My Journey through Breast Cancer

On October 11, 2013, I was diagnosed with Stage II Triple Negative Breast Cancer (TNBC) ... or as we like to call it, extreme measures for a nap (EMFN). For a while, this blog will be my cancer journal. Enter at your own risk.

08 January 2014

lessons in self-esteem

If you live in this country, and especially in Southern California, you are well aware of the value placed on outward image. There are two camps, as I see it. There's the Hollywood / Fashion Industry ideal with which every woman is supposed to comply. This image is unattainable, even by the people who sell it. But that doesn't really matter when we're standing in grocery store lines or watching the latest theatrical release. We see an ideal we'll never measure up to. Consequently, we live perpetually defeated in the area of looking good, in a world where looking good is to be our number one priority. A frustrating cycle, to say the least.

 The other camp is the one that combats the first camp. The leaders here are entities like Dove and Oprah, each telling us that who we already are is not only OK, it's perfect. Simply to be a woman is to be beautiful, no matter our shape, color, size or hair.

Its easy to feel jerked around, not sure where on the spectrum is right for each of us individually. For a long time, I thought I was good. I thought I had this mostly figured out. There's more to who we are than the clothes in our closet, the number on the scale or the color in the dye bottle. What really counts is character! Right? I was pretty content actually. Or at least I thought I was.

Then I was hit with breast cancer, and everything I've thought about myself has been put to the test. The things about me which are the most feminine, my breasts and my hair, have been taken from me. My ability to care for myself and my family has been greatly compromised. And I've been forced to take another look at how I view myself. What I discovered was somewhat unexpected, because I thought I had it together.

In early December, after surgery but before chemo, I was reading my devotional while sitting on my bed. From that vantage point, I can see straight into my closet, the doors of which were open. The devotional started out, "Your needs and My riches are a perfect fit." It goes on to invite the Christ follower to bring all her neediness to the Lord, to watch HIM meet her deepest longings. Unfazed at first, I began to ask myself the question, "What are my deepest longings?" And my eyes naturally shifted to my closet, and I took in all the clothes I own, many bought since my diagnosis during a couple waves of "therapy shopping." And it hit me like a brick wall: I long to truly feel good about myself. I spend more time than I care to admit worried about my weight, my  hair, my make up, my wardrobe choices, and what people might think about my weight, my hair, my make up and my wardrobe choices. If I were honest (and if you can't be honest on the internet, where can you?), I would admit that it consumes a great deal of my mental and emotional energy. A great deal.

How did that happen? I was always OK with me! But when I stop to think about it, I realize I've spent a lot of time in the past few years focused on getting back to that pre-baby weight and figure. I think I was fine because I was on my way to being what I thought was a better version of me. I could deal with being overweight today, because in six months, I would be skinny. For four-and-a-half years I've said this to myself.

Before I was diagnosed with cancer and started comfort eating, I had lost 14 pounds. I had started exercising. I was below my pre-Eowyn baby weight by a few pounds (its that pre-Josephine baby weight I'm looking for). I was on my way to the me I could feel good about.

But cancer has done more than halt my health and weight loss goals. It's forcing me to examine what I really think about myself, how I view myself. Not only is the stress level a bit high to be focusing on weight loss, it's not really good for me. And I am too tired to exercise. I need to rest. So, for the time being, I literally cannot work toward any goals for what I think is a better me. I have to choose to feel good about myself now ... because this is the real me, and its going to be the real me for a while.

I've come up with two conclusions for now: I actually don't think very well of me in the here and now, and I think of me way too often.

Its been said that the physical act of smiling can actually improve one's mood. And so the first thing I've begun to do is practice not thinking so much about me. When I start worrying about what someone thinks, or start overthinking what I'm going to wear or what lipstick to use ... I make a conscious effort to just stop. I make a choice I feel good about, and then I move on.

The second thing I'm working on, and this is a bit harder, is to learn to be OK with me today. Right now my post-baby belly sticks out farther than my chest. I have no hair. I certainly don't have the newly popular "gap between my legs." I'm chubby, like my baby, and everybody loves her, right? Somehow rolls are just so much cuter on a 7-month-old with wild hair. But I digress ...

I believe one of the key lessons cancer can teach me is to truly be content with myself exactly as I am ... today. Cancer has certainly put into sharp relief that life is too short not to! I still believe that weight loss and better health are good goals, and I will get back to them. I will not use cancer as an excuse to go ahead and just eat whatever I want to the further detriment of my health. But I have to stop waiting for that day when I've lost 50 pounds to finally feel good about myself and just be happy. I can do that today. And why in the world wouldn't I?

I don't want to waste one more minute worrying about these peripheral life issues. I want to eat the cookie without telling myself "I'll skip it next time." I just want to enjoy the cookie! I don't want to get dressed and think, "Well, one day I'll get to wear a smaller size." I just want to get dressed and feel awesome. Today! I don't want to look back on my life one day and regret that I wasted precious energy on self-loathing when I could have spent it carefree and happy, playing with my kids and dancing with my husband. They say that happiness is the key to beauty anyway, right? Well, even if they don't, they should.


I would like to send a special shout-out to two people in particular who've helped move me along in this journey. One is my sister Amy, who a while ago so delicately told me I was going to have to deal with being ugly for a while, and maybe now is a good time to learn to be OK with me. The other is Julie Penton, who lives in complete and total comfort with herself, which I believe is why she is so beautiful. Julie, you are an inspiration to me.

This doesn't mean I'm ready to post pictures of my bald self online ... just in case you were wondering. It's a process people!


Goes On Runs said...

love your honesty and transparency. thank you for the encouragement and reminder that god's creation (me) is made in his image and he deems it VERY good....not almost good, or soon will be good, not work on it some more.......but definitely good.

Susan Blythe said...

You are so wise, and beautiful to me. Beauty comes from the heart & the Spirit of God within us. And is shown through our eyes & smile. The rest is just the wrapping. The joy, kindness, compaission & love that comes from your eyes & smile are in deed what makes you beautiful.
You'll get through this your a champ.
Hugs, Susan Blythe