Locker Room Talk

Posted on: August 23rd, 2013 by
20

I love my gym’s pool, but I detest the locker room. Too many people see me naked there.

I’ve always been modest and shy about my body. Still, since breast cancer socked it to me good – stealing my physical and emotional health… and my body parts – I’ve been excessively paranoid about being naked in front of others. The conversation between my paranoid self and rational self in the locker room goes like this:

“That woman sees my scars. And she knows my nipples are fake.”
“No, she’s not close enough to see your scars. And she doesn’t see your nipples.”
“She sees the scars, I tell you.”
“You’re crazy. All she sees are what she thinks are breasts.”
“She’s staring at them.”
“No one looks at each other that closely here. Have you looked at anyone’s breasts so closely?”
“No.”
“Matter settled.”

But the matter is never settled. I have this conversation every time I’m at the gym. Every. Fucking. Time.

And there’s also the soundtrack between my two selves on whether people have seen my prosthesis (“What if they see my prosthesis” vs. “You just pick it up and act calmly. Most people won’t even know what it is.”) and the oldie-but-goody abdominal scar monologue (“People are noticing my freaky scar” vs. “Oh c’mon, people probably think you had a C-section or something.”

Sometimes I just think I should go into a private dressing area. But I force myself to dress and undress with everyone else because I somehow believe that if I expose myself to this kind of experience (pun intended), then I can just get over the body-image issues that have plagued me since my very first lumpectomy.

And as I write these words, I realize that what is coming out is shame. I’m ashamed of my body.

My reconstructive surgeons did an awesome job, but all I see is a monstrosity. Why can’t I believe the narrative that these are my battle scars?

Because I didn’t fight a battle.

I lived thus far. But I didn’t win, really.

In reality, I lost so much.

Cancer invaded my defenseless body and knocked me over like a bowling ball takes down pins.

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But unlike the pins in a bowling alley, I’m taking forever to collect myself and get back up. It’s been 12 years since my first lumpectomy, nearly seven years after my bilateral mastectomy with reconstruction, and I’m still working on this.

No, I’m not done with breast cancer.

*****

I’m in the locker room after finishing the mentally exhausting task of getting into a swimsuit. A woman aspiring to get in better shape asks me for any advice on this subject.

For starters, stay away from cancer, I think bitterly.

But that day, despite my vile mood, I smile pleasantly and tell her to just gradually build up her endurance and soon she’d be swimming for longer and longer.

Now let’s set the record straight: I don’t have gaggles fussing over me at the gym. But I get those occasional few who give me a nice compliment. Generally, I can’t just say, “Thank you” and “Have a nice day.” I tell them that I’m not in the kind of shape they think I am. Then, before they can stop me, I launch into my story of all things ugly: the bilateral mastectomy, the reconstruction, the chemotherapy and radiation, the longest time healing.

And they say some niceties and usually say it’s a shame; I seem so healthy and young. I seem so athletic. The operative words are “seem.” Truth is, cancer and its treatments have aged me and hurt me in ways unimaginable to the cancer-uninitiated.

I am plagued by memory.

I am angry.

I am grief-stricken.

I am plagued by shame.

Locker room talk is cheap. And it’s all cancer’s fault.

Has breast cancer caused body image issues? Please feel free to share your experience(s).

Related Posts:

Lost in Translation
We are Never “Done” With Breast Cancer
The Burden of Survivorship


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20 Responses to Locker Room Talk

  1. Nancy's Point had this to say about that:

    Gosh, Beth, this is a terrific post. I really appreciate your candor. I have hated locker rooms since my high school gym class days. After cancer, well, let’s just say I hate them still. Yes, I have body image issues and since cancer, even more so. Thanks for writing this. Great job.

    • Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:

      Thanks for reading and commenting, Nancy. Yes, I hated locker rooms in high school, too. Body image issues seem to persist with breast cancer.

  2. Candace had this to say about that:

    “A woman aspiring to get in better shape asks me for any advice on this subject.

    For starters, stay away from cancer, I think bitterly.”

    I’ve had the hardest week/day at work and then I read this blog….especially this line…and now I’m laughing.

    What would we do without each other? I’m sorry you had cancer. I won’t stop fighting until no one needs/wants to read our blogs on cancer anymore and we’ll know we did win.

    • Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:

      Candace, I’m so glad this post helped lighten your week! I agree that it would be great to have this disease — and all cancers for that matter — eradicated. Then I would be writing other types of blogs!

  3. Kathi had this to say about that:

    Oh, Beth…massive hugs.

  4. Candace had this to say about that:

    P.S. My family bought me a treadmill. Now I can exercise in my garage with my bra strapped to the outside of my shirt so it won’t irritate my scars when I run and nobody knows…oops, till now!

  5. Beverly Wanless had this to say about that:

    Sometimes I, too, feel everything you feel. Other times I think, “My body does not have a soul; my soul has a body and it is only temporary.”

    • Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:

      Beverly,

      I totally understand your way of thinking. I sometimes feel that way about the body and soul connection. Often I don’t even think about body issues. It’s just that when they come up, I write about them.

  6. Ann had this to say about that:

    I completely understand your anger.

    I was never allowed to get to your point, as mets showed up very quickly and I’m in treatment forever. For me, it doesn’t matter what my body looks like, or what people think about it. If it functions, if I can walk, if I’m not in terrible pain, if I am awake most of the day, if I weigh over 92 pounds, if I can pick my son up from school, than it’s a good day.

