Recovery from my cancers was amazing. It was wonderful. I had had the drugs, the physical pain, the emotional anguish and anything else cancer could throw at me! I was ready to get on with living my life.
However, with all the good stuff came some bad too. It was not going to be as easy as I had thought. One of the major worries I had and still have was how I look.
When I was researching this piece it was interesting to find that most of the articles and academic papers on ‘body image’ were looking at the issue in reference to body size, obesity and weight.
I often think about ‘body image’ and what it actually is. It is very complicated! For me body image is a number of different things. Not only does ‘body image’ relate to ‘outside’, physical things but also to internal and unseen issues as well.
When I look at myself I often have negative thoughts. It is as if I am looking at a photo of me before I was ill. There I am a slim attractive teenager with lots of hair. I compare that version of me to now and I can feel unhappy. I realise that looking back at the younger me is not just looking at a body. It is also looking back at the life that I had then. I was free from illness and disability and was looking forward to an exciting life. However I have to remind myself of something. That is to ‘cut myself some slack’. It has been a tremendously hard journey. I have to remind myself that along that journey I have been badly wounded and hurt. The way that I look now is testament to all the struggles that I have faced, external and internal.
We all compare ourselves to one another and to film stars or chart acts. I am worried when I look at other men that I do not look like them and therefore am not really a man. I know this is illogical but I can not help thinking it. I have to remind myself that people come in all different shapes and sizes in life. So to judge myself in this way is not right. Our characters should not be determined by the way we look but by the way we act.
Our appearance and meaning of that is largely based on presumptions. If people are overweight it is largely assumed that that person eats too much. Few of us think that there may be a medical reason. I encountered this sort of assumption myself. I was in hospital and the food really was terrible. I, my brother and a friend went out seeking something tastier. I asked a police officer for directions. He said to me, I normally arrest young men with haircuts like yours’. The policemen had believed that because of the way I looked that I was a thug. I had no hair because it all fallen out because of chemotherapy.
A very difficult thing is to look different to your friends. I felt that I was not really like them; I was something ‘different’. They seemed really slim and had great shaped facial features. I was fat and had a face that was round. They had striking styles. I didn’t even have any hair. I felt so self-conscious and my self-belief hit rock-bottom. Although it was difficult I had to use different and new ways to be and feel attractive. After all the way you look when you are meeting people of the opposite sex is really important. I may not have had the best looks. I did have other things. I could be confidant and chatty. These characteristics made me attractive.
As I have got older, looks really don’t matter to me or other people as much as they did. That certainly makes life easier but I still have ‘moments’ where I feel apart and isolated.
Often treatment for cancer changes the way you look whether that is a temporary or permanent change. I clearly recall being stared at. It wasn’t just children. It was adults too. Wide-open eyes and open mouths. I admit that yes, I did look pretty terrible, with no hair, suffering from neutropenia and in a wheelchair. After a while the stares really drilled into me. Again I felt so self-aware. I didn’t want to be anything unusual or special. I wished that people could, somehow see beyond the marks of illness and see the real me.
Unfortunately people do not always think about someone else beyond their appearance. There have been many occasions where I have said little in reply as my lip is held firmly by my teeth! In all seriousness, it is important to remember that the other person may feel that they will say the wrong thing. Try to put them at their ease. Talk about it. The second thing is try and be humble. Ask yourself, ‘If I had not been ill, would I see beyond the obvious?’
Last of all try to make any irritation or anger that you have into something positive.
Positivity is the reverse of negativity. Flip the negative coin.