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.

Pondering the Reconstruction Era

Pondering the Reconstruction Era

I started the morning posing for topless photos in the harsh clinical light of the plastic surgeon’s office. I hadn’t given much thought to what the ambiance might be like should I ever pose topless, but doctors in lab coats with a changing curtain for a backdrop never crossed my mind. If you told me a year ago I’d be in a plastic surgeon’s office fondling samples of silicon and saline breast implants I would have laughed at you. While there are a few parts of my body that could use a tune-up, my breast size was not exactly inadequate.

My belly size is also not inadequate. The camera and I had a bit of a disagreement as to whether or not I sucked in my belly for the exposure. I swear I sucked in my belly, but the camera won that round, and round belly is permanently preserved in the before shots in my medical records.

As it turns out, that’s not all bad. I happen to be a good candidate for a DIEP procedure, which means instead of using artificial implants like saline or silicon, the reconstruction involves my belly fat up to rebuild my breasts. Double Bonus Points!!

My big takeaway for today is that there is life after breast cancer – and it comes with perky tatas!


You can learn more about my cancer story here:

my cancer story | Judy Schwartz Haley


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I feel pretty

I feel pretty

I didn’t feel pretty while I was growing up. I’m not making this statement as a complaint, simply stating a fact:  I didn’t feel pretty.  I wasn’t quite a tomboy either, as I was much too clumsy to shoulder that label.  I was smart, but smart didn’t make me any points at the christian school I attended, nor at church.  Smart actually proved to be a problem in those environments.

beautiful like me

There were a few moments I felt pretty as a teenager and young adult.  Some young man tells me I’m pretty, and every once in a while I would believe it.  This wasn’t a good thing, either. I was young, insecure, and desperately wanted to be accepted – as a result I was easily manipulated and, on occasion, used.

This week’s topic on the Beautiful Like Me project is What person or people are the most influential about how you feel about yourself?  Who influences you the most to feel beautiful?

This is a tough topic for me.  While I have memories that help to explain why I didn’t feel pretty (let’s face it, kids are mean), I have very little to draw on for positive influences on my self image. Yet for some reason, somewhere during my adulthood I started to feel pretty.  Why is that? What caused my to turn my self image around?  A makeover? New clothes? Extreme weight loss?

None of the above.


It was confidence.  I got comfortable in my own skin, learned to accept what I’ve got and make the best of it.  I still have bad days but I have learned that there is a powerful link between my confidence – in any area of my life – and my self image. I actually felt pretty while I was nine months pregnant. It goes the other way as well.  If I wake up with a giant zit on my chin, it can take a toll on my confidence at work or school.

For me the answer to the question of the day is myself. While it’s true that my husband can make me feel like a knock out, really it’s my own attitude and confidence that makes a difference on a daily basis on how I feel about how I look.

I look at my daughter and I wonder how to help her through this issue.  I want her to believe she is beautiful, and I tell her she is all the time.  On the other hand, I don’t want her to put too much value in superficial qualities.  We joke about how describing a woman as having a great personality means that she is not good looking.  But a great personality is so much more important and will get you so much further in life than superficial beauty.

I hope to raise a young lady who is confident and happy, who knows how to make friends and feels good about herself. If she happens to be gorgeous (of course she’ll be gorgeous), well that’s ok too.

Check out the other blogs that are participating in this project:

Wicked Step Mom

Five Flower Mom


My Life Interrupted

Use Your Wisdom

Nature’s Child

Crazy Adventures in Parenting

The Story of Us

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Beautiful Like Me

Beautiful Like Me

beautiful like me - CoffeeJitters.Net

Why do women, particularly in America, tend to have such skewed body images? How do we raise our daughters to have a healthy self image?  WickedStepMom, Tricia at Shout, and Amy at FiveFlowerMom – along with several other bloggers – are tackling this issue over the next few Mondays.

This Week’s Question:

Does how we look at ourselves effect how the next generation looks at themselves?”

I’m new to the motherhood game, my daughter is only 15 days old, but I’ve put a lot of thought into this over the past nine months, particularly in light of being a mother and a role model.  Personally, I think one of the most important things a parent can provide, after safety and nurturing, is a good example.  I’ve been working on that lately.  When faced with a conundrum, I ask myself “What would I want my daughter to do if she were in this situation?” And that’s what I do.  It is surprising to me how often my actions are different after asking this question than they would have been otherwise.

This is particularly relevant when I look at myself.  I have a bad habit of beating myself up.  I look at the stretchmarks and sagging two weeks postpartum and I want to hide. My husband tells me I’m beautiful and I roll my eyes.  I’m frustrated at myself for being nearly 40 and still not finished with my degree.

And then I think of my daughter.

