Letter to my Body: What women with breast cancer wanted to tell their bodies

You stood up to this horrible disease and for that I am forever grateful

The theme for this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week taking place from 13 - 19 May 2019 is body image – how we think and feel about our bodies.

It is well established that cancer and cancer related treatments often have a negative impact on appearance related outcomes. In recent years, increasing importance has been placed on understanding body image issues among people living with cancer and particularly among women with breast cancer in relation to surgical intervention and the visible difference this may cause.  Body image is important to survivors of breast cancer, it’s how they think and feel about their body and how they think others value them. Approximately, 50% of women report body image difficulties up to five years after breast cancer surgery and these difficulties are consistently associated with psychological distress, anxiety, sexual dysfunction and impaired quality of life. 

The body changes that women can experience include:

  • hair loss

  • losing a part of your body

  • scarring

  • swelling of a body part

  • weight gain or weight loss

Hope 4 The Community CIC, Coventry University and Macmillan Cancer Support have developed a self-management programme to help cancer survivors  with cancer come to terms with their body image concerns.  During  one of the activities -Letter to my body - in the Hope Programme women are invited to try to reconnect with their body by writing their thoughts and feelings about their body. The women reported improved body appearance and mental health issues after attending the Hope Programme.

Below are examples of the letters the women wrote

You told me something was wrong the day I found my lump by sending a sharp pain through my boob. This made me touch the area and I immediately felt the lump. Thank you for alerting me to it. You recovered quickly after the mastectomy. For that I am so grateful as, like many, we have a busy life with work, children, animals. We didn’t have time to stop. The chemo however was a completely different story. You struggled through this. It was a harsh, hard journey on you and one I pray we never travel again. I still feel the effects this had on you some 18 months later but am aware you are getting stronger by the day
— Sarah
I am proud of you body and am shedding tears as I type this. You didn’t fail me. You stood up to this horrible disease and for that I am forever grateful xxxxx
— Jan
Dear Body, can’t say I was too pleased the way you betrayed me given I took pretty good of you before the big C decided to pay you a visit. The consequence to the big C have not been pleasant and are still continuing. Both of us now trying to come to terms with consequences of the big C and that you will never be what you were. Now after all we have been through and the big C gone. I’ll try to learn to trust you. Giving you lots of TLC, feeding you even more healthy, exercise you and more holidays. If we work on this together the future will be bright long with lots of fun, laughter and at least one hug a day :) xxx
— Melanie
We have been though such a lot together over many years. Thank you for helping me bring two amazing children into the world some 20 and 19 years ago
— Rita
Being diagnosed with the big C was a huge shock. I realise now that I had it all wrong- I am only mortal. I promise that in the time we have left I will look after you and be more grateful that we are continuing to function. The physical scars are healing - and the emotional ones will too. Let’s make the most of what we have left. X
— Helen

Participants on the Hope Programme report improved body appearance and mental health issues after attending.

Contact Macmillan Cancer Support to find out how to attend our cancer Hope Programme.

About the authors:

Professor Andy Turner Coventry University and CEO of Hope 4 The Community CiC is the Co Inventor of the Hope Programme.  Contact: andy.turner@h4c.org.uk 

Dr Hannah Mathew’s, PhD  explored women’s psychosocial outcomes following breast cancer surgery reconstruction. Contact: Hannah.matthews@evidera.com.  

 References:

Mathews, H, Turner A, Williamson, I, & Clyne W.  & It’s a silver lining”: A template analysis of satisfaction and quality of life following post-mastectomy breast reconstruction. Br J Health Psychol. 2018 May;23(2):455-475. doi: 10.1111/bjhp.12299. Epub 2018 Mar 2.)

Hannah Matthews, Natalie Carroll, Derek Renshaw, Andrew Turner, Alan Park, Jo Skillman, Kate McCarthy, Elizabeth A. Grunfeld . Predictors of satisfaction and quality of life following post-mastectomy breast reconstruction. Psycho-Oncology.

Mathews, H., Grunfeld, E. A., & Turner, A. (2016). The efficacy of interventions to improve psychosocial outcomes following surgical treatment for breast cancer: a systematic review and meta‐analysis. Psycho‐Oncology, doi: 10.1002/pon.4199

Gabriela Matouskova