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?”
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.
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).
Tags: breast cancer and body image, cancer and anger, double mastectomy with reconstruction