How would I want her to treat herself if she found herself in this situation? I would want her to take care of herself, and honor the fact that pregnancy does change your body.  I would want her to be able to see herself through a loving husband’s eyes, and appreciate that he finds her beautiful.  I want her to see her own beauty.  I want her to understand that while we are each the result of our own choices, choosing to beat yourself up over past choices is much more time consuming and less productive than learning from them and moving on.

Yes, I believe that how we look at ourselves affects the next generation.  We are their role models.  But in this case, I think I may end up learning just as much from my daughter.

What are your thoughts on this topic?

Pregnancy 101: How to Roll Over

Pregnancy 101: How to Roll Over

You might think rolling over is no big deal unless perhaps you’re training your dog, or your infant has developed a greater degree of mobility.  Consider, however, the plight of the poor pregnant woman, a beached whale trapped on her back in the divot of a sagging mattress. 

Rolling over is no small feat, especially once you’ve reached the point where you can no longer see your feet.

Deconstructing the rollover

Before we get into the bio-mechanics of rolling over for a pregnant woman, lets first consider the act of rolling over while not in that most delicate state. 

I sleep on the right side of the bed.  If I start out lying on my right side at the very edge of my side of the bed, rolling over involves falling to my back and then using momentum and my abdominal muscles to pull me up on my left side.  At this point I have traveled over 3/4 of the way across our full sized bed, and my husband has been displaced onto the floor. 

Now, if your spouse is willing to just stay on the floor, you’re golden. But if your spouse is anything like mine, he expects to get back into the bed – of which you are taking up your 2/3 right out of the middle.  Making room for him means you must scootch (I’m using the technical term here) back over to your side.

Scootching of course, involves bending your knees and pressing your feet into the mattress enough to lift your bum and swing it to the right, then use your abdominal muscles to pull your upper body the rest of the way back over to your side of the bed.  Notice that so far in this description we have used our abdominal muscles twice.  After that much exercise, it’s time for a nap.

A different perspective

Now let’s reconsider this scenario from the perspective of a pregnant woman.

Sleeping while pregnant requires a lot more pillows. By far, the most critical pillow is the pillow between your knees that helps keep the spine straight.  The other pillows may be added or subtracted according to relative comfort level, which may change at any given moment.  What are the other pillows for?

  • One for between the feet to keep them from, heaven forbid, touching each other. 
  • Another smallish or super soft down pillow goes between the belly and the mattress for support. 
  • A pillow in the arms for holding and snuggling and squeezing, another at the lower back for lumbar support, and of course,
  • the pillow that goes under the head.

Now re-imagine the act of rolling over while keeping all of the pillows necessary for adequate rest in their appropriate positions. 

You can’t do it. 

You must first disengage from the pillows, roll over, scootch back to your side of the bed and then wake up your husband and have him retrieve all the pillows that fell to the floor when your whale -butt scootched back into them.

After grumpy husband throws pillows at you,  you must then reposition all of the pillows to find a comfortable enough position to return to sleep.  This could take several attempts as from day-to-day or even hour-to-hour, the one position that is comfortable may change considerably.

The betrayal of the body pillow

We have recently discovered the full body pillow which takes the place of several of the pillows listed above.  This has been an immense improvement on our sleeping conditions and marriage. 

On the down side, this pillow is about the size of a small adult, which means we are essentially sleeping three across our tiny full-sized bed. 

In addition, I have returned from a potty run on many occasions to find my pillow contently snuggled up in my husbands arms, my husband’s leg thrown over the bottom half.  It stings a bit that my pillow would betray me in this manner, and further extends the amount of time it takes to get settled into a sleep position when I must first wrestle the pillow from my husband’s arms.

Physiological changes during pregnancy

The two rolling over scenarios I have described above both ignore the physiological changes in a woman’s body during pregnancy. 

The first and most critical being increased clumsiness. How could clumsiness come in to play when one is lying down throughout the entire ordeal?  Get yourself knocked up and you’ll figure it out. 

In addition, we get winded much more easily and the act of rolling over may require a stop, mid-roll, to catch one’s breath.  Now it may seem like the logical place to stop and catch your breath may be mid-roll while you are flat on your back.  This is, however, the worst possible position from which to try to catch your breath.  While on your back the uterus and baby push the rest of your organs further up under your rib cage making it difficult to breath even if you haven’t already winded yourself. 

Also, if you stop while flat on your back, you have completely lost all momentum meaning the remainder of the roll will be powered entirely by your now non-existent abdominal muscles.  Besides, odds are you will suddenly have to run to the bathroom mid-roll anyways.

The easiest answer to rolling over in bed while pregnant: Get up and go to the bathroom and when you come back, rip the damn body pillow out of your husband’s arms, beat him with it for a minute and then lie down in the position in which you want to sleep.