The Elephant in the Room is Cancer. Tea is the Relief Conversation Provides.

Give Yourself Some Credit: Body Image and Self Esteem 

by Rachel MihalkoSurvivor, Hodgkin's LymphomaSeptember 27, 2022View more posts from Rachel Mihalko

This article was featured in the September 2020 issue of Elephants and Tea Magazine. Click here to view this article in the digital magazine.

“I am enough.”

“I will live in the present moment.”

“I love the life I am creating.”

“I am in control of my own narrative.”

“I am strong, and that strength isn’t going anywhere.”

These are all things that I wish I could tell myself on a regular basis—and believe them too. I know the importance of reciting affirmations, and I know it takes time to start believing them. But they still feel ridiculous sometimes. After a cancer diagnosis, it can be so easy to get angry and bitter about your circumstances—at least, that’s my experience.

I’m not the most qualified person to write this. I’m no therapist, nutritionist, or anything like that. But I am a cancer survivor. One with scars, physical and otherwise. One who gained weight from the steroids with chemo and the depression that followed. Trying to fill the void of feeling purposeless after treatment. I didn’t know what to do, and I didn’t know who to turn to. I felt so alone in this; surely there weren’t other people out there experiencing this after treatment. All I saw were other college students who were cancer muggles, living their lives just as they always had. Life was completely different for me, while my fellow classmates kept going through the motions.

One of the biggest things that kept me in the depression is how my perception of self drastically shifted. I saw myself as merely an outcast and a statistic. I felt like the only young person on the planet who had ever been through cancer at this age. I looked at my body and all I saw were the radiation tattoos and port and biopsy scars, right in plain sight for anyone to see and wonder about. I saw the stretch marks from the chemo weight that I haven’t been able to shed.

When I looked at my body, I didn’t see a reflection of how intricately made we are and the way my body allowed me to make it through. I saw a body that betrayed me by getting sick and then put me through hell with chemo. My body didn’t feel like it was good enough. I lived in fear of the aches and pains, shortness of breath, and neuropathy. I had no idea what curveball my body would throw at me next. It didn’t feel like a matter of if; I was certain it was a matter of when. Even now, I tell myself what I’ll do differently next time, believing there’s no way the cancer won’t come back. My body did this to me once. Why not again?

When I got out of treatment, relapse was all I could think about. I didn’t know how to move on after dedicating six months of my life to ridding myself of the cancer. What if it just came back? I was swallowed by all of these terrible thoughts of the future, in limbo between that and being unable to let go of the recent past.

I did a lot of therapy that winter. After weeks of only wanting to lie in bed all day and being consumed with feeling lost and purposeless, I got help. I did group therapy, and while I wasn’t surrounded by other cancer survivors, I was surrounded by other people stuck in similar pits of despair, with no clue how to climb out either. It was there that I learned the importance of mantras and affirmations.

“It doesn’t matter if you don’t believe them at first,” they would say. “What matters is that you’re saying them to yourself and that with time, you’ll start believing them.”

So I did what they said. I wrote them on sticky notes and put them on my mirror. I didn’t believe I was strong, but that sticky note told me that I was. I didn’t think that I was enough, but those words would stare back at me every morning.

While I did leave the notes up there, I stopped reading them daily and never really got to a point where I truly believed them, even now. I eventually took them down, embarrassed that others would see them and think I was ridiculous for doing something like that. So, the sticky notes came down, and it was pretty much a year before new ones found their way to my mirror once again.

I’ve always had trouble believing positive things about myself that originated from my own head. I’m much more likely to question encouraging words from myself, for myself, than those that come from others.

One of the notes that sits on my mirror is from an email from one of my best friends. We would try to stay in touch while she was living abroad, and though we both prefer handwritten notes, this was the way to go. She’s always been so encouraging and knows what it’s like to not believe your own words towards yourself. So she constantly tries to remind me that I am loved and worthy and strong as hell.

I think knowing that those words come from outside of myself and are from someone I love and trust makes the words more believable for me. This friend would not lie to me, and knowing that her words up there on my mirror are true makes my own words just a little bit more believable.

In preparation for this piece, I was able to sit down with a group of four other AYA patients and survivors and talk about how cancer has shifted our views of our bodies. While there were definite points of connection, each girl’s story was different. But something that just about every young woman mentioned was that their body has changed in some way since treatment and those changes are hard to deal with. It can be hard to look in the mirror and see the scars, weight gain or loss, and stretch marks, all from treatment.

None of us were really able to admit to finding peace on this journey of learning to love our bodies post-treatment. Whether anyone struggled with body image before treatment or not, the aftermath of cancer left its mark, physical and otherwise.

I want to go through the affirmations one by one and reflect upon them from my own experience, and from that of the ladies I spoke with on this topic as well.

I am enough. 

This is one that I have always struggled with, even before cancer entered the picture, but especially once losing my health became a reality. I feel like there’s so much pressure that we feel as cancer patients to be strong for others, when it’s hard enough as it is to be strong for ourselves. People we know who we run into at the grocery store and ask in that pitying tone, “How are you?” may mean well, but that isn’t quite the time or place to get into it. And your old friend from high school’s mom might not be the first person you would think of when wanting to divulge exactly how you’re feeling that day.

At least in my experience, I’ve felt expectations from others for me to be strong and keep it all together all the time. Cancer is portrayed wildly differently in media, be it books or movies, and I think we set these standards for ourselves based on how we’ve seen others—even if they’re fictional—get through this. If we feel like we don’t reach that standard of strength, we simply don’t feel good enough.

In my experience as a perfectionist, it can be so difficult to believe that I am enough. Especially since my season of cancer treatment, where I felt all these expectations to hold myself together through treatment. When, in reality, I would find myself sobbing for an hour before leaving for infusion. I saw that as weak. Weren’t cancer patients supposed to have it all together?

