In 2005, I was diagnosed with cervical cancer. While the treatment was difficult and the time was trying for both me and my then-husband (and our families & friends), the scars and the side effects were all internal. To the naked eye, one would have thought I was fine–that I never had cancer. That I had it all together. To the naked eye, most would have thought my marriage was fine and that we had just weathered a storm. Perhaps a hurricane. While I had lost my ability to bear children and I suffered from an immense amount of scar tissue buildup inside my most precious female organs, I simply looked like a woman who had gained a bit of weight. While I suffered from crippling depression and anxiety, most people thought it was just a side effect from my troubling past, from previously existing traumas.
I carried around the semblance of normalcy until 2015, when I was again diagnosed with cervical cancer. This time, though, I was not as lucky as before. I needed more treatment, invasive and exhausting treatment, that caused visible symptoms. I lost 40 pounds. I lost my hair, everywhere. I gained a skin condition that permanently discolored my body. I lost a labia, and then a surgeon crafted a new one. Medication provided after treatment ended bloated me, giving me a “muffin top”. Vaginal reconstruction weakened my core. My teeth eroded from chemotherapy. My groin dotted with tattoos I needed for radiation.
My body, and my relationship with it, has changed in so many ways. Some days, I look in the mirror and remember that woman I once was, seeing her in my eyes or in my crooked smile. Others, I try to think that this moment, where my body feels and looks weathered, is when I am bursting from my cocoon. Messy but necessary to get to my final destination–a butterfly. But most of the time, I sit with angst, in despair about what others think when they see me. About what I think when I see me. To what expectations people compare the reality in front of them. Many days, I just see the cancer, even after it’s moved on to ravage someone else. My body, the battlefield.
I have a sordid history with my vagina. Much of my past trauma comes from unwanted sexual advances, assaults, and the aftermath those experiences caused. I have been trying to determine what a healthy relationship would look like with that part of my body for as long as I can remember–I never did have a healthy sexual experience before having unhealthy ones. I have sought the assistance of counselors, trauma therapists, sex therapists, and body workers to help connect me with The Sacred Feminine. I work to connect to Her on a regular basis.
But things just aren’t that easy.
In some ways, I find my post-cancer approach to my body to be more respectful than it once was. In college and after my divorce, I often gave my body freely to anyone willing to give theirs to me, without giving a second thought to who should have rite to entry. I did so soberly and consensually. Even after sexual assaults in adulthood, I attempted to “stay normal” by continuing this practice, like nothing had happened. Like it didn’t matter that I had been violated. If I just kept up appearances, then maybe, just maybe, those violations would matter less. Now, after undergoing vaginal and labial reconstruction, I am more careful about to whom I grant entry. It’s not that I don’t condone these practices–they’re great!–but I was never doing them for the right reasons. I was never a free spirit. I wanted control over the past–and I never gained it. Now, I am discerning. I respect this body that weathered the storms life threw its way. I expect that people touching or enjoying it also respect it. Because it IS The Sacred Feminine. And it is mine. I have a lot less sex (with others), but the quality is much higher. And, most of the time, I don’t shrink with shame afterwards.
Some days, especially when the body shame and self-doubt creeps in, when I’m meeting someone new from whom I’d like physical adoration, I gaze longingly over my shoulder. I compare myself to the “cool girls” and free spirits, and I wonder why I have become the prude. But it only takes a moment for me to run my fingers along the scars lining my edges to remember that, in place of someone trendy, stands a warrior for truth. Stands a woman reclaiming her leg hair and body hair. Learning to receive pleasure from herself, to give clear boundaries to others. Stands the captain of her destiny and a dreamer of dreams.
A survivor stands where a girl once did.