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In Your Skin

Assessing Your Body After Cancer

by Sherri Magee, PhD, and Kathy Scalzo, MSOD

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Many of us talk about our bodies as if we don?t fully inhabit them. Because of our busy lives, we often live a short distance from our bodies, not always acknowledging the sensations and changes we experience day to day. Many survivors experience a definite dissociation from their physical bodies after cancer. Your task now is to rediscover your body and to learn to live with it and care for it again. Reclaiming your body and adapting to your new physical self are essential to the recovery process.

Recovering a sense of self within your body requires you to become fully aware of all five senses – listening in and surrendering to, rather than resisting, the day-to-day fluctuations in energy, symptoms, and emotions that accompany healing. Pay attention to what is happening to, in, and around your body right now. Become aware of its reactions. Remember, your body is your most precious possession. How you treat it is critical to your enjoyment of life.

We live in a culture that worships physical beauty and perfection. Cancer represents our worst fears of our bodies becoming less than whole, not measuring up to societal norms. There are an infinite number of body shapes, sizes, and features, yet society tries to convince us that only a few of them are desirable. Before cancer, you may have focused on your body?s outward appearance, relating to yourself from the perspective of how you looked rather than how you felt. Now you?ll be turning that perspective inside out and looking at your body differently.

Cancer represents our worst fears of our bodies becoming less than whole, not measuring up to societal norms.

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Dr. Sherri Magee and Kathy Scalzo

Many cancer survivors tell us they feel bruised or broken, that cancer has left a big dent in their lives. The outward changes in your appearance may be obvious, such as scars, radiation burns, or the loss of a breast or a limb. But some losses are invisible to others, such as a loss of energy, the painful uncertainty of tomorrow, or the loss of trust in your body. You may look perfectly normal, yet still see yourself as broken in some way.

How do you begin to re-own your body? Some survivors wear their scars boldly as badges of courage. They are proud to display them and announce to others how they attained them. But others are shy and embarrassed, concealing their scars beneath clothing and bandages, concocting stories of how they resulted from a childhood injury or steering the conversation to another topic. Still others honor their scars with beautiful tattoos, grapevines symbolizing harvest and abundance or flowering tree branches that represent growth and beauty.

How do you reconcile the newly reassembled view of yourself? As a survivor, you must re-own your body – both how you see it and how you imagine others perceive it. The process will be different for everyone, and how much time it takes will vary. Some survivors spend their entire lives integrating a new body image into their sense of self. Though the process may be fraught with self-doubt and avoidance, with frustration and discomfort, it remains an inevitable and important part of recovery. You are left with this home for your soul; learning to accept it (even one small part at a time), move into it, and get comfortable with it again are important steps in how you will progress.

Reconnecting with your body can be a slow and difficult process, but it is important to remember that time is a healing balm. Your body is capable of healing itself. Side effects will lessen. Eventually, you will move toward a place of accepting your new physical self. Move forward with patience and compassion into this new territory of recovery, and soon it will feel like home.

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Dr. Sherri Magee is an independent oncology researcher who has designed cancer recovery programs and has trained healthcare professionals to work with survivors. Kathy Scalzo is president of a consulting group specializing in change and transition management.

Excerpted with permission from Picking Up the Pieces: Moving Forward After Surviving Cancer by Sherri Magee, PhD, and Kathy Scalzo, MSOD, copyright © 2007 by the authors.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, July/August 2008.