When cancer complicates body image and parenting

When cancer complicates body image and parenting

My bald head was covered with a baseball cap. I was out with no makeup to cover my chemo-grayed complexion as I pushed my baby girl on the swing.

She giggled and squealed, catching the attention of a young man passing by.

“She has a beautiful laugh,” he said. “Are you her grand… parent?” He stumbled over grandparent as we both realized that, not only had he grossly overestimated my age, he had no idea whether I was a man or a woman.

That wasn’t my low point.

The real punch to the gut came a few years later when I was getting my little girl ready for a bath and she casually asked me how old she will be when they cut off her nipples. No tears, no fear, just matter-of-fact assumption that somewhere along the line, her breasts get hacked off.

I felt like my body betrayed me

Cancer didn’t just take my health, it also made off with my breasts, hair, femininity, strength, and a good deal of my confidence. I felt like my body betrayed me. And now, in this hypothetical but not unlikely scenario, my daughter’s body would someday betray her as well.

I helped her into the tub and watched her pretend to be a mermaid. Her movements are fluid and unfettered by notions of shame or inadequacy. Her future is wide open – she can be and do anything, but at this early age, my life is her template.

I knew, sitting there on that bathroom floor, that I needed to wrap my head around this cancer and my body image before my issues became her issues. But first, I had to answer this big question from the little girl in the water.

“Not everyone gets cancer,” I told her. “I hope you don’t, but you might. It will be 34 years before you are the age I was when I got cancer, and that’s lots of time for someone to invent a cure or even a way to prevent it.”

By the time I finished those three sentences, the tub was full of toys and Poseidon was mediating a battle between a narwhal and a walrus. She had moved on and wasn’t listening, but I was stuck in my head trying to define what a healthy body image means, how to make that a reality in my life, how to convey that to my daughter, and how cancer complicates everything.

My body image issues started long before cancer.

At seventeen I was touring Washington D.C. with a group of 200 high school students from around the country. As we walked through the Mall, I overheard two of the other students discussing my appearance. “Judy’s legs are so ugly,” one of the guys said.

“Give her a break, she just got out of the hospital,” the other replied. (No, my health issues did not start with cancer.)

A small part of my brain acknowledged that the second student had jumped to my defense. Thank you, by the way. A much larger part of my brain registered that HE DID NOT DISAGREE with the first student’s assessment of my legs.

In the court of high school social politics, the issue of the ugliness of my legs was raised, and swiftly seconded. That was all I needed. The verdict stuck with me, and I kept my legs covered with tights or long pants for nearly two decades.

Even today, in my mid-forties, each time I leave the house in shorts or a skirt without tights, it is an act of courage that requires a deep breath before stepping through the door.

Why do they have so much impact?

I can’t remember their names. I would not be able to pick them out from a police lineup. I have not seen those boys (men, now) since 1987, and I bear them no ill will. Why do they have so much impact over the way I prepare to leave the house most sunny summer mornings?

It’s not even about them. It’s about me, and my willingness to cling to the derogatory comments and ignore the many more flattering comments I’ve received over the years. A large part of this is about me devaluing my own needs and comfort, and assuming that I owe the world something that I don’t.

After my first mastectomy, I agonized each time before going to the gym.

Sweat made the prosthetic breast slip around, and even fall out of my clothes. Yeah, that was embarrassing. I could stuff my bra with socks and they’d stay a little better, but as I pumped my arms on the treadmill, they’d pile up in the middle of my chest, making me look more Picasso than if I’d just shown up single-breasted.

It was all so inconvenient and awkward, and I contemplated not returning to the gym.

To what extent am I obliged to present myself as a double breasted woman?

Is it offensive to the other people if I show up with one breast?

I struggled with this question. I lost sleep over it. I imagined people who’d had arms or limbs amputated; I wouldn’t expect them to wear a prosthesis if they didn’t want to. Why did I apply a different standard to myself with an amputated breast? And then, I worked up the courage and took a deep breath before stepping through the door single-breasted.

Nobody noticed.

