Like so many newlywed brides (and husbands, too), I got married, and then I gained weight. “Happy fat,” I’ve often heard those extra pounds called. I prefer “change chub.” Not because I’m not happy; I am! But I think the weight gain is less a result of the sudden onset of matrimonial bliss than it is the multitude of changes in daily routines that come with combining two adults’ lives: new foods and meal times, different sleep and waking routines, shifts in exercise habits.
Whatever the cause, I gained somewhere between 10 and 15 pounds those first 8 months of marriage. Not enough to qualify as “obese,” maybe not even “heavy,” but I’ve disliked feeling stiff and sedentary, not like myself, certainly not like the self that a few years ago was working out and running 5Ks.
I’m embarrassed to admit to being even more bothered by the appearance of my expanding silhouette in the mirror and the fact my clothes don’t fit right. I got so self-conscious about my newly rounded belly, which pudged out no matter how much I sucked it in, I was almost relieved when a day with friends at the lake was cancelled. Maybe I’ll have time to get back in shape before I go public in a bathing suit! I thought. I signed up for yoga and a running program and hit the Y a few times, my motivation definitely less health, more vanity. With a beach trip fast approaching, I began to worry over other perceived faults, like my winter white legs: all the better to show off the emerging spider veins, my dear. I contemplated scheduling a spray tan and went online to buy a couple new tankini tops to disguise my belly roll.
Then, a few weeks before our scheduled vacation, I was diagnosed with breast cancer.
It was a surprise; perhaps such things always are. I went in for an annual mammogram and was given a clean bill of health. I returned ten days later to have a couple fluid-filled cysts drained—routine for me, as I’ve had benign cysts since my thirties. Whenever they grow large enough to be annoying or painful, I have them aspirated. The doctor used, per usual, the ultrasound to locate the cysts. As he rolled the wand over my left breast, I noticed something odd on the monitor. There was a dark mass, but it was missing a key characteristic of the manifold cysts I’d seen on the screen over the years.
“That doesn’t have the defined outline that a cyst usually does,” I said.
The doctor kept rolling the wand back and forth, back and forth. “No, that doesn’t look like a cyst,” he said quietly. “I think we’re going to need to turn this into a biopsy.”
The cancer is treatable, survivable, thank god, though it’s going to be a long haul and an intense trip: 8 treatments over 16 weeks of chemotherapy, followed by surgery, then radiation.
Suddenly, it seemed pretty silly to worry over white legs and blue veins, or a few extra inches on my belly and hips.
My body is about to undergo a radical transformation. Chemotherapy will bring fatigue, and I will lose my hair. I may lose or gain weight, depending on how I respond to treatment. Surgery is a given, most likely a full mastectomy of one breast, possibly both. Mastectomy most always takes the nipple, and though reconstruction is a marvel these days, there will be scars. I have two small new ones already, from the biopsy and the port. And if my new breast or breasts are rebuilt from my own tissue, as my surgeon has recommended, harvesting it from my belly or back will make additional scars. (But, hey, maybe that “happy fat” will be useful!) Chemo can have permanent side effects as well, including early onset menopause. Pudgy belly and jiggly thighs notwithstanding, my current body may well be the closest it ever will be again to fitting the stringent beauty standards of smooth lines and seamless symmetry we too often impose on women.
As I pulled my slenderizing tankini top out of its package, I thought: WTF with these oppressive standards? Why have I—quite literally—bought into them?
A few extra fat cells, a few scars: they aren’t a threat to anything but vanity, a challenge to the ridiculously narrow and damaging ideas about beauty and the female body that women have had pounded into us for so many years. I would gladly accept living the rest of my life with a dimpled booty if I could trade it for my health, trade those fat cells for the cancerous ones growing in my breast that threaten my well-being, my very life.
But since I can’t do that, here’s what I’m going to do.
I’m going to walk on the beach and search for shells. I’m going to go stand-up paddle-boarding. I’m going to read. Watch the sunrise. Hold my husband’s hand.
I’m going to embrace my body. It is strong, and it is vulnerable. It is normal, and it is exceptional. I will need to adapt, to gentle my body, in the coming months, because what my body, what every body, can do changes, contracts and expands over time. But whatever it can do is what matters. What it can think. What it can feel. It won’t always (ever?) be easy, practicing acceptance. But I am going to celebrate my body, for whatever it allows me to see or hear or feel or experience.
This is the only body I’ve got, and frankly, it’s on loan. Every body is. So right now, while I can, I’m going to watch the pelicans soar and dive. I’m going to frolic in the waves. I’m going to laugh as often as I can and cry when I need to. I’m going to fight, and I’m going to lean on my family and friends.
I’m a lucky woman: My body can still love. It can still know joy. It can delight, despair, heal. It, I, can still chase dreams.
It’s still life, just, for now, with cancer. And I will live it one glorious, difficult, deliberate day at a time.
In the coming weeks I will be debuting a new blog that is currently under construction: Still Life, With Cancer. Once it’s up and running, I will link it back to FsFTB. I may still post occasionally in this space, but I hope you’ll join me on the new site to follow my story there. Until then, thank you and be well.