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Carol's Story: Breast Cancer was the Ultimate Lesson in Body Acceptance

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Overcoming (and not just eating)

Compulsive behavior has always been a problem in my life. Getting a handle on it has been a challenge. I have watched others over the years get a hold on their personal journeys and have often been envious of their victories and can say I have had a few victories of my own as well along the way. Recently I was handed a trial that has taught me some extremely valuable lessons in being not only Patient With Myself, but learning how to deal with problems one problem at a time—one day at a time, and allowing myself to take ownership and coming upon the realization that there are some things I have not got control of, and acceptance is a key in facing many factors of a situation, and also in allowing my focus to see another side of the whole picture.

October of 1996 I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I was 42 at the time and divorced for a year. My 74-year-old Mom had recently moved out to my end of the world so we could be together and she would have someone who loved her close by if she needed help in any way, and I was glad that came about. We had been apart for 20 years or so.

When the doctor said to me (and mom) you have cancer and you will need treatment, I suddenly felt life's overwhelming circumstances take on an entirely new meaning. My Lord, how far away all other subjects of concern suddenly became in my life. Suddenly every problem that I had previously had was a "don't sweat the small stuff" kind of thing.

Obviously, that was a response that many human beings would encounter since the subject of dealing with cancer was at the forefront and consumed every waking thought. Once again I found myself being "compulsive" in my behavior, only this time it was over whether or not I would live long enough to accept my body. Suddenly the very body I had hated because it was 40-60 lbs. overweight had ultimately turned against me in the most serious manner. I could no longer hate my body because it had defeated ME—I suddenly was a stranger in every sense to this body. It became an "outside entity" that struck at the core of my very spiritual existence. I was transformed into a person who no longer even had a body, but instead was this creature that inhabited a space somewhere "outside and next to" this fleshly body that was full of disease and had turned against me. It was a personal vendetta of extreme proportions. Self-hate? My lord, I couldn't get far enough away from this "deathtrap" of a body. It was numb and my mind was on another plane and had been translated into this euphoric-like state of disbelief. "Shut down time."

Okay, so eventually I had to slip back into my skin again and begin to deal with reality once more. This time, I was supernaturally shocked into taking this one step at a time, and one second at a time, and maybe in a month or two we could graduate to minutes!

The next obvious onslaught against this bodily enemy of mine was the grotesque surgery it was to undergo. A woman (often) has few virtues when she hates to look in the mirror and one of them for me was my breasts. Okay, so they sagged a bit and were too large for my frame. I was still quite attached to them nonetheless. I found that they were a part of me that wasn't something to be hated… after all, the opposite sex seemed interested in them!?! Or were they?

However, because in clothing the large chest made me appear even heavier, oh well this could be great after all… I have my chance for plastic surgery to make them even better and a little smaller in the process. (Funny, most women these days just would die for large breasts… not me… they were part of the enemy in clothing because of how they made me look when I turned sideways… fatter.) So even though they were one (or two) good parts of me, I decided it was time to "detach." And so I did.

Within one month they were gone. Also in the process I opted for what is called a TRAM flap surgery where the Trapezius Rectus Abdominal Muscles are cut at the abdominal hairline and are doubled up under the stomach skin and brought up to what use to be my breasts and folded to create breast mounds.

So naturally, my abdominal wall had been cut from my right hip to my left hip. So now I had three gorgeous scars. One on each "quasi-breast" and one completely across my lower abdomen. Aren't I lovely… what man in his right mind will gaze at this with stars in his eyes? (A huge hurdle I'm still trying to envision.)

One neat thing… I received a new belly button (although it has stitch marks that look sort of like spider legs), and for the first time in my life when I stand up I have a very flat midriff. Now of course, I have funny hips because the hip to hip scar has pulled my skin in an unnatural direction of sorts, and revision with plastic surgery will eventually be done, but meantime I live with strange looking extra pieces of fat and skin that sit like apples on my hips. (Looks great in tight clothing — not). More self-loathing going on here.

Six months of chemotherapy followed surgery (CMF), and half of my hair fell out. I lost almost all of my eyebrows (thank God I have nice blue eyes). My skin turned pale and gaunt, and my energy level was non-existent. However, I put on a smile and dutifully went to work to try and recapture a semi-state of normalcy (whatever that is). I went to work approximately 30 hours a week and found it at least sustained my belief in my ability to perform to a certain degree of intelligence.

