How I cultivate post-cancer body confidence.

If you have ever been diagnosed with cancer, and you feel like I do- chances are you are trying to repair a relationship with your body, a body that you feel has betrayed or abandoned you. 

Surgeries, amputations, chemotherapy, hair loss, weight gain, weight loss, radiation, burns, rashes, sores- these are just the tip of the ice burg when it comes to the myriad of body issues we face as Cancer Students (and Grads). So, how do I rebuild a stronger, more confident house after cancer has marched in and burned it to the ground? I'll share with you the foundation that I'm laying to rebuild my own body confidence.

You can watch our #WidsomWednesday Replay on this topic. 

1) Remember that body confidence is born from body courage.
I've started on the long road back to body confidence by assessing my fears involving my body. I've been taking stock of what makes me feel most vulnerable. Do you hide your scars because you feel they make your body look "imperfect"? Does the idea of having no hair make you feel less feminine? Has weight loss or muscle atrophy made you feel less masculine? Did you gain or lose weight with your diagnosis or treatment? Are you experiencing performance anxiety in the bedroom with your post-cancer body? Do you suddenly feel as if your body is not enough? Not ideal?

If any of these apply to you, repeat after me- "I am enough". Say it loud, and say it often. Keep saying it to yourself until you start to believe it.

There are so many confusing messages that society sends us (especially women) about what the "ideal" body is. Tina Fey gets to the heart of the absurdity in her book "Bossypants":

"...And from that day forward, women embraced their diversity and realized that all shapes and sizes are beautiful. Ah ha ha. No. I’m totally messing with you. All Beyonce and JLo have done is add to the laundry list of attributes women must have to qualify as beautiful. Now every girl is expected to have Caucasian blue eyes, full Spanish lips, a classic button nose, hairless Asian skin with a California tan, a Jamaican dance hall ass, long Swedish legs, small Japanese feet, the abs of a lesbian gym owner, the hips of a nine-year-old boy, the arms of Michelle Obama, and doll tits. The person closest to actually achieving this look is Kim Kardashian, who, as we know, was made by Russian scientists to sabotage our athletes.”

Trying to attain (and maintain) an unattainable beauty standard is hard enough WITHOUT a cancer diagnosis under your belt. How do we start building confidence while facing such insane standards?

I've started by digging deep to find out what makes me feel most vulnerable. What are you most afraid of? I try to acknowledge my fears as they pop up- then I resolve that those fears are not allowed to steer my ship. Next, I take action. The moment I was able to physically get myself out of my hospital bed after my surgery, I walked into the bathroom. I was terrified of looking at my body- I had lost a LOT of weight and had a stomach that was stapled from above my belly button to my pubic bone. I forced myself to take a long, hard look at my traumatized body- my prior bubble butt was pancake flat, and parts of my stapled abdomen sagged. It was a difficult, vulnerable moment for me- but it was an important one. I was confronting the reality of cancer. It was difficult but important for me to accept that reality so that I could decide what my next steps would be.

It takes courage to work through fear and vulnerability to move forward in life. If you're confronted with the realities of surgery, chemotherapy, radiation (or have had to go through any or all of them), chances are that you are already accessing your own inner courage.

The day that I started to feel that my hair was falling out, I went to my hairdresser and asked her to buzz it all off. It felt refreshing to gain a tiny bit of control during a time when I felt so out of control. When she finished buzzing it off, I arose from the salon chair and then felt a giant pang of fear about walking out into the world as a bald woman. Would I be judged? Would my husband still think I was beautiful? Would people gawk? What if people noticed me? Worse yet, what if no one noticed me? I felt all of the fears and insecurities surrounding my hair and appearance flood over me... and then I took a breath and walked out the door with a bald head anyway. Every time I walked out the door bald after the first time, it became easier and I gained more confidence.

