This is a tale of two halves. In the first half I’m a fighter, a survivor and I’m proud that my body has been strong enough to get through a serious illness. But on the flip side, I tell a tale of mistrusting the very vessel I am so proud has survived.
In 2013, I became the proud owner of a lot of extra scarves. Now, this is not a bad thing as, in my opinion, scarves are a great addition to any outfit. They add that little extra French-ness I secretly try to cultivate and are only beaten by hats and brooches as the ultimate in outfit accoutrement.
So why did 2013 see such an exponential growth in my personal scarf collection? It was a reaction by friends and family to my diagnosis of well-defined, papillary thyroid cancer, just before my 31st birthday. Guess when I got those scarves?
To them, the news that I’d be left with a big scar across the front and left side of my neck after a full thyroidectomy and left neck dissection (taking out the cancer which had spread up the lymph in the left side of my neck), was concerning. They were worried as to what effect the scar would have on my body image.
But they needn’t have worried, I love my scar. I purposely cut my hair short so you can see it in all its keloid lumpiness. My scar is my talking point, my war wound, my trump card and my party piece. My scar is my survival story.
My scar represents my story to date; a scary, sometimes sad journey that I have travelled over the past three years. It’s a time that has made me who I am now – a more confident, happier with her body image, determined and focused-self.
I never wanted to have cancer, but it’s made me value life and put myself first for once. Going through cancer I’ve grown confident enough to challenge roles that are created for me by society, media and unwittingly by family and friends. I question more and care less what other people think about how I look and what I do. It’s been a positive outcome from a negative experience.
So what’s the other side of this story? It’s a story of another scar that cancer has left on me. An unseen scar, the one that’s in my head.
Cancer didn’t make me hate my body image, but has actually helped refocus my negative body image – it’ll never be fully positive, but I’m getting better at it. What cancer did is it made me hate my body. My actual, physical shell of a body.
After I had been through a frenetic five months of ultrasounds, biopsies, diagnosis, more scans, operations and radiotherapy I stopped. Treatment stopped, weekly consultations with my oncology team stopped and at this moment, my brain started.
Quietly at first – the distrust, the questioning, the disbelief that my body could let myself down in such a monumental way. I hated her with a passion, how dare she let me down? How dare she multiply too much, poison me from the inside? How could I trust her that she wouldn’t do it again?
When you have thyroid cancer, after your thyroidectomy and radio-iodine treatment, you’re popped onto levothyroxine (replacement thyroid hormone) and to supress the cancer returning, you’re popped on a higher than normal amount, which means you can eat what you want but you don’t sleep well and you can be a little bit anxious.
Or in the case of someone like me, who suffers from anxiety and depression, it can make you very, very anxious.
Mix this with a negative appraisal of your actual body and you get an onslaught of worry, dread and tears. Every twinge, lump, bump, noise, creak or flutter and I was down to the doctor. I’ve had a barium swallow, two extra MRIs, an x-ray, about six ultrasounds and finally, a lot of counselling.
People focus on what they can see – the operation, the scar, the isolation suite for radiotherapy. What they don’t prepare you for, what no one talks about is the mistrust and hatred of your body. I don’t trust her not to mess up again, I distrust what she is capable of, and I limit myself.
Outwardly I am easy going, I laugh, joke and go to work, just like you. But inside I question myself incessantly – having been left with a post-cancer condition, will I be able to stay out without falling asleep in front of a date? With nerve and muscle damage in my shoulder will I be able to take part in things that my friends do? With hyperparathyroidism, will I ever be able to carry children? With a low immune system should I go and stand at a gig and enjoy myself? I keep myself in, I make excuses and I control what I eat. I sometimes want to punish her for everything she has done.
But I’m getting better. Day by day I push myself a little further. There are days when I don’t talk to my body; we walk around in silence, me barely acknowledging her and she aching, hurting, feeling like she’s falling apart around me.
It will be a long journey that we take together, my body and I. She will be with me to wherever I end my journey. And we shouldn’t walk through life in silence, mistrusting one another.
So I need to look at my scar and what it represents and I see that fragile vessel, cell upon cell spreading out from that thin, lumpy, keloid line. And I know I have to look after her and I have to trust her. When my lymph nodes are up I have to trust it’s a cold and not cancer returned, when I ache all over I need to stop, rest and look after her. Together, hand in hand, we’ll be there for each other and we’ll be positive that we can support each other.
When we speak about ‘body positivity’ we generally use it to describe being positive about our body image – looking like how we want to look like and not being shamed into feeling we have to look and act in a certain way.
But body positivity is more than that. It goes deeper. It’s not only our body image we need to be positive about, but how we feel about this amazing, unique bag of cells that fights so hard to keep you alive each day. Body positivity is about being positive about what your body can achieve, what your body can do, what your body does for you.
Sarah is a food blogger who has recently come through a cancer journey. Having struggled with body positivity since she was a child, cancer has made her both love and hate herself more. She lives outside Manchester with her collie dog and a lot of knitting.