Before cancer I was never happy with my body… now I couldn’t love it more

THE mind is a powerful thing – in so many ways.

Mine runs wild at the best of times, but never more so than when it’s fixated on my body.

Body image is something that I've obsessed over my whole life, like loads of my friends, but cancer has given me a new perspective
Body image is something that I’ve obsessed over my whole life, like loads of my friends, but cancer has given me a new perspective
Deborah James

I would love to blame cancer, but the truth is, like lots of my friends I have spent years worrying about how I look.

I wanted to be skinnier, have perkier boobs, fewer wrinkles, a flatter tummy. I always worried. I was never happy.

It didn’t matter about the inside, all that mattered was if my tummy looked OK in the dress I had just bought.

Then I was diagnosed with stage 4 bowel cancer, at the age of 35.

While I was busy worrying about my body image, cancer was taking my body down from the inside.

It’s Mental Health Awareness Week, and the focus has been on body image – and for me cancer taught me a lot.

Since that moment two-and-a-half years ago my body has been through hell.

Operation after operation, toxic chemo, hardcore drugs, scans, the never-ending anxiety and fear.

And really it’s coped pretty bloody well.

Yes, it keeps growing cancer, but all things considered, it’s incredible it’s kept me alive this long.

Tough side effects

Pre-cancer I worried about my weight, how perky my boobs were, I tracked my wrinkles

All the things I fixated on before, are out of my control now.

My body no longer looks its best, but for once that’s not what matters.

In many ways I know I have been lucky. Some cancer patients lose their boobs, their hair.

In my case, the changes have been less visible.

My skin is terrible now

Cancer has ravaged my entire body, my face is puffy and I have terrible skin after reacting to my new drugs
Deborah James

I look like a teenager with bad acne and it’s had a real impact on how I feel about myself.

It’s something I’ve had to learn to manage. It gets me down, but mainly because it hurts and bleeds and cracks.

Yet, I know the skin reaction is bizarrely a positive thing. It shows the powerful drugs that triggered it, are working.

I have scars… loads of them

I vividly remember looking at my stomach before my first op, my bowel resection two years ago, knowing it would never look the same.

I have a huge scar running all the way down my stomach.

At first I hated it, it played on my mind. I wanted to hide it away. I hated how I had been sewed up, on the wonk.

I couldn’t look at my own stomach, it was a constant reminder that I had cancer. And I felt ugly, I didn’t feel sexy.

I have scars all over my body, scars I once hated but now I celebrate – for keeping me alive

It took a good year to accept my scars.

Now, I’ve grown to love them. Not how they look necessarily, but for what they represent.

Each scar is part of the journey, the process that is helping to keep me alive.

Each scar has done its bit to ensure I’m here now.

My hair is thinner – my eyelashes too

I’m so lucky that so far I haven’t lost my hair completely.

But, after my first chemo I lost a good 40 per cent. I’m grateful that my thick mop means I can just about get away with it.

The drugs I take now thin my hair over time. They’ve left my hair all straw-like, it breaks so easily.

I feel like I’m sporting more of a lion’s mane these days than glossy locks. I hate it, I get scared to brush my hair for fear of more breaking off.

And I’m left feeling jealous of people who don’t have to worry about all this.

I’m the heaviest I have ever been

I’m the heaviest I have ever been, but the thought of losing weight terrifies me now – it’s a sign cancer is getting worse

I don’t feel big, and I know I’m not. I’m definitely more booby – thanks to a mix of steroids and water retention.

But all of that combined means when I step on the scales I weigh a good stone more than I did in the days before cancer.

My tummy wobbles – a lot. I could blame cancer, but the chocolate and wine doesn’t help.

My face is puffy

It’s the steroids, it’s inflated my face – or that’s how it feels.

I’m starting to look old, I’ve got wrinkles.

Yes it’s partly age, but it’s treatment taking its toll too.

I have debated Botox, but question if it’s really worth it, if I’m not sure how long I’ll be here.

Changing perspectives

Despite all these changes, I feel strangely OK about my body, post cancer. My pre-cancer self would struggle to understand.

But cancer has taught me to be thankful for what my body can do.

I look back now at photos of me pre-cancer, when I thought I was fat, or thought my tummy was wobbly – and the sad thing is I realise I should’ve been happy.

Now when I look at photos of myself I see a body that works.

My focus has switched, from form to function, being strong not skinny. Now I celebrate what my body can do, not what it looks like.

Yes, I still like to look good, and get dressed up and feel good.

But, my body image is no longer the most important thing on my mind.

My body is keeping me alive

My body might have been battered by cancer but I have never loved it more than I do now – it is keeping me alive
Deborah James

These days I wouldn’t dream of trying to lose weight.

My dresses might be tighter, but when you have got cancer weight loss is NOT a positive sign.

Losing weight and looking skinny is a sign you’re really poorly, so in my mind I want to stay away from it.

I get weighed every two weeks now, and where once I wanted to see that number fall, now I celebrate staying stable.

When I do lose weight these days, it’s after a tough round of treatment, when I’ve been left being so sick I can’t keep anything down.

Of course, I miss my old body but now my aim is having a body that can keep me alive.

I can’t piece my tummy back together, erase my scars, magically make my hair thicker, or smooth out my skin with a wave of a wand.

I’ve never loved my body more

So instead, I focus on the positives.

I celebrate my legs working, letting me run.

I celebrate having the stamina to dance all night with my friends and kids.

I celebrate the fact that now my body is focused on something much more important than looking good. It’s busy keeping me alive.

While once my mind fixated on how my body looks, it’s now much more concerned with how it feels.

Body image is something I will always battle with, but cancer has given me a fresh perspective.

My body is battered and bruised and wobbles and aches, but I have never loved it more than I do now.


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