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

How Cancer Undid Years of Body Hatred

by Kimberley Bird-ParnellSurvivor, Breast CancerJanuary 15, 2023View more posts from Kimberley Bird-Parnell

Cancer and I danced a pretty strong tango. In Mid-November 2021 I got to join the club no one wants to join; I was diagnosed with Primary Stage Triple Negative Breast Cancer, grade 3c, at the ripe young age of 33. I’d been having issues with a painful lump in my right breast for a few months.

I’d always been big chested from a young age and while others may see that as a blessing, for me it had always garnered unwanted attention—from everyone. Pretty dresses and tops made me look like I was putting my breasts on display, and people would judge me, men would leer. And now some cells had decided to revolt and were attempting to form a coup. My GP had fobbed me off for months telling me “if it’s painful it’ll be an infection,” and “you’re too young for it to be anything serious.” Clearly not.

I already had years of mistrust of GP’s after they missed that I had been born with mild Cerebral Palsy and a resulting scoliosis that they only discovered at the age of 13. For years before that my GP had told my mum I was only in pain because I was overweight and a lazy teen who needed to work out more and eat less. Being told that by a professional at such a young age while also being bullied in school for my weight which had piled on from comfort eating after being sexually abused, and now the amount of pain my spine was causing just made it all worse.

I hated my body and what it was doing to me. This was further fuelled by the begging of the era of social media. It was bad enough growing up in the size zero age; now the everyday person was able to post selfies and display only the best images of themselves. As a young adult in my early 20s when I was first diagnosed with anxiety and depression (that then turned out to be Autism and PTSD the doctor also misdiagnosed) my weight was STILL the main issue. All they (doctors) could ever focus on was my BMI. I always felt like my body was betraying me when the doctors wouldn’t believe how much I worked out, didn’t eat, and punished myself because my weight was apparently the root of all my problems.

I had sepsis when I was 22. I presented to the hospital hot and lethargic and their first question was if I’d been overexerting myself and if I was out of breath because of my weight. I ended up being admitted and on a drip for over two weeks. I was hours away from organ damage while they were sitting and talking to me about my weight. And now, years later, my large boobs were trying to kill me, and it wasn’t just my body weight that was the issue. What’s worse is at my largest I was a UK size 22. And that was only after going on the contraceptive pill. When I stopped taking it again my size returned back to a UK 16 (USA 12), which is average. I was average. I was active. I wasn’t unhealthy. Never smoked. Don’t drink, as I don’t like the sensation. Don’t drive, so I walk everywhere. I love the outdoors.

When I was diagnosed with cancer, I actually felt a sense of relief and vindication. I KNEW something wasn’t right. I could feel it in my gut. Finally it wasn’t something just to blame on my weight or my mental health issues or even hormones for tender breasts. It even went so far as my GP (who is an ex-oncologist) calling me one evening to apologize for the bad news of the biopsy.

I started chemo within a couple of weeks, Paclitaxol and Carboplatin were my BFFs for four rounds. Each weekly infusion over Christmas happened to fall on a special day; my brother’s birthday, my mum’s birthday, Christmas Eve, or New Year’s Eve. It was very odd for me, as Christmas is my favorite time of year, and usually the only time of year I’d really allow myself to splurge on food, especially coming from Italian and Scottish heritage. Food and special occasions are synonymous. But this year my relationship and mentality towards food and my body had changed, almost overnight. I was so incredibly grateful for my body’s ability to cope with chemotherapy. Other than a little dermatitis on my hands, I was still able to work normally, walk the 2.3km to and from work each day, and go to the gym. I admittedly do take my nutrition way more seriously now, though. I was finally looking at food as fuel for my cells but also able to enjoy treats for what they were rather than binge eating them every weekend because I was going to cut them out forever on Mondays (yay crash diet). I was finally respecting a balance in my food intake. I was viewing my amazing body for all that it was capable of. My soul’s home, my little sanctuary. It may have the “wrong” digits on the BMI chart, but this little biological machine can walk 25,000 steps a day on chemo, play with the dog, and between the odd nap and the hair loss I was lifting over 70kg at the gym.

At my first scan after just two cycles of chemo, I was NED. At my second scan before I started EC (the “red devil”), it was still NED. And although the EC hit me harder and I was having to take five days off after each cycle to recover, with a little added sickness for fun, I was still bouncing back between each treatment; my hair was even trying to grow back. I found I was becoming more resentful of my mind, though. My Autism was reaching critical each time I had a hot flash from the forced menopause, as I don’t deal with temperature changes well. We discovered my hearing was damaged from the first lot of chemo, which meant I was asking people to repeat themselves a lot, which made me upset (I have hearing aids now). My toenails started to fall off and the sensation was weird. But it wasn’t my body falling apart that was the issue now—it was how my sensory issues responded to it. I made sure to really keep my mental health in check. I allowed the tears, I didn’t feel I “had to” or even wanted to be strong all the time, and in allowing my body to express itself and feel scared and hopeless I found I was coping much better than I was before when I was trying to ignore it.

My next huge milestone was surgery. Given my great response to chemotherapy and the fact that I didn’t have the BRACA gene, my MDT (multi-disciplinary team) opted for a lumpectomy. I was allowed to opt out of it and chose any surgery I felt I needed. After all my years of hating my breasts, I suddenly had this option to be rid of them, or have them made smaller. I really did consider it too. But after discussing it at length and seeing how much my own body image had changed and how I viewed myself now, I realized a lumpectomy was actually the right choice for me, although it would mean I would have to re-learn to trust my body now.

I didn’t personally care about scarring. I’ve always found scars interesting and unique so I was lucky in that respect. I had good margins removed around the area where the cancer had been, and four lymph nodes removed as standard with an NHS lumpectomy. My surgeon left a super neat scar around my areola and a straight scar in my underarm, hidden well. She doesn’t use stitches, so my surgery site was glued and didn’t need any bandages. I healed really quickly. There was next to no pain—no pain meds were needed and I just had a dull ache for a few days after. I was even back to work and light workouts at the gym after three weeks.

In the two weeks it took for my tissue to be analyzed, I went through every emotion you can imagine. Even right back down to hating my body for trying to kill me. How could such an amazing thing be so easily taken down? How stupid.

And then on the 27th of July, I got a call. THE call. No evidence of any disease in any of my removed tissue. The part they removed from my breast was just scar tissue; my lymph nodes were clean and clear… This meant my body, this vessel that has carried me through so many traumas as a child, so much pain, had walked so many miles, worked so many jobs, cared for so many people, THIS body that the media, diet culture, bullies and even doctors taught me wasn’t acceptable, wasn’t healthy because it wasn’t the “correct” weight… this amazing body, with a few rogue cells… got me through cancer.

Now I feel I finally appreciate it and respect it, and admittedly I am a little scared of it but ultimately I love it. I am simultaneously strong and fragile, grateful and scared. There are going to be days I look at my silver stretch marks, little rolls that appear when I sit, or my muscular legs and not like their appearance because it doesn’t meet some unattainable beauty standard. Still, then I’m going to look at my breast scars and PICC line scars (I named him captain PICCard because he boldly went where no one else had gone before), and I remember what I’ve gone through, and I know my opinion of myself will soften like my tummy that my dog likes to sleep on.

It sucks that I got cancer. But I feel like a completely all-powerful being for getting through, and for the body that I had hated so much, getting me through it all unconditionally.

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