I’ve finished the radiation therapy for my early-stage breast cancer and despite my anxiety-driven imaginings, things went okay. Physically. Getting your head around the mental stuff is more of a challenge. First, you have to acknowledge something has happened.
I had five weeks of treatment, four of nausea and fatigue, and very little burning compared to some. My skin is resilient it seems, though I did moisturize compulsively. That diligence is probably why the itching only made me moderately crazy and I only worried about my nipple peeling off for a couple of days. That last bit is completely true; I was quite concerned.
There’s another side-effect beyond skin peeling, however, that I’m finding distressing. It’s turning out to be a bit of a bother.
Inundating the breast with radiation causes it to swell. Enough so that the left breast is now sort of oozing out of the bra cup.
Most of it is expected swelling, some of it is weight. My body craved food during treatment. Something about needing energy to deal with the strain on the system. It’s unfortunate – my eating disorder was hoping to lose a bit – what good is cancer if it can’t make you thin – but that’s not a thing that happened.
The extra bit of overall softness I’m dealing with. Struggling but dealing. The swollen breast thing is more difficult.
There’s a school of thought in eating disorder study that suggests women who are afflicted with eating disorders are rejecting their sexuality. They’re trying to hide their femaleness, their ability to attract.
Some even hold the position that all women with eating disorders are gay and the eating disorder is a rejection of their true selves.
The latter is an actual conversation I had with a doctor before he put me on tranquilizers at age twenty.
As it turns out, I’m not gay. There is, however, some validity to the contention that I find sexuality difficult. I was born a little shy but I’m reasonably certain that my rejection is connected to the early childhood sexual abuse which also contributed to the development of my eating disorder.
I think for me, for many, eating disorders are about safety. You’re trying to figure out a way to be safe. For me, being perfect was part of that. “Perfect” protects you from emotional pain, didn’t you know? But not developing overly-female curves was important too. Sexuality was not safe.
Sexuality is risky. Sexuality can hurt you. Men are dangerous.
These are problematic underlying beliefs.
I take after my paternal grandmother in body. In face, my mom and are spitting – or were until I started self-mutilating. But my body, that’s all grandma. And she had a good one, objectively speaking. Very hourglass. Very curvy.
When I am at a reasonable weight, the inheritance is apparent for all that I hold an extra seven vertical inches. The ratio between my chest and hips and waist is dramatic.
I liked that being underweight made my breasts smaller and the hip to waist ratio less noticeable.
When I’m home, the curves are less of a problem. Home is a safe space. When I’m in the outside world, I like the androgyny of straight lines. I find it terrifying to put the feminine on display.
One would think that by now this fear of the overtly-feminine, this dislike would have abated. I’m fifty, after all. But here we are. Things you don’t deal with don’t magically disappear. Who knew?
There are some things I like about being female. I can take baths and no one curls a lip. I get to wear dangly, sparkly earrings without comment and I can indulge in questionably effective, targeted face creams. I can even cathartically cry during movies. But the visibly sex-related curves cause me grief.
Not everyone who suffers from an eating disorder rejects their sexuality. It depends on a variety of things. But it can happen and it needs to be dealt with. If you don’t it carries on and you find yourself dealing with the same crap decades later. Trust me, it’s annoying.
It’s not possible to be healthy and whole if your way of thinking about yourself requires you to reject fundamental aspects of your nature.
If you are rejecting yourself at an intrinsic level, stop it. What kind of life do you think you can have if you are attacking yourself?
The time to address it is now. I regret the years I chose to do otherwise. Yes, it’s scary to face down the things that hurt us and caused us to withdraw. It feels big and dark and overwhelming. It feels like it will consume us. It’s why we put off addressing it. But the feeling that it will destroy us is a lie.
We can be afraid. We need to do it anyhow. It’s only fear and regardless of what we think, fear is rarely fatal.
I think that may be one of the most helpful things I’ve learned.
Do you struggle to embrace who you are?