    I’m not saying I have a lock on suffering or you have no right to your anger – not at all. You certainly do. I’m quite certain that if I could have made it 12 years, if my body had healed and was healthy enough to go to a gym, I would be as angry as you and feel the same shame – cheated. Nobody should have to live with the consequences of what cancer can do to a body. But I remind you, it can do so much more.

    So, when your instincts are to be angry and feel shame, try to turn that around. Your body came through for you. It fought off cancer, it responded to treatment, it served you well. You survived the experience as I will not. Those women, well, it could be them one day. Maybe not. They will never know what it takes to be a survivor and you do.

    • Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:

      Hi Ann,

      Thank you for taking the time to respond to my post. I appreciate it and respect you deeply. Your comment is poignant and true.

      You have every right to feel the way you do. You are right. While no one has that lock on suffering, you have had more than your share — something you nor anyone else deserves.

      A good day for you is so different than a good day for me or other people more or less fortunate than me.

      Through my blog, I try my best to be authentic to my breast cancer experience, which is different than anyone else’s. I feel that it’s important for me to share my personal story. I totally hear you about turning around the anger and shame. You are right, and I often do turn it around.

      Each posting is just a snapshot — an experience that I had and emotions that I had at that point in time. No blog or any piece of writing could capture a person’s entire experience, and trust me, I realize every day how lucky I am. I’ve written about positive things, too! :)

      I know that cancer can do much more damage to my body than it already has. I watched a great friend of mine die of breast cancer for four years, and I witnessed the horrors of this. Even though I was more fortunate than she was, I still was and am painfully aware of the toll cancer can take on people.

      I also know that cancer can recur or result in mets in people who are 15 or 20 years out of treatment, that there’s no cure for breast cancer, and that I could be the one whose cancer metastasizes 15, 20, or more years after the initial diagnosis. It’s an ominous feeling, but I know I am still fortunate.

      I hope those women never have to hear those words, “You have cancer.” Although I can sometimes feel bitter and/or sad, I would never wish this disease upon anyone.

      I used to call myself a survivor, but I don’t believe in that label anymore. I think we all have our stories to tell, and once again, I am grateful you felt comfortable enough to share your feelings about my post here.

      Thank you,

      Beth

  7. eileen@womaninthehat.com had this to say about that:

    I love what Ann had to say, and she did it so graciously, as she always does. And Beth, you too have a valid perspective. Being in the same NED camp as you, I will say that Ann’s comment is good to keep in mind during the down days. At the same time, it’s not to discount or minimize what it feels like to be thrust back into the World of the Normal, and feel as if you no longer belong. Cancer changes things, and the people it affects. I suppose there’s a balance in there somewhere.

    • Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:

      Eileen, I completely agree with you. Ann’s comment was spot-on, and you’re right: she is gracious in her comments. I will definitely keep Ann’s comment in mind and carry that message with me. I’m hoping my readers will do so as well.

      I agree that cancer changes things — forever. And we who are NED have the opportunity to savor life in a much different way than those with mets. I will remember what Ann’s message is, always, especially during those difficult times.

      Thank you for your input, Eileen. It means a lot to me.

  8. Renn had this to say about that:

    BETH: Terrific post! Body issues do *not* get better post cancer. If you/I/we had them before cancer, issues will be amplified afterwards. (That’s been my experience, anyway.) It takes a LOT of work to overcome. (I am not there yet and may never be “there,” wherever “there” is.) All we can do, as you say, is be authentic to our own breast cancer experience. Each of us experiences cancer differently because we each have a cancer unique to us. Many have it worse; many have it better. It’s a crap shoot. Thank you for writing about a common issue! xo

    • Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:

      Renn,

      Thank you for your comment. You’re right about body issues getting amplified after cancer. That’s what happened to me. Before diagnosis, I really liked my body, but I still had body image issues, like so many women do. It is a common issue for far too many women, unfortunately.

      Yes, it is a crap shoot. Every person has a condition that’s worse or better than someone else’s. All we can do is be authentic and savor life the best way we know how.

  9. Stephanie Dodds Zimmerman had this to say about that:

    Beth,

    Feeling whole is a struggle most women face across their lifetimes, yet cancer strips us of the opportunity of realizing wholeness almost instantaneously. And healing, then healing becomes the challenge of a lifetime.

    Though I haven’t had a mastectomy, my body is mangled and scarred by the lifesaving treatment I received as a child. I have sought for years to conceal my chest wall deformity.

    It hurts to feel damaged, unlovely, incomplete; I think maybe it always will despite how well we compensate for the sake of others.

    Stephanie

    • Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:

      Stephanie,

      Thank you for your poignant comment and candor. I’m sorry for all that you endured as a child and the body image issues that are affecting you as an adult.

      I know it’s ideal for us to accept the bodies we have, but it’s easier said than done.

  10. EAK13 had this to say about that:

    Honestly Beth I have had a few surgeries so to me it’s one more scar. the idea of having my breast removed was overwhelming.I thought disfigurement adhesions all the yucky stuff!

    I’m not so much concerned with the scar as I am with what might still be under the scar…
    Love Alli….x

    btw, can you change the link to my blog? Life in Transition is no longer used.
    Here is the new link to Unending Cuts
    http://unendingcuts.blogspot.ca/

    t/y..

    • Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:

      Hi Alli,

      I have to catch up reading your posts, and I will change the link to Unending Cuts. Thank you for the information.

      Yes, for me it’s multiple scars. Like you, I still think about what lies underneath the scars; I also think that even though I’ve had a bilateral mastectomy, I wonder if there still is cancer. A bilateral doesn’t guarantee no cancer.

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