Breast cancer survivors discuss overcoming body struggles

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In 2017 alone, Susan G. Komen projects that there will be 316,120 new cases of breast cancer in women, both invasive and non-invasive. As a cancer that will affect one in eight women during their lifetime, local organizations like Susan G. Komen Michigan provide support and resources to the countless women who are diagnosed with this disease.

Erica Bills is the executive director of Susan G. Komen Michigan and advocates for women who battle breast cancer. She has seen how the media, specifically advertisements, have distorted people’s perspective on breast cancer. What should be viewed as an illness has become a marketing technique for some, and can make people less sensitive toward those who are struggling.

“People have the perception that we use our survivors as a prop for our story, but a lot of survivors find comfort in sharing their story. Knowing you’re not alone gives you hope and comfort,” Bills said. “On social media, if you have a topless woman on any photo it’s not okay. When you show a woman who has had mastectomy on an ad, all of a sudden it’s acceptable.”

What has been glamorized as pretty and pink, survivor and Komen Michigan volunteer Katie Hess describes as the exact opposite.

“I lost my hair, appetite, and energy. I was burned from radiation and had several blood transfusions. I worked full time in order to ensure I had insurance,” said Hess. “I was very self conscious about my appearance at work, as I worked with the public. I wore a wig and I felt ugly the entire time. It made me feel so uncomfortable. It was hot and itchy, and I lost all my facial hair. I felt everyone just knew from looking at me that I was going through cancer.”

Pam Haan knows a situation like breast cancer is one where women feel they have lost all control. Haan is a nurse and Research Coordinator at MSU’s Department of Surgery. Not only does she work with victims of breast cancer on a daily basis, but she is a survivor herself.

“Here you are on a journey that no woman wants to go through but every woman fears. I needed to control something, and I wasn’t going to slowly lose my hair 20 strains at a time,” Haan said. “As soon as it started falling out, I had my husband shave my head, but hair is a big part of your body image – it’s who you are.”

Haan says the entire treatment experience is equally traumatic, but that other ‘losses’ besides just breasts or hair are often overlooked. She notes that although women feel incredibly ill, much of the time they gain weight. If a woman is already premenopausal, treatment will set her into menopause. In an attempt to decrease cancer cells, many women are also losing estrogen.

“In our world where body image is so important, the thought of losing your breasts can be devastating. It’s a part of your femininity and sexuality,” said Haan.

Hess was diagnosed with Stage III breast cancer at 24 years old. She believed things would immediately go back to normal after cancer, but is still adjusting to life as a survivor.

“I have a breast prosthetist and need to wear mastectomy bras for the rest of my life. Clothes don’t fit quite right, as I’m missing tissue from where they removed my lymph nodes. I’ve had to change my clothing styles and options to accommodate these issues,” said Hess.

“It’s still a hard thing to deal with, even after all these years. I deal constantly with feeling vain for caring so much…I should be grateful to be alive, right? But I don’t think there is anything wrong with just wanting to feel normal again.”

Although these women know the stigma associated with any cancer, overcoming it involves communication.

“Listen and don’t assume, never think they have all the resources. Just because this happened to them, it doesn’t mean they’re not a person,” Bills said.

“You are talking about a disease that causes many women to lose their breasts,” Hess said. “Anyone can say that if they are killing you, cut them off, it’s not worth it. But until you are the person losing them, you don’t know.”

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