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How my relationship with my body changed after cancer

By Charlene Charles

Body image is something I have always struggled with, and being diagnosed with cancer made things worse. I was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma in 2015. The treatment I went through to save my life left me with scars and insecurity about my body.

My body has changed so much and it’s hard to come to terms with it. Some days I barely recognize myself.

Before cancer, I was struggling with my weight and not being pretty enough. I felt very unattractive and had low self esteem. Cancer magnified those feelings by a million while adding to the problem. I would think to myself, “If nobody wanted me then, who would want me now?” I had a hard time looking in the mirror. To be honest, I still do. If I’m totally honest, I avoid mirrors as much as possible. I don’t like looking at myself.

When I’m looking in the mirror, I don’t see me anymore (whoever that is). At least before cancer, I saw “me.” Now all I see are my scars — not only the physical ones, but the emotional ones as well. I don’t recognize the person looking back at me. My skin has changed so much and I have gained a lot of weight over the years. I remember speaking to a social worker when I was diagnosed and I said, “Well at least I will lose weight.” She looked at me and said, “Some people gain weight from treatment.” Sure enough, that’s what happened to me.

I remember how devastated I felt when I started losing my hair. People would tell me “it’s just hair,” and every time I heard those words, it stabbed me. Losing my hair was one of the hardest things I had to go through. It took my identity away and made me feel less of a woman. I felt even uglier. I lost a part of me along with my hair.

That’s what cancer has done to me. It has taken parts of me to the point where I don’t recognize who I am anymore.

I have a strained relationship with my body now. At one point, my body was strong and healthy. Now it’s weak, battered, and bruised. At times I feel disconnected from my body, as if it’s not me, but someone else. I find it hard to trust my body again. After all, it tried to kill me. It’s hard looking in the mirror and seeing all the wrong reflected back at you.

There are days where I’m able to deal with all of this and I see glimpses of “me” trying to come through. Then there are days where all of this — and everything else that comes with cancer — is too much, and all I want to do is hide.

I hope over time those days become fewer and fewer and I can find “me” and love my body with all the imperfections and scars.

Thank you to Charlene for being so open and honest about how her relationship with her body changed after cancer. We know she’s not the only one who struggles to find “me” after cancer, and we hope reading this story helps someone else feel understood. 

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