Cancer has changed a lot of things about me, including my body (no surprise there, I’m sure). It’s not just the expected things, like losing my hair, but so many other things as well.
You know your body? You know how it’s the only thing you’ve known your whole life, and you know how it changes when you get fat, or lose weight, or get stronger, or whatever, and you generally know how it’s going to behave in different circumstances. This was doubly true for me, being a dancer my whole life, and typically being pretty in tune with what was going on with me.
Cancer has thrown that all out the window. Due to medications, treatment, metastases, or the combination thereof, everything I’ve known about my body has completely changed. I’ve always had a relatively flat stomach compared to the rest of my body, even if it had some extra cushioning on it at various points. My waist has always been one of my “good” points, one of the main things I consider when buying new clothes.
Now, no matter what I weigh, I permanently look either 3-9 months pregnant (depending on how much I have eaten and my overall weight). At first, this was due to edema and extra blood, but now my oncologist said that the steroids I am on often cause people to gain weight in the stomach (and face). Whatever the reason, it is so so weird to pick out clothes that in the past would have been exactly right, and realize that I now need something totally different to look good.
My weight has fluctuated a huge amount in the recent past as well. At some point when I was very sick, I was down to less than 120 lbs, which at my height was damn near skeletal. I was constantly cold, could feel my bones everywhere (it’s very very weird when you realize that your SHOULDERS are too thin), and I had literally no breast tissue. My body no longer felt like my own. Now, thanks to the steroids and the accompanying appetite, I have too MUCH weight for my own personal taste. Yes, I am much warmer now and not nearly so “sick” looking, but I also don’t want to keep ballooning up. My body STILL doesn’t feel like my own, because of the whole “totally different shape” thing, but at least I feel a little closer to normal.
Here’s a hairy update: I thought for sure I would be completely bald by now, but I still have a rather decent amount of hair. Don’t get me wrong; it’s incredibly patchy, and very thin, but there’s still hair there! I honestly wish it would just all fall out so I could be done with it, but I don’t know if that will actually happen. I feel like the rate it’s coming out has slowed down considerably and I can run/pull my fingers through my hair and have not a single hair come out.
It’s thin and patchy enough that I wear a scarf, wig or hat every time I go out now, mainly for my own comfort. I’ve been preferring scarves, although I did finally get to wear my purple hair out and got tons of compliments on it. (Tangent: I can’t remember if I’ve already talked about this, but Emmie HATED the purple wig until a few days ago. She was OK with the red curly one because “it looked just like my real hair”… ooohhhhkayyy, child, but she would get SO ANGRY and sad and upset whenever I would put on the purple one. I mean, we are talking hitting me, crying, refusing to leave the house with me wearing it, the whole works. I think it was just one step too different for her. But then I wore it once on an errand where she did not go with me (step one), then I gave her no choice for a family shopping trip (step two). I told her we each got to decide what we do with our own bodies (within limits for her, of course), and I think taking away any kind of control over my hair helped her come to terms with it. Now she really likes it and told me that I looked pretty in it. It probably helped that she got to hear all of the compliments!).
So anyway, I’ve mainly been wearing scarves because the wigs get really hot on warm days, and most of my hats just don’t fit right anymore now that my hair is pretty much gone. I looked at a few hats today and even found a great wig store in Boulder that I will probably return to, after I check out the other recommendations I’ve gotten in Denver. I have to pick some hair that will match my outfit for my brother’s wedding next month!
One weird effect of this has been an unprecedented interest in taking care of my skin and in using makeup. I think some of it is because there is pretty much nothing else to distract from my face without hair, so I just feel better with more makeup on. But an even bigger piece I think is that my shower routine is now cut to nothing without shampooing and conditioning my hair. I used to spend the majority of my time washing, then combing conditioner through my hair. Now all I really need to do is wash my body, which takes .5 seconds. With my transdermal pain patches, I can only shower every 2-3 days, so I now feel like I want to luxuriate in them as much as possible (huge change from when I was so underweight and it was the coldest winter ever and I literally NEVER wanted to shower because I would just get so cold).
So my showers now are filled with washing, sugar scrub application, intensive face washing, shaving already-hairless legs, and anything else I can think of. I met a wonderful lady at Sephora who gave me some awesome samples of some rich moisturizers, so I’ve been using those to really pamper my face. (Another tangent: salespeople have been so much more accommodating and kind with Bald Me. It’s crazy how easy it is to talk about things when I don’t have to drop the Cancer Bomb. I usually still say it, but it’s way less jarring because it’s probably pretty clear without saying a word. It’s kind of nice, actually!). All of this attention to beauty is so funny for me because I’ve always been a no-makeup, usually-don’t-even-wash-my-face kind of girl. I’ve been lucky enough in the skin department (other than when it tries to kill me) that I really haven’t had to worry about it, so it’s fun to do all of this now. It helps me feel pretty and pampered at a time when I might not feel that way otherwise.
The good news is that I continue to feel like my body is capable of doing things. Nothing crazy, but even just being able to take a semi-brisk walk feels amazing. I tried to do a sit up the other night and instantly realized that I now have diastasis recti. This basically means a separation of my abdominal muscles. Many women get it after pregnancy. I managed to escape it then, but apparently going from flat stomach to 7 months pregnant belly in a few days, like I did when I was in ICU/hospice, was no match for my poor abs. This is by no means anything terribly awful, but it does also partially explain my tummy, and it does change what kinds of exercises I can do.
So here we are: I now have a body that is utterly unfamiliar to me, and yet is a miracle in its ability to keep functioning as it does. I am pampering myself with creams and lotions like never before as my hair falls out (and doesn’t). I am happy with myself, yet also a little unsettled by the changes.
I am alive!