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How Self-Love Helped Me Achieve Body Acceptance after Cancer

By Ashley Watson

Photograph by Alicia Thurston Photography

People can often have a complex relationship with their body. For me, it has become even more complicated as a result of cancer. Having a cancer diagnosis at a young age felt like my body was trying to kill me, I felt betrayed. I had loved and nurtured it (most of the time) and this is what I get in return? The feeling of hate and betrayal was so strong I didn’t even care that I was losing a body part, I just wanted it out of me and gone. It wasn’t until a few weeks after my mastectomy that it really hit me; I had lost a part of my body that had been there for my entire life. It was a weird, sad and scary thing.

I felt lost and unlovable. Going through radiation and hormone therapy while simultaneously grieving did not help. At the end of radiation, I decided I needed to dedicate time to work on myself to help with my recovery. I made a few major changes in my life – ended a long-term relationship, started exercising and went on a five-week solo trip to Europe, all which helped me realize what I needed. I needed to choose love, and I realized that it needed to come from within. From that point onward in my cancer journey I made self-love, especially love of and for my body, one of the most important parts of my healing. For me, the only way to get through everything was learning and being able to love myself wholeheartedly.

Through my self-love cancer journey, I’ve been working on not comparing the way I look now to how I used to look. Of course, I still miss the way I used to look; I miss having two nipples, something I hadn’t even considered until I took off my bandages. But I don’t think I would trade my new body for my old one. Now when I think of my old body, I think of the cancer growing within. My new body is the one that fought and survived. My new body allowed me to become the badass who beat cancer. My new body will be with me as I go forward in life.

My scars were very hard for me to accept. Every time I looked at them, I felt disfigured. As a result of the multiple surgeries that I required, some of my scars are quite visible. For the longest time, I would hide them under clothes, while also hiding the fact that one of my breasts was nearly twice as big as the other because of my tissue expander, not to mention the ugly compression bras I had to wear. However, after focusing on finding comfort with my new body, I felt more confident wearing clothes that showed my scars. I decided to treat myself to a new bra that not only provided comfort and support, but also allowed me to feel confident and sexy. I quickly began to realize that the only person noticing my scars was me. Now I see my scars and my new body, and I love the way I look. It’s a reminder of how strong and resilient I am. No longer do I see them in a negative way.

I’ve found ways to celebrate and express love for my body that makes me feel radiant and beautiful – enjoying long baths, spending time naked in my apartment, looking in the mirror and finding comfort in the way I look, dancing at home or anywhere there’s music that makes me want to move, covering my ugly radiation tattoos with small freckle-coloured hearts as a way to show love for my body. As I move forward, I want to continue to celebrate my body and rediscover every part.

In appreciation of rediscovering my body and all that I have overcome, I recently decided to have a few nude sketch portraits done. As fate would have it, the session happened to fall exactly one year after my mastectomy. I couldn’t think of a better way to celebrate such a difficult day and embrace all the physical and emotional challenges I have overcome.

This session is something I will forever cherish. It turned out to be a pivotal part of my self-love healing journey. After the session, I sat and reflected on everything, and I felt an incredible lightness. It wasn’t that all I had gone through had just disappeared; it was quite the opposite. Every moment, every tear shed, every loss I had felt, all that I had gone through allowed me to feel an incredible love for myself. I finally felt peace within. I felt as though I was floating, with nothing weighing me down; not my worries or fears, not my insecurities about my body, not my sadness. It was all still there, but I was perfectly buoyant, perfectly balanced, perfectly perfect exactly how I am. 

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Sketches by Tori Swanson


Posted in: Emotional/Mental Health, Mindfulness/Wellness