Wednesday, 20 November 2019

BRiC's Collective Voice: Self-perception and well-being; Nov. 14. 2019

“If I can be kind to myself as well as to others then I’m half way to being happy in my own skin.”

Last Sunday we discussed self-image after a breast cancer diagnosis and how our self-perception affects our psychological well-being.

Naz started the discussion by pointing out that how we perceive ourselves has a huge impact on our self-respect.

The scars and ongoing side-effects can have long-lasting effects on how we see ourselves. As breast cancer patients we undergo many serious changes as a result of surgeries and treatments. The physical changes we undergo are many and varied. If we have chemotherapy as part of active treatment we may lose our hair, eyelashes and eyebrows, and nails can also suffer, but even when (if) our hair grows back its texture is often different. Ongoing hormone therapy or chemo-induced menopause can result in thinner hair and other changes such as increased weight, fuzzy brain and feeling like we’ve lost ourselves. Surgery may leave us with one breast or none, or an imbalance between the size of our breasts following lumpectomy, with scarring for all in varying degrees. Some also find they have permanent lymphoedema (a condition where damage to the lymphatic system results in the arm on the affected side being swollen and painful so we need to wear an compression garment on that arm for life). But the most noticeable – and most disliked – change for most of us was weight gain, often accompanied by difficulty in losing weight. And despite it not helping at all with losing weight, comfort eating was an issue for many.

For all of us, the experience of cancer and its treatment has changed us. Many of us said that we don’t like how we look, and some actively dislike looking in a mirror because we feel that we see a stranger looking back at us: “I don’t look like me any more.” Some have found it hard to adjust to and accept our changed shape and have difficulty finding suitable and appropriate clothes for our new body. Some members dislike their bodies without clothes, and because breast cancer leaves us with scars that aren’t visible to others most of the time, they forget what we’ve been through. Even when someone compliments us, we may have difficulty accepting the compliment – one member summed this feeling up succinctly: “even if I do look alright I don’t feel it.”

We are not only concerned about how we see ourselves but also the impact the changes have on our partners. We may feel sad for partners, as dealing with cancer is not what they signed up for. Most have said that partners have been very supportive and still say they love us and find us attractive, but a couple of members related that partners have stated they no longer find them attractive, so physical intimacy in the relationship has suffered.

Being single is particularly difficult after cancer treatment, because of both the physical and emotional changes: “I can’t honestly ever see me dating again.” Our single members may be unsure what kind of reaction a potential partner may have, and even if they’ve had a few dates they may not have the confidence to develop a relationship.

We can be told every second that we are beautiful, but if that’s not what we believe ourselves then nobody else saying it matters. So what have we done to help us improve our self-image?

Some members said that they have come to feel happy with their new body, and work hard to get to know and accept their new bodies. One member commented, “Self-love and self-image is something I’m working really hard on. I wouldn’t be so harsh on anyone else so why do it to myself?”

We have learned that in the grand scheme of things, appearance isn’t everything. While society seems to encourage us to judge and compare ourselves to unachievable body shapes, we need to realise that it’s us who need to change our own opinions of ourselves and reclaim our bodies. One member found a programme on Channel 4 by Kathy Burke very helpful – she is not a classic beauty, but she believes she’s a beautiful person in a beautiful body.

We also shared some practical tips.

Some members have taken up fitness activities since diagnosis and work hard at maintaining their new body. One member found it very hard at first but perservered and has made new friends of all shapes and sizes. In the words of one member, “I work hard at maintaining my new body in order to like something about myself”.

Those of us who have pets find them a great source of solace as they still love us, however battered we are. Dogs in particular mean we have to get exercise, which helps with the difficulty we may have losing weight. Some members swim, and one member even plays Pokémon GO in order to get out and walk!

How we dress can also been positive. Nice underwear can help us to feel better about ourselves, but although it can be a challenge finding something nice, particularly for those who have had mastectomies or are now odd sizes, finding some reasonably priced sets has boosted our morale.

For others, in order to get to feel comfortable with our “foob” (a contraction of “fake boob”) or mastectomy scars we have chosen to have a tattoo, and this has been a positive choice as it has allowed us to take control. Some have had other smaller tattoos elsewhere, and all who have had tattoos have been pleased with them.

The idea of control continued for those members who have actively chosen to “go flat” and not have reconstruction, either after a double mastectomy or after getting a second mastectomy. They have found that being able to make the choice has helped them to accept it, and helped with their psychological wellbeing.

“Learning to accept the ‘new you’ both physically and emotionally can be very difficult, but it can improve our general wellbeing and eventually bring about contentment and happiness.”

If you are a woman in the UK who has had a breast cancer diagnosis and would like to join our private group, please send us a private message or leave your name in a comment and we will be in touch.

No comments: