, doesn’t it. We suddenly lose our basic human rights to make our own decisions. You can tell it has hit a raw nerve. I mentioned how frustrated I was, because if I hadn’t said anything, she would have been none the wiser. ‘Ah, but you disclosed’ she said. ‘And now I have to act on it’. Only because she led me to it. Duped I would call it. And not quite honest. Leaves a bad taste. Steve mentioned it might help to get it off my chest. I responded with humour. No thanks, I don’t want to get anything more off my chest.

And so with a letter in hand (thank you Dr D), I brought my precious cargo home. Two bumps. And I can’t describe how it feels to have some balance back. To sit in my pyjamas, balanced on both sides. A rounded softness on my right side where for the last year and a half there has just been hard bony ribs. Tears of joy. I keep putting my hand on the roundness, just to experience it again. The hardness has disappeared under this lovely round bump. And it’s only the first stage. I am so delighted. A little bit sore, probably a bit like a footballer after a hard game of rugby. Combined with that delightful sensation of the extreme pressure of your milk coming in on the third day. But nothing a few panadol and a bit of rest can’t handle. ‘Brave’ a woman said on the plane home. Maybe a little of this. But I know I’m in good hands, and with faith and trust, it’s easier to be brave, isn’t it…

I wonder, have you ever noticed how we are surrounded by mirrors in our lives? Some are a true and clear reflection. While others are more like the foggy ones when you get out of the shower. Or the mirrors with a crack in the glass. You only see a snippet of yourself. A distorted image and not your true reflection. And then there are others like the ones at the fun park or the museum, where your body is stretched tall and thin, or shrunk short and stumpy. And we laugh at these mirrors, don’t we, because we know they are not a true reflection of who we really are. Safe in the knowledge the real us, the true us remains unchanged.

My husband became a true mirror for me the other day. As I took my shirt off, he whistled. You know, one of those appreciative wolf whistles. I could never work out why they have been rendered politically incorrect. They never offended me. In fact, I love them. And they make me feel good about myself. It feels good to be appreciated, doesn’t it. This one took me completely by surprise and I smiled with delight. Because I felt so unconditionally loved in this moment. I find him amazing. He doesn’t see the scars. He only sees me. In the days following I realised at an even deeper level that it is ‘me’ that is attractive to him, the real me inside. The outside bits, although desirable, are not as important. And in reflecting this back to me, he is teaching me to see myself this way. He became a mirror for me of what really matters. A true mirror. And I love him all the more.

The young woman speaks. “Will my mouth always be like this?” she asks. “Yes”, I say, “it will. It is because the nerve was cut.” She nods and is silent. But the young man smiles. “I like it he says, it’s kind of cute.”

All at once I know who he is. I understand, and I lower my gaze. One is not bold in an encounter with a god. Unmindful, he bends to kiss her crooked mouth, and I so close I can see how he twists his own lips to accommodate hers, to show her that their kiss still works. I remember that gods appeared in ancient Greece as mortals, and I hold my breath and let the wonder in.

Richard Selzer – Lessons from the Art of Surgery as quoted in Love, Medicine and Miracles by Dr Bernie Siegel

Sometimes it helps me to remember that cancer is really only a cracked mirror. Just a snapshot of a moment in time. Because it’s not a true reflection of who we really are, is it. And it can be comforting to remember that no matter what happens, our real self, our true self will always remain safely tucked away inside…