Body image is more than just a mental picture of what you look like in the mirror. Body image is the personal relationship you have with your entire body. This unique relationship includes how you think and feel, as well as your perception of your body. Unfortunately, our culture often tries to dictate how we should look and feel about our bodies.
Issues with self image are common amongst women. When we are thrown into the unknown after a breast cancer diagnosis, this can evoke additional challenges and fears around identity and sexuality. When you take these away, their entire sense of self comes into question. Any change in appearance may lead to a negative impact on body image. Before we highlight ways to boost your confidence and be inspired after a procedure, let’s get into what a mastectomy is.
What a Mastectomy Entails
A mastectomy is a surgical way to treat breast cancer by removing the breast. Sometimes other nearby tissue also needs to be taken out to prevent existing cancer from spreading to other areas of the body.
A mastectomy is also used to treat breast cancer that has recurred following treatment with lumpectomy (removal of only the lump itself) called breast-conserving surgery and radiation therapy. There are various types of mastectomies, all of which depend on the severity of the situation, but there are two main types.
- Total (simple) Mastectomy – A surgeon removes the entire breast and the lining of the chest muscle, but no other tissues are removed. This procedure may be used to treat:
- Breast cancer recurrence
- Invasive breast cancer
- Paget’s Disease of the breast with underlying non-invasive breast cancer
- Modified Radical Mastectomy – A surgeon removes the entire breast, the lining of the chest muscles, and lymph nodes in the underarm area. This procedure may be used to treat:
- Inflammatory breast cancer
- Invasive breast cancer
- Paget’s Disease of the breast with underlying invasive breast cancer
After a mastectomy, the recovery time depends on what procedures were performed, but most women can usually resume their regular activities within four weeks. The recovery time is longer if breast reconstruction is done. Some women might also get other treatments after surgery, including:
- Hormone Therapy – This process helps lower the risk of cancer returning and can reach cancer cells almost anywhere in the body, not just the breast. This type of therapy is recommended for women who have tumors that are hormone-receptor-positive but will not help women who do not have hormone receptors.
- Chemotherapy – This therapy provides anti-cancer drugs to be given intravenously to the patient to destroy any remaining cancer cells that may have been left behind.
- Radiation Therapy – Another form of treatment designed to lower the chance of cancer returning by using high-energy rays. This type of therapy is used if the tumor removed is more significant than 5 cm or if cancer was found in multiple lymph nodes.
The Impact of a Mastectomy on a Woman
Regardless of the type of mastectomy that a woman has, there are three things that may, down the road, impact your perception of yourself and your body.
- Physical – The physical impact includes changes in the appearance of the body. Loss of one or both breasts, and/or other tissue around your chest, in addition to total or partial hair loss during chemo, are the most obvious external effects of a procedure to contend with. Finding comfortable and well-fitting bras, swimsuits, and other clothing once taken for granted can be a frustrating journey for many.
- Psychological – The psychological impact after reconstructive surgery could shift one’s emotional wellbeing, which may trigger or exacerbate anxiety, depression, and/or low self esteem. Ensure you have a support system in place: friends, family, and inspiring content, such as therapeutic books, to help you through this time.
- Social – The social effect includes changes in how one responds to other people socially, including relationships with friends, family and one’s partner.
5 Empowering Ways to Improve Body Image After Mastectomy
Realize that letting go of things we can’t control is first. We must accept the situation and now make the best of our new life. We can do that with many powerful resources.
- Celebrate the Small Things – Take a few minutes each morning to write down five things you are grateful for in a journal. This process allows you to appreciate the small things around you. Become more mindful of your thoughts because they can dictate your feelings and, ultimately, your behavior. When you notice any unpleasant thinking, alter it into a more positive one by recognizing it is just a drifting thought, and like a cloud going by, allow it to pass. You might even want to wave goodbye as it leaves.
- Go Shopping – Find products that will help you feel better about yourself, which focuses on empowering your physical self and boosting your self-esteem. Explore options for bras and breast prosthesis, or find new clothes that fit and accentuate the newly empowered you.
- Eat Well and Exercise – Eating well reminds you that you are worth taking care of, and exercise helps! Gently moving your body with walks and stretches, building up to moderate exercise, will help improve your emotional wellbeing by releasing endorphins to help relieve depression. It also may help the recovery process, but you don’t need to do a marathon to achieve success when it comes to exercise.
- Join a Support Group – Sometimes, going it alone may not be so easy, especially after a mastectomy, and having a support group can help. Getting perspective from others going through the same challenges as yourself can be a life raft of support. It can be very beneficial and freeing to share deep feelings in a safe and uplifting environment.
- Get Plenty of Sleep – Get your beauty sleep! Sleep is a large part of the healing process, and by getting adequate sleep you allow the body to take in the nutrients and oxygen that your cells and muscle tissue need to repair. About 30 minutes before going to bed, take time to do a few vital things:
- Turn off all ambient lights that could disrupt your sleep, such as televisions and cell phones.
- Try sleeping mostly on your back, at least until you are fully healed.
Be sure to consult with your doctor for additional guidelines on how best to support your body’s healing post-surgery.
A Light at the End of the Tunnel
Take back your life, because you have been allowed to do just that! Realize that your life may have taken a sharp and unexpected left turn, but you are a survivor, and that is the most inspiring part of this journey. This new situation is your chance to reinvent yourself and reclaim your life. Nurture and be kind to yourself, above all.