It takes courage to rock your scars in public, to walk boldly out the front door with a bald head, to stand naked by yourself or with someone else. I've decided that *I* get to call my own shots, and that *I* determine what makes me feel confident or beautiful or sexy, no one else- not my TV or magazines or internet ads. The more that I operate through life being led by courage, the more confident I feel. The more confident I feel, the more courageous I become. Courage tends to have a pretty cool snowball effect like that.

2) Focus on building your strength, not only your appearance. 
During the first month and a half of chemotherapy, my weight fluctuated from being 20 lbs underweight (post surgery) to 40 lbs overweight (thanks a lot, decadron). This pulled the rug out from under my feet when it came to my body confidence. I went from being a fit, healthy, active marathoner and dancer to a scarred, bloated, bald caricature of myself who could barely make it up a flight of steps without sounding like Darth Vader. It was incredibly humbling. It made me confront my vanity and an ego that I didn't even realize that I had. 

I decided to make a daily, conscious decision to be patient and kind to my body and to try not to judge myself. Some days I succeed in carrying out that decision. Other days, I fail miserably. I'm not entirely sure why something so seemingly simple in theory can often be so difficult in execution. 

Early on in my diagnosis, I decided to strive to become a stronger version of myself every day. Since my health was so compromised, I started off going outside for short walks. As time moved forward, the walks got longer. Eventually, my walks turned to jogs (when I was able), and then eventually to longer bike rides. I started lifting weights again and stretching my stiff, rigid body. I started to mark my progress. I set mini fitness goals- I broke through a few, including deadlifting my heaviest weight yet. Recently I signed up for a 10-mile race so that I would have something for which to train. Every time that I have reached a mini goal, I have gained more confidence in my body and it's capabilities. It has been literally and figuratively empowering.

I may not ever get back down to the weight that I was pre-cancer, but I love that I've been getting stronger. I try to nurture and honor my body by giving it what it needs instead of abusing it to fit a specific mold. I try to push it a little further every time I go for a run, lift a heavier weight, or hold a yoga pose for just a bit longer. I try not to hold onto the person I was yesterday, or judge myself for not being "enough". I gain body confidence *every* time I focus on getting stronger.

3) Rather than focusing on what it CAN'T do, focus on what your body *CAN* do.
I would drive myself into a deep abyss of misery and self-pity if I spent my precious time and mental energy focusing on the things that my body can't yet or can no longer do. And since no one likes to hang out with a Debbie Downer (myself included), I'm going to make sure I'm putting in the daily effort to stay focused on the positives in my life. 

Instead of wasting energy on the things that I can not control, I choose to focus on what I can control. My body can't bear children, but I can still help raise them- whether that's as an aunt, as a potential adopter, foster parent, or just in helping my friends raise their own children. I no longer have long, flowing hair, but my short new 'do is easy to manage and I can get ready in half the time that I used to. Neuropathy in my feet means that running long distances is much harder on me, but I've found that I LOVE to ride my bike twice as far as I was able to run and that swimming feels like meditation in motion.

Despite cancer, my body is still able to astonish me. It managed to mend itself after being sliced open and disemboweled. It sustained itself through months of heavy poisoning. It is constantly healing itself, trying to flourish despite the wear and tear from life's trials. That, in itself, is incredible.

On those occasions that I forget how amazing my body can be, I try to draw inspiration from people who have managed to not let their body's deficiencies dull their shine. Who would ever tell Stevie Wonder that his blindness got in his way of becoming the musical genius that he is? That Bethany Hamilton can't shred despite losing her arm to a shark attack? Hell, the quadruple amputee, Kyle Maynard ascended Mount Kilimanjaro without the aid of any prosthetics and Tatyana McFadden holds Olympic medals in track and field and skiing despite being paralyzed from the waist down. I can keep striving to find new ways to overcome my perceived shortcomings if they can.

As cheesy as it sounds, I try and remember to live out the "can" in cancer.

Have you accepted your post-cancer body? If so, how? Let us know in the comments!