My body

Posted January 16th, 2009 by Jane

Perhaps because I was having a not tired day yesterday (and hoping for one today too) I found myself late last night posing naked in front of a large mirror…a kind of Gok Wan (rather than Trinny and Susannah) appraisal. Its not that I avoid the mirror or shower with a bra or sleeping in a hat as I know some others do.

But my nearly 60 body is not as it was…a lifetime of not keeping fit had seen to that anyway… I’m still tall and I like that. But I see a body changed and changing with cancer and its treatments. I have no underarm or body hair beyond a few pubic hairs…like puberty in reverse when it was the change from a child’s vagina to that of a woman, and now it’s happening in reverse to this older woman. I am not quite bald on my head now and there’s a centimetre growth of mottled dark and grey hair which looks quite nice…and Tia may soon go back in the cupboard. The hair sits on top of a pudgy face with those slightly hamsterish cheeks which say ’steroids’. My face is rounder than I like, and no eyelashes and a squinty droopy eye, even under glasses, looks odd. I sigh.

And now my upper body. In the early years after my mastectomy I loved my incredibly neat scar on its flat chest. Sure there was a flap of skin (dog’s ear) under my arm…left in case I wanted reconstruction later…which I didn’t. Mastectomy for me was not traumatic (I worried about the medical aspects of the operation but didn’t think it would greatly bother me being one breasted and it didn’t and hasn’t) I hate it when some other women refer to their mastectomies as disfigurement and the mourning for the breast seems to override the significance of cancer. For me it has always been breast CANCER, not BREAST cancer.

My chest wall has changed now though from those early years. The scar sits on a puffy swollen area and dark capillary veins cover the area in frightening threads of red and purple colours .My left shoulder and neck are bigger and swollen, main veins pushes prominently here. Somehow the largeness of my left side makes my right side look weedy and weak…my remaining breast disappearing next to the bloating on the right. This look not helped by the 12 inch piece of tubing (Hickman line) hanging out my shoulder area just above my right breast. The swollen look continues down my arm…which has at times looked twice as fat as my other arm but now is smaller…which may be vinorilbine (oh bless me my wonder for a while drug) or the new lymphoedema sleeve.

I am sad by what I see…and I can’t even smile without wondering if my very dodgy old five tooth discolured crown isn’t about to fall out as dramatically did last July. I’ve said before that no voice beats no hair and no breast, but no teeth is the worse thing.

I am sad yes, but not devastated. My partner does not turn away. I can get away with my body in pubic, clothed, even though the arm pushes so tight against my clothes. I don’t get stared at which is the unfortunate and obvious test, except occasionally when another cancer patient spots my wig, or my podgy face and we exchange glances of solidarity.

At 20, at 30, even at 40 to have fast forwarded and viewed my body I would have wept in fear, but I think the years of womens’ friendships, of feminism of the 70s/80s, of thinking about bodies and beauty and women’s exploitation has rubbed off. Never one for ‘feminine clothes’ so now I don”t mourn the disappearance of strappy tops or tight dresses cause I never wore them anyway. Jeans and a baggy T shirt were always more my style. Cancer has ravaged a part of my body and will do yet more before it takes what I value more than the superficial scars of my body…the whole of my life.