Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Cancer Made Me Beautiful

You know how I can tell?  Because, everybody who sees me tells me how good I look.  That didn't happen before I got breast cancer.

I don't know if it's the mastectomy, the chemotherapy or the baldness that garners me compliments, but I highly recommend doing any one of the above if you are feeling a little low on appreciation for your loveliness.

Here is a little secret you cancer-free folk don't know - these compliments, which are universal,  are actually a bone of contention in Cancer World.   Some of the more peevish cancer patients tend to interpret that statement as "You look good compared to the way you used to look when you were healthy."  Honestly, there are 20 page rants on cancer boards started by patients complaining that they  know they look bad compared to their old selves, and yet are still receiving compliments.  "How can people be so insensitive?" they ask.  

They are, apparently, surprised to realize they were formerly ugly and confused and angry that cancer made them look good.


I can only imagine what these people would say if somebody looked at them and burst into tears.

Me, I know what that statement means.  It means, "You look good compared to what my idea of somebody undergoing cancer treatment looks like." 

We get a lot of our understanding of cancer from the movies or articles about people who have or are about to die of this disease. Their pallor, their vomiting, their weakness, the extremely dark circles under their eyes, their hunched thinness, their baldness and of course, their luminous eyes with long lashes - that is what a person with cancer looks like in our collective cultural experience.  Cancer means death.

Death with eyelashes.

So when people are presented with a version of yourself that generally looks the same as before; maybe a bit paler and certainly with less hair (and no eyelashes), but mostly looking like you, they match that vision with their cultural expectations, and are surprised and relieved.  Wanting to be nice, they tell you how good you look.  Meaning, you don't look like you are at death's door.

(In fact, I'm still feisty enough so that the next person who complains to me about receiving a compliment will be a little bit closer to that metaphysical door than they know.)

I am paler, and I do have dark circles.  I am missing hair and a breast.  And eyelashes. But, although it takes me longer and a lot more thought, I dress well. I put on makeup.  My scarves match my outfits.  I am weakened but not out, and I smile.  A lot.

I like it when people tell me I look good.  You know why?  Because,  I do.  Cancer made me beautiful.


  1. You do seem like a stylish and put together person, and judging from your post photos - you have great "raw material" - I bet you do continue to look beautiful.

    I'm with you on not understanding some of the folks on the BC forums who get upset at the compliments.

    It's funny, but in some ways since starting chemo, I believe I might look better to many people. I work in a university research environment, there is no dress code and I am a tomboy. I'd throw on jeans and a t-shirt (shirt with a collar if I was dressing up!) and sometimes a baseball hat and off I'd go. Can't use a baseball hat now as it provides inadequate coverage - so daily I now have this ordeal of selecting a head cover that matches my outfit - which usually means upgrading the outfit, adding makeup and earrings (stuff I never did, I don't even have pierced ears) and voila - I kind of am more put together than before and people have noticed. I'm glad the effect is working, but for me, I personally will be glad to discontinue it - it adds too much deliberation to my morning routine ;)

    Also, the cynical me thinks that to some degree it is required for people to tell you that you look great. Just like if you are a guest at the wedding you MUST tell the bride she is gorgeous even if that dress is waaaay too tight. But I prefer to believe that people really do think I look good - even if in comparison to what they'd expect!

    I enjoy your posts, sorry for the ramble here, killing a little time before my samosa cooking class!

  2. Sue, I love a ramble. :)

    I hear you on matching your headwear to your outfits. It's kind of a pain - I like clothes and tried to dress nice, especially with my job. I like to show respect for the school environment. I've downgraded my clothing now though, I wear jeans most of the time. Nice jeans, but still denim. I do go for "cancer chic" and wear the earrings and have to match my scarves to my outfits, which takes a lot of time! It's hard to find them in colors that go with what you have already, I've found.

    I'm sure you look beautiful no matter what you are wearing. A good spirit shines through even baseball caps. :)

  3. As a firm believer in wearing makeup to the dog park and high heels to chemo, I LOVE this post and your attitude. I must admit, I'm vain enough to enjoy hearing "you look GREAT!" even though my bathroom mirror tells me a different story. As previously noted, I'm happy to make observers less uncomfortable with my "sick person" status, as it allows me the illusion that I'm still a regular person. Unless I get pulled over for speeding, in which case you can bet your ass that cancer card's coming out...

  4. Oh Sarah, you just reminded me of a story.....I'll have to blog it. :)

  5. this is hilarious. great post.

    love, a fellow babe

  6. Great post and I have been there too. Funny, I think some of the compliments come from our show of inner strength, when we are fighting like that it shows through and makes us beautiful too. Thanks! Deb

  7. I know I get that all the time. There were actually a few weeks during radiation that I did look good, because I walked a mile to and from the hospital every day and was very conscious of eating well.
    Even the rad techs were like, you look good.
    Then I got tired and returned to my sofa surfing, cookie munching ways.

  8. Hi Ann, I just posted a link to your post on my blog because I've been surprised by how often each week I get a "You look great!" comment from a friend or colleague. And, I think, "Is that because I don't look like I'm at death's door?" However, it's also made me feel like a charlatan when I ask for sick leave - or for permission from my volleyball teammates not to play. Anyway, I like the compliments but sometimes I feel like it creates this expectation that I *should* act "normally" but I can't because of the fatigue and the pain. And, I also *want* to be normal. Anyway, thank you for this post. It's an interesting phenomena.


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