Monday, August 3, 2015

How to Reconnect With Your Body After Breast Surgery

We've all had these moments. You look at a photograph of yourself at a family wedding and are shocked by how much weight you've gained. You've lost weight, but still are surprised when you look in the mirror and see your thinner self. Then there were the almost-daily changes during pregnancy that had you wondering what was going on in there.

These are times when we have not truly connected our bodies and our minds. Breast surgery can bring about that same kind of disconnect.

I had a double mastectomy last fall to treat breast cancer. I've undergone months of reconstruction and still face one more surgery. I have been struggling with my body image ever since.

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Those days following my surgery were difficult ones. My breasts were a part of my body that I've always been happy with. My first reaction upon seeing my chest for the first time was "This isn't me." Then I cried. A lot. I am fortunate to have a supportive husband, who hugged me and reassured me. "This is what healthy looks like." It is hard to fight the feeling that your body has betrayed you. 

In addition to emotional difficulties, I faced physical ones, too. My posture was thrown off. I couldn't reach my hands over my head (brushing my hair was an ordeal). I tried to get as much activity in each day as my battered body would allow. Lifting anything (including cats and coffee cups) was hard.

Once the healing process was begun, I began to find ways to make friends with my new body. The following are some of the things that have worked for me. I'm not a medical professional and you need to speak to your doctor during your recovery. I also have not been compensated by the makers of any of the goods and services I write about here. They are simply things I've found helpful.

Reconnect With Your Body Through Exercise

One of the best things I did for myself post-surgery was ask for physical therapy. I was sent to a therapist who specialized in mastectomy recovery, and she proved a valuable resource. She gave me information about things like lymphedema. She reassured me that I was recovering normally. She was a shoulder to cry on. She also helped me get back the use of both arms, improve my posture, and build up my strength. She stressed the importance of ongoing exercise, particularly the emotional benefits of movement.

I've been a dedicated home workout fan for many years (remember Jane Fonda's Workout?) I have a space set up in our basement where I can exercise. But following my surgery, there were many videos in my library that no longer worked for me.

I had to take a look at workouts that I could do and that felt good. I (literally) dusted off my old step and got out my old video from 1992. Stepping worked for me because I still had a strong lower body. I could modify the movements of my upper body according to what I could do each day. It's still one of the sweatiest, heart-pounding workouts out there if you load up the risers.
Some of my favorite videos, both new and old

I was also able to do a little mat pilates work and discovered Zumba for the first time. I had very strict weight lifting limitations from my doctor following both surgeries. I can't stress this enough - it's important that all your doctors know what kind of exercise you are doing. 

Reconnect With Your Body Through Nutrition

I start the day with a healthy smoothie
This has been an ongoing journey for me. I suffered some health complications even before I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Those led me to becoming a vegetarian. Research has shown there may be some benefits to following a plant-based diet for cancer patients. But the biggest difference for me is how I feel. Since giving up meat, I have more energy and my skin and hair look healthier. This diet may not work for everyone, but it's helped me. (Once again, your doctor's advice here is crucial).

I start nearly every day with a green smoothie. It includes leafy greens and some kind of fruit, fat, and protein. This morning's drink was kale, pineapple, banana, flax meal, and coconut oil. It fueled my workout and kept me going until lunch. I feel like this starts my day right. For other meals, I have rice, beans, lentils, and quinoa, along with lots of vegetables.If you choose this kind of diet, there are many resources on line to help you. Perhaps the most important bit if nutrition advice I can give is "Listen to your body." Pay attention to how you feel when you eat certain foods. Develop a way of eating that will keep you healthy.

Some fruits and vegetables from the local fruit stand. Buy local and in-season!

Reconnect With Your Body by Showing Emotion

I get it. We all want to be the brave "pink warrior," able to cope with life and our illness. We don't want our friends and family - especially our children - to worry. But breast cancer is big, serious, scary stuff. Keeping all our emotions inside can be detrimental to our overall health and recovery. 

I felt very guilty when, during a particularly difficult day before my surgery, I began crying and couldn't stop. My son saw me like that. I worried about the effect it would have on him (he's 16). A friend reassured me. "He saw you being real," she said. He also saw that the sad and angry moment passed quickly, perhaps a good life lesson. 

I relied on friends who have recovered from breast cancer. My mom, a survivor herself, lives with us and helped reassure me during some dark times. And there is, of course, my husband. I've written about his loving support here.

Showing your emotions can be the first step in asking for help. There were things I simply couldn't do without help. I needed to really understand that. It was temporary, as I continued to build back my emotional and physical strength.

I still don't feel like I'm all the way back. My reconstructed breasts don't quite feel like "mine" yet. My plastic surgeon reassured me this is normal. He's found that patients take about 18 months to feel some kind of normal again.

Cancer was a reminder that I need to continue to be vigilant with my health. I wish you all good health!

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