With everyone trying to be kind and encouraging while in public view, I had difficulty dealing with some comments that were made like, "hey you look better than I expected," and "well, Carol, you don't look bad" (what I don't look good either?)… and "hey, you still have hair!" Now of course, there were some comments not worth mentioning, some that would rip your heart out, and some that were kind, caring and thoughtful and would make you cry. All of this was so very emotional and to this day I'm not sure how I managed to not cry through it all, except to say that the human spirit is simply amazing when stretched to its limits. (And God is definitely in there somewhere keeping the spirit buoyant.)

Bills are pouring in… paychecks are smaller than before cancer… menopause strikes full bore the 2nd month of chemotherapy and body functions cease to be normal in a female capacity any longer. Bye-bye tampax… hello hot flashes. *(Will this be forever?) Most likely. Ups and downs come and go.

So now the chemo is over. Thank God for getting me through that ordeal somewhat gracefully. Post-traumatic stress disorder sets in. First Ativan, then Prozac, and then Paxil. Have I lost my mind? No, it's just suspended in another atmosphere for the time being. Oh, okay, I can deal with that, too.

Another level of acceptance creeps in… chemo atrophied the muscles and body, and the elastic in my skin is wavering since menopause has set in, and oh yes, chemo helped my sedentary body to gain another 15-20 lbs. Oh great. Now I'm not just fat… I'm fatter. (More self-loathing sets in… gloom… despair… and agony on me… oooooohhhhhhhhhhh… deep dark depression, excessive misery… oooohhhhhhhhhhhh… if it weren't for bad luck I'd have no luck at all… well, you know the rest of the song.

Okay, so I had to maintain a sense of humor. When one is in the ultimate pit of self loathing, one must make jokes or self-destruct.

Actually, the one and only thing that got me through this was God and the spirit within me. If it weren't for that and all those praying for me I'm positive I would not have come to the realization that self-loathing gets you absolutely nowhere and causes you to take giants steps in a backward manner. (Although when it has befriended you for all your life it's sort of like that "twisted sister" you just can't deny is part of your family of sorts.)

God, grant me the serenity to change the things I can, accept the things I can't and the wisdom to know the difference. I always thought that was rather corny before, but now I understand completely its relevance to my life. "don't sweat the small stuff" is another phrase that comes to mind often when people around me find that old hang-nail ruining their day. (Trade-ya… is my train of thought).

My point? I express some of my deepest anguish during this time to reveal my pain and to point out that I am still okay. I cannot "fix" everything. I cannot always make myself happy, and I cannot always tolerate everything that takes place in my life, but I AM ALIVE TO TELL THE STORY! That my friends is the ultimate. After staring death in the face, being alive is one of the most absolute positive things. Breathing, eating, feeling, touching, hearing, seeing, smelling, sensing… nothing can replace this life.

I want to experience a fuller life. I want more than anything "simplicity" and "love"—and to give love and be loved in the purest of ways. Is this idealism? I certainly hope not. To hold no judgment on another for there are no perfect people. But to know that we all deserve to be loved and to live life in its happiest and simplest form (even if that form is not a svelte 120 lbs.).

Self-hatred? Sure it's hard to let go of the emotional triggers that bring up this response, but I must determine within myself to let life happen without reservation and without judgment, and to see the positive side of it instead of always seeing the negative side, and to admit that life has no guarantees, and I am slowly (very slowly) learning that I must expect "good things" on the basis of my beliefs and my faith in God, and I must sow good things to others.

Self-hatred is a heavy task-master. It expects unrealistic goals. It has no mercy. It knows no compassion. It seeks its own destruction. It is hell itself.

Love, mercy, compassion, and acceptance knows no bounds. It gives unconditionally and without restriction, seeks no evil or hatred, and reaches out to others including ourselves. It is a gentle and kind kindred spirit.

I choose to seek the latter. I may not succeed everyday, but I am learning to recognize the difference between the two theories of life (and death). It is indeed in the power of the tongue (and of the thoughts of the mind). Life is not always fair, but life IS good. I believe that God honors prayer, and mine is that He will continue to have mercy on me and that I will continue to heal through life and hopefully reach out to others that are in emotional (and physical) pain. Without God, I am a mess in and of myself. With Him, I have reason to love and to be loved and that in and of itself brings healing. Hope deferred makes the heart sick. I now hope. Self-hatred has no hope, and I want no part of it. I strive to continue to expose it and banish it to die instead of me.

Thanks for listening—hope and encouragement to you all. You cannot reap the rewards of the journey unless you are willing to leave the harbor. Hoist up the sails, Lord, and let's get this ship moving.

Carol

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