A Cancer Survivor’s Guide To Feeling Beautiful

This ain’t no fairy tale: sometimes you have to lose your boobs to gain your life.

Beautiful After Cancer

Beauty and the Breast

I never considered myself vain until I got breast cancer. I actually took pride in the fact that I could get ready in 10 minutes and still look half-decent. But losing your hair, eyebrows, eyelashes and eventually your breasts will do a number on your self-esteem.

I reached the pinnacle of physical self-loathing the day my son, who was 12 at the time, told me I looked like a bald, old man. He didn’t mean to be cruel. It was a fact – one that prevented me from looking in the mirror for months because it was just too painful to see my femininity stripped away.

During my 17 months of chemotherapy and surgeries, I put beauty on the backburner. After all, I was in survival mode and my goal was singular: get better so I could see my children grow up.

Throughout that time, there were so many people who went out of their way to fix my broken self-image. My neighbour – a cancer survivor – loaned me her expensive wig because it was identical to my pre-cancer hair. My BFF insisted on treating me to facials every few months. Another friend took an eyebrow tutorial so she could show me how to pencil mine in. My sisters bought me funky earrings and hats. And my husband found ways to compliment me, even if it was just for the fact that I had grown a bit more hair that week.

Reclaiming My Femininity

Early on, I opted for breast reconstruction, thinking it would make me feel like my old self again. It didn’t – I still felt ugly. Due to ongoing medication, my formerly thick hair was now so fine, there were visible bald spots all over my head. My eyebrows hadn’t grown back. Plus, I had two huge scars across my new chest – this was no “boob job.” In search of clarity, I decided to seek advice from the “been there, done that” set: fellow breast cancer survivors.

Tips From Fellow Survivors

First up, I reach out to a close friend who went through a mastectomy 11 years ago and had chosen not to reconstruct her breasts. She is one of the most beautiful and elegant women I know. “All of this doesn’t define you,” she says. “You’ve got to realize that your beauty is so much more than what you see in the mirror.” I know she is right, but I am not ready to believe her.

I talk to other women who finished breast cancer treatment more recently. Kathleen Henderson, a mother of four, was diagnosed in 2013 at the age of 38. Unlike me, she wasn’t avoiding mirrors. However, Henderson admitted to wearing a lot of baggy shirts in those early days and having trouble with intimacy. “It’s hard to look at yourself with no hair, one breast and scars and consider yourself desirable,” she says. She hadn’t planned on reconstructing her breasts either – until they were gone. “I felt this burden when I got dressed or was at the gym that people were looking at me, even if they weren’t,” she says.

Her daughters, who were seven and five at the time, were another concern. “This was a very traumatic experience for them. I thought, ‘If they didn’t have to see this every day, it could be something in the past as opposed to a constant reminder of this awful thing that happened to their mom.’

Post-surgery, she wondered if people who didn’t know her history would judge her for getting her breasts done. “If they only knew what I had to go through to get these, they wouldn’t be thinking that,” she says.

Coping With Hair Loss

Henderson has short, wavy hair and, on the day we meet, I comment on how much it suits her. But she is still very self-conscious, given the fact that she has had very long hair throughout her life. “I think losing your hair is a huge thing. Now, I look at women with short hair on the street and wonder if they had cancer, too,” she says. “I’m projecting all of my own fears onto others.”

Jill Anzarut, a Toronto mother who is now cancer-free and celebrated five years since her diagnosis last December, remembers how “gross” she felt when her hair started coming out in chunks. So, she decided to shave it off completely and rarely wore a wig. “I got a lot of stares when I was bald on the streets, but I didn’t want to pretend that this wasn’t going on,” she says, remembering how her two-year-old would always tell people she had a bald mommy.

“Beating cancer gave me confidence”

Post-treatment, she fell apart for a while (her father died during that time, too). It took the better part of a year to feel good about herself again. “Now, if someone is going to stare at my scars in the change room, let them,” she says. “Beating cancer gave me confidence. If this is what it looks like to be on the other side, I’ll take it.”

Both women tell me that exercise has been a key factor in helping them connect with their bodies in a positive way again. “When I’m running or doing Pilates, nobody is looking at me and saying ‘Pretty good for someone who had cancer,'” says Henderson. “Hopefully they just see someone who is athletic and strong.”

Sherry Abbott was diagnosed with ovarian cancer 26 years ago. She was recently diagnosed with breast cancer, and remembers being treated differently when she started to look like a sick person. It compelled her to work with a program that helps women cope with the social and emotional challenges of cancer and feel good about themselves again. Abbott is the executive director of Look Good Feel Better, one of the programs created by Beauty Gives Back, a charitable initiative of the beauty industry.

A Stronger Beginning

“After cancer, there is a grieving of femininity, of body parts, of relationships and even of a career that you may have dreamed of,” says Abbott. “But I think these experiences give you other opportunities. It’s about going a little deeper and finding those resources that will make your life richer.”

While Abbott never got to fulfill her dream of having children, she has fulfilled other ambitions. She achieved her career goals, travelled the world, volunteered overseas and even worked in Jakarta for years. “You have to find ways to embrace all that change as an opportunity for growth,” she says.

I think I’m finally starting to get it now. This is my new reality, and it doesn’t have to be an ugly one. Weeks later, as I was getting ready to go out, my son walked into my room. I was wearing a new dress and had just finished trying to style my sparse hair. “You look really pretty,” he said. I went to the mirror and took a good long look. For the first time in a very long time, I believed it.