Step Away From the Mirror: Body Image and Cancer

By: Caroline "Fridge" Bridges

By Caroline “Fridge” Bridges

If you are struggling with your identity and your image, whether you’re currently undergoing cancer treatment or are 10 years removed from diagnosis, know that you are absolutely not alone in your struggle. There are millions of women across the country struggling with image and eating disorders every day. We obsess over body shape, tummy flatness and that wobbly underarm bit that shakes when you wave.

American women, in particular, seem to be more susceptible to the pressure to be thin, to look perfect. We count calories and worry about “muffin tops” and I don’t mean the delicious, rounded portion of a breakfast pastry. What happens, then, when you take unrealistic size expectations and overlay them on a population whose bodies have undergone drastic and painful physical changes in a short period of time due to cancer? How do you reconcile six-pack abs with a colostomy bag? Or horizontal scars where once there were breasts?

The first time I remember thinking I might be “fat” was at the age of 11 and I spent the next 10 years managing eating disorders, obsessive calorie counting and over exercising. Then as a college sophomore, I found myself receiving treatment for cancer and observing my body morph into something unrecognizable. My personal image issues crashed headlong into my cancer diagnosis and I remain, nine years later, damaged from that battle.

Those image struggles began pretty quickly after my initial admittance to the hospital for acute lymphocytic leukemia. The induction therapy was scheduled over four weeks, all inpatient. Every single day, I watched my weight drop. My muscles withered away from lack of use. My dancer’s calves, of which I was so proud, disappeared along with my hair and my identity as a young woman. So much for the perfect body. So much for calorie counting when you’re on prednisone and all you need is an Oreo Blizzard with chocolate ice cream. But you only have intermittent days when you actually want to eat, when you aren’t puking or lying in bed because you have zero energy while your mom does your laundry. When you find yourself in those situations, society’s female body standards fly right out the window.

After treatment, I gained weight but was so self-conscious about my body that I still wasn’t connected to my truest self. My cancer hasn’t returned, but I have struggled nonstop with its continued effects, the least of which has been weight gain and loss.

I want to say it gets easier, but we all know that isn’t quite true. I’m a realist who relies on positivity: As cancer survivors, we are stronger individuals for having faced down our medical demons. Our bodies – loved, hated, misunderstood – completely betrayed us. I had leukemia, and I distinctly remember thinking that my literal lifeblood had turned on me. Forget image issues; I had issues with my entire hematologic system.

For those of us who have had cancers that target the female organs, the struggle to re-discover ourselves is even more difficult. So what do we do? How do we get back to “who we were!”? Well, the good and the bad news is that we will never get back to who we once were. We get to figure out the essential parts of us that remain and are waiting until we are ready to start inching towards our new identities. It is incredibly intimidating to think of starting over but we are an elite group of individuals who possess an indestructible iron core of strength and we can figure it out.

If we can believe in ourselves above all else; if we can internalize that we are powerful beyond our wildest dreams; if we can find those things that bring us the most joy, then nothing can stop us. I may never quite be at peace with my body, but I also refuse to give up on it. The best part is I have two secret weapons in this particular fight – the knowledge that absolutely nothing is more important than my health and a deep-seated belief that I can survive whatever the universe throws my way because I’ve already been put through its wringer.

I hope you can find strength to step away from the mirror, take a deep breath, and commit to embracing your scars, muffin top and body because you are a fighter.

Caroline “Fridge” Bridges grew up in Chicago, IL, and has lived and loved life in Denver for more than five years. In 2009, Caroline went on her first First Descents camp, climbing in the Tetons, and the experience opened her eyes to the possibility of thriving after cancer. Since 2009, she has participated in three more camps, as both a camper and a volunteer photographer, and ran in the Boston Marathon and the Ragnar Relay Snowmass for FD. Caroline loves to give back through volunteerism and spends as much time running around in the mountains as she can. Follow her running and nutrition misadventures online at http://thoughtlessrunning.blogspot.com

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