I’m Trying to Love This Body That Both Betrayed and Saved Me

woman with a flat chest in a bathing suit Rachel Garlinghouse
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Is it possible to love and hate something at exactly the same time? This is where I am with my body. Perhaps you are also in this place of polarizing emotions. Being a woman seems to go hand-in-hand with body-image struggles. Our bodies are supposed to protect us, yet they are the source of so much pain—physical, mental, spiritual, and emotional. We have to live with it and in it, an inescapable truth.

My first physical battle happened while in my early 20s in graduate school. My husband and I were visiting family over a holiday break when I came down with a strange stomach virus. I lost weight—and then kept losing it. I was 5’8 and had plummeted from size 4/6 to double 0. I was exhausted, frail, and constantly hungry and thirsty.

Though I’d always struggled with anxiety, I was depressed for the first time in my life. I tried to press on between doctor’s appointments and school work, but strangers constantly reminded me of my demise. A guy at the gym walked by and snarled, “Eat a hamburger.” Fellow students and professors gave me worried looks, some of them loudly whispering about me.

I was misdiagnosed as a hypochondriac and anorexic. I was on antibiotic after antibiotic to combat chronic sinus infections. My weight had dropped to just 97 pounds.

On a Friday, the one day I had off, I took a nap. My husband tried calling my phone, but I didn’t pick up. He rushed home, threw me in our car, and took me to the emergency room. After an hour of tests, a doctor told me that I was in diabetic ketoacidosis, was gravely ill, and needed to be in the ICU immediately. I had been an undiagnosed Type 1 diabetic for over a year. I was lucky to be alive, as my body was shutting down from a lack of insulin.

I slowly began to heal and accept my new identity. Type 1 diabetes is a 24/7/365 disease with no cure. However, with good blood sugar control, I was told I could lead a long and healthy life. I embraced the injections, the blood tests, and the scars. After all, I was alive. I rapidly put on 40 (greatly needed) pounds. It was shocking, but welcome.

Eleven years later, my husband and I were parenting four children by adoption. Life was beautiful and busy. When I found a lump in my breast during a self-exam, I promptly saw my doctor, who ordered a mammogram and ultrasound. The results were good. I was told we’d “watch and wait,” but I felt a growing sense of urgency. I sought a second opinion to soothe my anxiety. The biopsy results showed the mass wasn’t “nothing.” It was breast cancer.

I chose to have a bilateral mastectomy with immediate reconstruction with breast implants. I made the decision quickly and without much research. My goal was to be done with cancer as soon as possible. I assumed I would have implants until I was older, like grandmotherly, and then have them removed. It didn’t make sense to be 35 and breast-less.

I joked with my friends that I would be the “hot” one. No matter how much my body succumbed to aging, my breasts would be a perfect 10. Plus, though I had danced with cancer, at least my chest would still look somewhat normal.

My implants did look perfect. So perfect, in fact, that I consented to have them on my plastic surgeon’s website. My before-and-after photos looked like a breast cancer fairytale. On the outside, I was the ideal patient. But inside I was a mess. I developed 29 symptoms of breast implant illness. I was bedridden on some days, my body so inflamed and achy that I could hardly move.

It was an easy decision to have them taken out, having gone from generally healthy, active mom to zombie. I had also requested that my plastic surgeon remove my nipples since I didn’t want them resting against a flat chest. I knew being unshapely and nipple-less would take some getting used to.

As I waited for my surgery date, I found another lump. Cancer, again. This time, I had 33 rounds of radiation, 12 rounds of chemo, and a year of immunotherapy.

With my stretch marks and scars, thicker thighs, a flat chest, and now-just-returned hair, there are days I don’t recognize myself. Am I strong or broken? Am I safe or defeated? Am I inspiring or pathetic? I am all of these things.

Now that I’m a year past chemo, I look like a typical 40-year-old mom. I drive a minivan, sip iced coffee, and wear cheap sunglasses. On the inside, I’m often a raging storm. Is the cancer back? Why can’t my clothes fit better? Who am I now? I have faced crisis after crisis, each of which has challenged me to my core.

Being a woman—with our illnesses, our mom bods, our traumas—is a constant battle. We can do all the right things, yet our body image and health issues often remain. Each of us is on a journey that reveals how incredibly strong and vulnerable we are. And none of us emerges unscathed. But this is what I do know: What we do next with what we have is up to us.

RELATED LINKS
I’m Embracing My Body for My Daughter’s Sake
Please, Moms: Just Wear the Damn Bathing Suit
No One Tells You About the Guilt You’ll Experience as a Mom with a Chronic Illness

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