That is complete falsehood. We’re just people, faced with a hard thing. A really hard thing. One diagnosis doesn’t turn us into emotional Wonder Woman. Emotions are normal, and your emotions are valid. Feeling things does not make you weak.

“When I read affirmations, I feel better, because I am telling myself this every single day, every morning. That’s how I’m starting my day.” – Taylor Christensen

I will live in the present moment. 

I find it so difficult to keep my thoughts on the present. With such a difficult experience in my past and no idea what the future will look like for my health, it can be tricky to be mindful of the present moment. Relapse is such a big fear of mine, and I can easily get wrapped up in those fears when thinking of the future.

On the other hand, we have all been through so much. If you’re in the survivorship phase, you know what it’s like to have such a hard thing behind you, but not truly behind you. Survival mode during treatment is so common, but it leaves us with a lot to process after the fact. We have simply been putting one foot in front of the other for so long that we never took the time to deal emotionally with what we were going through. This makes living in the present moment exponentially more difficult.

Something that I have gotten into that has helped me is meditation. As my yoga instructor says, it’s so important to take time to be a human being, when so many times we feel like a human doing. It’s important to take time for yourself and be alone with your mind in order to take care of yourself.

Find ways that you can do this, whether it’s prayer, meditation, journaling, or doing a hobby you love. However, don’t let yourself get caught up in the act of doing. Allow this to become a time for you to simply be and to appreciate how far you have come, allowing you to experience peace in the present moment.

“The old me probably would have just been like, ‘Let’s just go for a run today anyway, don’t be lazy,’ whereas I’ve realized like, ‘No, I need this rest day.’” – Christy Lorio

I love the life I am creating. 

I am the first one to admit to focusing on the negative. But, there is a fine line between acknowledging your pain in order to open yourself up to healing, and honing in on all the bad that has happened to you out of bitterness. I was in that space for a long time, and I would be lying if I said I am now completely out of that space. It takes time to deal with and process the trauma that is cancer. Give yourself grace and time. There is no timeline on healing, so don’t be too hard on yourself about feeling like it’s taking “too long” for you to emotionally deal with everything you’ve been through.

Remember: you have been through a lot. Allow yourself to acknowledge your pain and grow through it. And know that you are more than your body and what it has been through. While that is a part of you, be willing to give yourself more credit. My hope is that all of you can look in the mirror and see more than the scars and the weight fluctuation because you are not simply your body. You are your heart, mind, and soul too. You are kindness, love, and compassion. Don’t forget that.

“Somewhere I read this thing that said, ‘Instead of focusing on what your body looks like, focus on what your body can do,’ and that just changed everything for me.” – Cristina DiFranco

I am in control of my own narrative. 

For a while, I felt like things were simply happening to me, and I had no control over the events in my life. Sometimes I feel controlled by the expectations held for me by myself and others, and I forget that I am in control of my own life. Regardless of whether cancer happened to me, I get to decide what I do with that. I get to decide how that affects me moving forward. I can focus on it in a healthy way in order to gain what I can from the experience, or I can simply attempt to move on in a healthy way. Do what you need.

Some people thrive off of sharing their cancer story, while others would rather forget. There is nothing wrong with either approach. Different things work for different people. Just because something works for one person does not make it the “right” thing for everyone else. This is your own journey, and you get to decide how to mold your life moving forward. Make it count.

I am strong, and that strength isn’t going anywhere. 

This is something that my therapist said to me recently. We were talking about dealing with the trauma of cancer and how I struggle with believing that I can get past it. I loved the way that she phrased this, and it spoke volumes.

Remind yourself that you have been through so much, and it has taken so much strength to get to where you are now. Your strength will remain. No matter how burnt out you may feel, remember how far you have come.

“Instead of like looking in the mirror and not liking what I see… I now try to appreciate it, and I have to actually tell myself, ‘You are strong, you are beautiful, you went through hell, and these are your battle scars.’” – Savannah Bay

* * *

My original intent was to talk to these ladies and use a lot of what they said in this article, but I was inspired in a different way. It helped me see that I am not alone in these feelings towards my body post-cancer. I’ve felt so isolated in those feelings, and I got so much out of talking to those wonderful people about some really hard things. It’s time to normalize these feelings and bring them out into the open, because the more they are overlooked, the more shame is perpetuated.

While a lot of what I said doesn’t seem to relate too much to body image, it does relate to self-esteem. How you view yourself as a whole is so important in so many ways. Self-esteem and body image are so interwoven, and when you are able to look at yourself as a whole and see your worth, you can slowly learn to look at your body as beautiful.

Your body has been through so much, but it has endured. It may take time, but gratefulness towards your body can come. My hope is that one day acceptance comes for all of you and that you will be able to look at yourself and see all of the strength that brought you through and all of the wonderful things that your body has been able to accomplish. Your body has fought off cancer. That is not an easy feat.

Give yourself some credit. You deserve it.

Postscript, written September 27, 2022

Ever since I received the magazine issue that this article ran in, the accompanying affirmation cards have lived on my mirror, whether it was at my parents’ house for the summer between school years at college, in my dorm room during my senior year of college, or at my first apartment post-graduation. I’m currently in the process of moving, and I was careful to pack my cards up somewhere I will find them so that they will go on my new mirror in my new home when I get settled there. I’m excited to unpack my cards in the next few days and stick them on my new mirror, as these cards have been with me for two years now, and they hold a special place in my heart. They have meant a great deal to me, and I hope these cards will mean a lot to you as well. You can download and print these affirmation cards here.

Click here to download the affirmations cards that accompanied this article in the September 2020 issue of Elephants and Tea!


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