Would it surprise you to hear that having cancer has helped me love my body more? It’s true. I know that some people with cancer feel that their body has betrayed them, and I respect and honor that. But right now, that is not my experience. My body is my home and my ally in wanting to stabilize the cancer and live. This body, living with cancer, is not an apology.
It took me most of my life to learn to love my body. In my case, there was usually too much of it, at least that is what I was led to believe. I remember when my pediatrician suggested a diet for me when I was about 12. He gave me a helpful brochure with suggestions for restricting eating. When I see photos of me at that time, I wonder what formula he was following because I was certainly not overweight. But the seed of body loathing was successfully planted, and it would grow through the years.
At a high school church youth group gathering at a park, a boy a year older than me remarked “Maija, you have chunky thighs.” I don’t think he actually intended it as a criticism, but I was mortified. That was the beginning of always second-guessing shorts in public.
There were lots of diets over the years, counting calories or points, charting exercise. I had a sturdy build and the sizes I wore were always bigger than my peers, even when I was at low weights. I hesitated to share my size far into adulthood. Numbers of weight, size, measurements became judgements of worthiness. It seems ridiculous as I look back, but it was very real. My body was something to be managed to conform to external standards.
I remember hearing Anne Lamott tell a story many years ago about shopping for clothes with her best friend who was dying of cancer. She tried on something and asked if it made her butt look big. Her friend looked at her and said, “you don’t have that kind of time.” We can waste so much time disrespecting the bodies we are in.
By my 40’s, I began to redefine my relationship to my body. I have a daughter who is built like I was. The same build that I saw as too much for myself, I saw as strong on her. She became a powerful athlete, and I wondered how my life would have been different if I had seen my body as strong and powerful.
I started to practice yoga, not to impact my weight or my shape, but because it felt good. I grew strong and flexible and much more embodied. I felt grateful for the body I was in for maybe the first time.
In her poem, Three, Nayyirah Waheed writes:
and i said to my body. softly.
‘i want to be your friend.’
it took a long breath.
and replied ‘i have been waiting my whole life for this.’
As I came to recognize my body as my friend and my home, I could exhale a lifetime of holding my breath and trying to be smaller. How comforting to begin to make peace with myself, with my size, with my shape in this way. This peace began to lead to gratitude for all of the ways my body allows me to experience life.
Then cancer came. I mourned the rapid cancer weight loss that flattened my curves. I tell my wife that I miss my butt, and I do. For the first time in many years, I weigh myself weekly, now watching to ensure that I hold onto weight in a total flipping of my script. I cringe when people compliment me on weight loss, remembering just how twisted my culture’s relationship to bodies really is. I try to hold back my impulse to rudely blurt out, “thanks, it’s the cancer.”
I am awed by my body’s will to live and power to heal. I have cancer in my stomach, but my body keeps on digesting food, letting me know clearly what I can and cannot eat. I had extensive bone metastases and my body kept going for many, many months prior to my diagnosis. My body endured chemotherapy with its killing effects which did their job and ultimately gave me another period of better health. After being completely deconditioned with virtually no muscle strength, I exercise little by little now, building new strength that will make more life possible. I recently fell and sprained my ankle, but this body is healing that too. This body with cancer is getting stronger. Imagine that!
My body harbors cancer that is considered incurable, and short of a miracle, I accept that. Eventually, my body will become less and less able to overcome the challenges of cancer. Your body will also be challenged as you age. While I don’t minimize the challenges that will come to all of us, I hope that I will be able to cherish the ways my body will continue to support me on this journey, and that I will in turn look for ways to support my body. There is wholeness and joy to be found in this body, as it is, right now – my friend and my home for this embodied life.
You don’t need to wait for cancer to start loving the skin you’re in. How is your body your ally, your friend, your home for this life? I look forward to your comments and conversation.
Thanks for being here. Please share this post with folks who might be interested.
Lots of love,
P.S. If you have not read The Body Is Not An Apology: The Power of Radical Self-Love by Sonya Renee Taylor, I wholeheartedly recommend it. Today’s songs are Video by India.Arie and Special by Lizzo.
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Thanks, Maija for sharing your story. It resonates with me in a very particular way.