Motivational posters

I noticed a motivational poster hanging in the gym showing a woman drenched in sweat with the words, “If you look good working out, you’re doing it wrong.” Ha! Despite the fact that I know women who do kick ass while looking amazing, there is a great deal of truth to that poster.

Why had I not seen that before?

My body is a work in progress.

I don’t need a perfect body to have a healthy body image. My thoughts on body image are evolving, even as I write this. I am learning to accept and embrace both my vulnerability and my resilience – both integral parts of what it means to be alive.

I don’t lecture my little girl on these issues, although we talk about them as they come up.

I hope that she will see that ideas can evolve as people learn and grow just as our bodies do – that is also part of what it means to be alive.

Mostly, I put on shorts or a skirt with bare legs and go out side to play with her when it’s sunny. Sometimes, I even go through the door without noticing, and I’m out in the sun before I realize that I didn’t have to stop and brave up first.

Creating fun

Creating fun

My girl has a knack for creating fun wherever she goes.

There are several different play structures at this park, but where does she want to play?

Bike Rack - creating fun

on the bike rack.

bike rack at the playground - creating fun

I love this playful, joyful approach to life. I relish in it. It makes me happy to see her explore things in new ways. I love things like bike racks being used for other than their intended purposes. This is where creativity and invention kicks in.

bike rack at playground - creating fun

She’s getting so big now – taking on more challenges, like tree climbing.

tree climbing - creating fun

She’s growing so strong, so tall, so confident…

stripes and tree - creating fun

I hope she doesn’t outgrow her sense of playfulness and whimsy. I hope, in the life before her, she continues to find creative ways (but not too dangerous, I’m still a mama bear) to have fun.

Super Girl

Super Girl

The theme for her best friend/cousin’s birthday party was superheroes, and my girl was determined to go to this party as Super Girl.


Who is Super Girl? She’s the bestest. She rescues people and stops the bad guys and she’s super fast.

We looked at a lot of superhero costumes, but none of the were fast enough. She needed a super fast costume. And it had to have red in it. And arm bands. And glasses with a crown attached to the top.

Where does she come up with this stuff?

I had my work cut out for me.  I came up with this logo, with the star and the words “Super Girl,” but Super Girl said “it wasn’t fast enough.”

And it had to have fire. You can’t have Super Girl without fire.

Back to the drawing board.

Then I came up with this.


When I showed it to her, she smiled and laughed in a way that let me know I was finally moving in the right direction.

Next we had to figure out to which wardrobe items this logo would be affixed. We did not try on every article of clothing she owned, but we came close.

The morning of the party I was still making changes to the logo, and her outfit… Oh, and don’t forget the glasses with the crown attached.

I almost forgot the glasses. Last minute printout of a small version of the logo pasted to a piece of paper I cut out in a shape that approximated a crown, with holes the glasses’ temples could slip through to hold it in place.

Whew! done.

And to make everything that much better, when we got to the party, they had capes!

Happy Birthday, Bella! 🙂


Bonus: Halloween costume is done.

What have you been up to?

Pacific Science Center Tropical Butterfly House

Pacific Science Center Tropical Butterfly House

Hot, humid, and swarming with tropical butterflies of all colors and sizes, the Pacific Science Center Tropical Butterfly House is a touch of the tropics right here in Seattle – and a great way to spend the afternoon with your favorite kid, or kid at heart.


Gem was so taken with the idea that a butterfly might land on her that she stood completely still for what felt like F O R E V E R (and probably even longer for her) waiting for one to come and say hi. The rules were very strict: NO TOUCH! However, if a butterfly lands on you, well that’s their choice. It took a while, and Gem managed to keep from reaching out and touching them, and finally one crawled right up on her finger. She was elated.


The butterflies would often land right on the floor, so it was important to watch your step carefully. Occasionally one of the butterflies would be sitting on the floor injured. Stepped on? Perhaps. Or it could have been injured elsewhere, and then just landed on the floor to catch it’s breath. Gem was looking for a butterfly under this caution sign, with no idea a blue morpho was fluttering around right next to her.


I kept thinking that the Pacific Science Center would be a great place to take her when she gets older – but I was missing out. It’s really appropriate for all ages – and even has a toddler explore area for the littlest ones.