Building Trust With My Body After Cancer

The story no one knows about my body is so much more than it may seem on the surface. Just because I don’t show it, or you are not able to see it doesn’t mean it isn’t there and a heavy burden to carry. This is what it’s like to be living after a breast cancer diagnosis and finishing active treatment. I “look normal,” so people assume I haven’t just gone through (and am still going through) the hardest thing in my life.  

My body image changed the day I was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 25. I totally lost confidence and trust in both my body. 

I just could not understand what was happening, and what all of it would mean for me and my body.

I had a lumpectomy, and afterwards, it was extremely hard to look at myself in the mirror. I simply was not the same person who I had been the day before. I felt like my body betrayed me, like it was replaced with a body that was not mine.  I was left unsure of how to process all the changes that had happened so quickly, and all the ones that would come with all the future treatments and what this would mean for my life after cancer.

After healing from my lumpectomy, I went through 20 rounds of radiation, which burned my skin completely. I had lots of blisters and my skin was peeling. There was not one thing I could wear that was comfortable. This just made those feelings of discomfort and loss of trust with my body even stronger. 

Navigating such drastic changes like this and dealing with these feelings, I was lucky to have my husband at my side. But while it was a great help and support to have him there, it was also extremely uncomfortable for me, that he had to see me this way. I did not feel sexy, to put it simply. I was not happy with the way I looked, I wasn’t myself anymore and didn’t know how to get back there. 

At the same time as my radiation, I started taking tamoxifen (estrogen blocker), which I will have to take for 10 years. I was not sure how my body would react to this… My oncologist kept telling me that I should prepare for it to be rough, because I was so young and there were a lot of unpleasant common side effects.

My anxiety kept growing with the thought that this medication would continue to change my body and life so much. Having joint pain, hot flashes, fatigue, irregular periods and more, on top of everything else I was dealing with in terms of my body and healing. 

I was angry, disappointed, tired, sad that this would be my future. I just wanted it to be done. I wanted to get back to my life. 

Before my diagnosis, my husband and I had just gotten married and were planning our future with kids, but then cancer came into my—our—life. It was devastating. And then having to deal with these changes to my body that I had no say in, it took “devastating” to the next level. 

Knowing I might not be able to have kids, or I would not be able for a certain time, was very hard to process and I am still processing it. It feels like someone is taking something from me, taking away my decisions and choices. It has left me having so many questions and doubts about my body.

On top of navigating my body image and new plans for the future, a topic no one explained would be challenging as a breast cancer patient or survivor is sex. None of my doctors, nurses, no one mentioned this at all… No one mentioned how this would impact not only my life, but my relationship with my husband. This was a big part of my life and that I enjoyed and no longer have.

Intimacy and sex are not the same now, not at all. It is painful, and there are some side effects with the tamoxifen I am experiencing, like vaginal dryness and loss of libido. These are such challenging side effects as a young woman. 

All of this said, I am trying, one day at a time how to accept, process and come to terms with my body and myself at this point in my life. What things I can and can’t do. What things I want to do and don’t want to do. For me, a lot of what this acceptance has looked like is taking control where I can, like trying to be as active as possible, going on walks (my dog is helpful for this part), and trying to keep my body as healthy as possible. 

I am slowly learning to love my body again, finding confidence in me and my body. Rebuilding the trust that I have lost. Doing the things I like, and I want, surrounding myself only with positive people. What makes it even more difficult is that because people cannot see what I’m navigating, they assume that it isn’t there. That I’m fine. That I’m happy with my body. That I am not going through something that is so incredible hard and isolating. This part of recovering from a breast cancer diagnosis, “moving on,” is not easy, none of it is, and I don’t know when I’ll feel good about my body again or have that trust restored, but I’m trying. — Katharina

Read more from the community on body image here!

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