“Welcome to Cancerland, here’s your new body. You may notice it looks a little different than your old one, but I can assure you… This is your body. Once you get past the bumps, bruises, scars, and bald head, you’ll realize it’s still you.”
As if I were waking up and looking in the mirror at someone else, I felt overwhelmed shortly after receiving my first cancer-removing surgery. My body was changing right before my eyes and I wasn’t sure I was able to cope with everything. My doctors told me to expect a large scar (from one hip to the other), hair loss, and weight changes. Not only would I have to wrap my mind around a life-threatening diagnosis, but I also would no longer be able to find comfort in the mirror.
I decided to take control and shave my head before the chemo took all of my hair; I wasn’t about to let cancer rip one more thing from my grasp. After my husband shaved the last of my locks, I stood up and looked at the woman staring back at me in the mirror. She resembled me. She had my eyes, but there was new depth to them. She had my smile, but there was new joy to be found within it. She was me, but she wasn’t. Cancer was beginning to change me emotionally, mentally, and physically. Physically, some changes happened within a matter of seconds and others took years to fully develop. My diagnosis ushered in a rebirth. Though my outer self was wasting away, my inner self was being reborn, refined, and celebrated.
Everything that I thought I was, now wasn’t. I didn’t realize that I had labeled myself prior to my cancer diagnosis. I didn’t understand that I had worked hard to uphold an image for many years. Most of today’s society gets too caught up in outward appearances, and I’d be lying to say I didn’t fall victim to that as well. Prior to cancer, I was a healthy, tall blonde in her mid-twenties. I had confidence and felt comfortable in my own skin. I was adventurous and took risks. And most of all, I could predict who looked back at me in the mirror every morning.
Cancer treatments rapidly began my metamorphosis. In the nearly four years that I have battled this disease, I have gained eleven scars. Each one is a visible reminder of the battle waged within my body. From the numerous chemotherapy and radiation treatments, my skin took on a new form. It was dry, cracked, and sometimes bleeding. For almost three years, my head was bald, and my face no longer donned lashes or brows. And while I, like many, assumed I’d lose weight throughout the course of treatment, I gained an astonishing 30 pounds within the first six months. The mirror no longer reflected the healthy young woman that I once was. I soon began staring at the stranger before me. My body looked nothing like it used to and grief, like a tidal wave, flooded my spirit.
Cancer causes pain, suffering, and most of all, grief. Grief comes in many forms and is experienced through many moments in this journey. I grieved the loss of my fertility. I grieved the changes of life. I grieved the dreams that I once had. I grieved the relationships that were lost. I grieved everything, and I still do. Cancer is an F5 tornado that rips through lives without a care as to what it swallows up. Grief is the rubble that remains when the dust clears. Along with the uncountable losses, I deeply grieved my body image. For months, I couldn’t find myself in the mirror. I searched her face, touching her tear-stained cheeks. My fingers traced over each scar in remembrance. Scanning her bald head and her sick, pale, exhausted body, I couldn’t find her. I couldn’t find me.
It wasn’t until I looked beyond the mirror that I discovered myself again. Behind the weight, the scars, the physical changes, and the grief was the woman I’ve always been. She was strong. She was determined. She was ferocious and ready to survive. She was kind and friendly. She had a streak of humor.
My body image evolved from my physical reflection to my inner character. When the outside is stripped away, all that remains is the inside. When a weak, frail, and bald person is looking at you in the mirror, you must acknowledge them. You must honor what they have gone through. You must pay respect to what they are enduring. But you mustn’t stop there. Look beyond what you see. Who are you on the inside? What does your character look like? Cancer will change your body image. But it doesn’t have to change who you are. You are more than your diagnosis. You are more than your reflection.
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Stephanie Madsen is a writer and motivational speaker. Diagnosed with Large Cell Neuroendocrine Carcinoma of the cervix as a newlywed in her mid twenties, Stephanie is a four-time cancer survivor. Having undergone 55 chemotherapy treatments, 30 radiation therapy treatments, and four major surgeries, her experiences have allowed her to provide a unique and relatable perspective to those facing similar life challenges. Given a less than 20% chance of surviving one year from diagnosis, she is now celebrating being cancer-free.
Her blog, DerailingMyDiagnosis.com, has emerged as a beacon of hope in the worldwide cancer survivorship community. Stephanie candidly shares the highs and lows of her journey with hundreds of thousands of visitors, all the while maintaining the survivor spirit and unshakeable faith needed to thrive in an otherwise hopeless situation. Her written work has been featured on The Huffington Post, Everyday Health, Coping With Cancer, and Livestrong, and she has appeared on numerous local television and radio broadcasts as well as the Ellen DeGeneres Show. She shares her experiences with others and speaks hope at survivorship events across the country.
Stephanie lives in Denver, CO with her husband and two dogs.