By: Beatrice Compagnon
On learning to live with a body you didn’t choose.
“Don’t worry, it is just a little bit of cancer. We will get you better in no time.”
These weren’t the words I expected to hear on my 37th birthday. Ok, it’s not invasive, stage zero — that should be easy to fix, right? No chemo, no radiation – just a lumpectomy. Oh wait, the margins are not clear so a mastectomy it is. Well, Doc, if we do one side, let’s do both; I don’t want to end up with two different breasts. Nor do I want to be screened every three months for the rest of my life. Oh, you can do a one-step reconstruction, implants and a mesh, with no follow up surgeries needed? Great.
Angelina did it. I can do this. I just have to get through the surgery and I will be fine. Doc, how long will it take until I am back to normal?
This is what I thought, just a glitch in the matrix, deal with it and get on with your life. Now, two years later, I can see how naïve I was.
Nobody tells you about how your life will change, how your body will change, how normal will be a completely different concept, and how there will be a before and an after.
Nobody tells you that about 30% of reconstruction surgeries fail. An infection a few weeks after the operation was enough to make my body reject … everything: the stitches, the implant, the mesh — but only on one side. Weeks, months of antibiotics, a tiny little open wound that would not close, even after removing the implant. Altogether, eight months of being glued to the couch, life passing by, while waiting for my body to do its job and close the damned thing. Eight months of hoping and waiting.
When it finally happens, after surgery number six, I am left with one reconstructed breast, one big scar and 20 extra pounds on my already frumpy frame.
Deemed healthy, the bi-weekly doctor visits stop. I am free to live. But I don’t recognize myself anymore. Who is this fat, lopsided woman? My body is weak, wobbly. I don’t know how to dress to hide what I have become — damaged goods. I am 37, single and living in a body that does not feel like mine.
I don’t want to see myself in the mirror. I look like someone who had cancer. Something has to be done. So I throw everything at it — an overly-healthy diet, counting calories, exercising five times a week. Nothing happens. My metabolism did not get the memo. I do not lose a pound.
I decide to get a tattoo, to cover the scar and the missing breast that make me avoid mirrors, with something beautiful. I choose a flower with vibrant colors. Now, I suddenly like mirrors again. I don’t look damaged, just different. I have a breast on one side and a piece of art on the other.
After three months, I take a break and go on a three week-long road trip, soaking up new impressions, enjoying the freedom. I buy prosthetics to make me look normal in clothes. I am around strangers who have no idea that this is not me. But I am ashamed. I still don’t feel like myself.
My birthday, a happy cancer anniversary to me. I go to a strip club for the first time in my life and find myself looking at all these beautiful bodies, all these perfect breasts. But I am not jealous: I start to understand that the only thing I want is to feel good in MY body, not striving for someone else’s perfection.
I come back home and stop trying so hard: Be gentle to yourself. Keep exercising because it is fun. Set goals. They told you the range of movement in your arms may never come back. Look at me now, doing a bridge in yoga, like everybody else.
It takes months and months of effort, but I slowly start to feel my strength coming back, my body is working. I start buying clothes that actually fit my new curves. I go out, dance the nights away and even start to flirt again. Stolen kisses, moments of desire with men who have no idea that I am different under my clothes. I don’t say anything. I just avoid getting further than a few kisses. They think I am not that kind of girl.
And my body starts changing, finally, a year later. I am not like before, I still carry the extra pounds but my body is firm. The weight actually suits me. I look like a woman. I know that the journey is not over, and I am still scared of undressing for the first time in front of a man. But I am sure now that the moment will come and it will be ok. When I am ready. Because you can’t rush things. As much as you want it, mind over body does not work in this case. You have to learn to be gentle. Maybe this is the hardest part.
So, when they tell you it is going to be fine, just a glitch in the matrix and you will go back to normal — don’t believe them. That’s a lie.
Update: This was written 2 years ago and while I am still a work in progress, I am happy to report that it does get better, time heals. There are good days and bad days, but the experience did lead to some unexpected changes in my path: I gave up my career to start Boobytrapp, a mobile app that connects breast cancer patients.
Beatrice is a self-described polyglot and self-confessed workaholic. Bea is fluent in 4 languages and has over 10 years of C-Level experience.