When a woman learns she has breast cancer, there is first the shock of the diagnosis and the fear of impending death. Then there are the possible treatments: radiation therapy, chemotherapy, mastectomy, and hormone therapy. That is another challenge, one that, in addition to its many side effects, has an impact on a women’s self-esteem.
When Sophie learned she would undergo chemotherapy, she decided to be proactive and booked an appointment with her hairdresser’s to get a cropped cut. But after her first round of chemotherapy, when her hair, although short, started falling out in handfuls, she made the decision to shave her head: “I looked like a Buddhist monk,” she jokes. This self-deprecating attitude allowed her to get through this ordeal and fully accept her new look.
Alexandra had the same reaction. She didn’t want her children to see her losing her hair in clumps, so with her family’s support, she shaved her head. To make up for their hair loss, they both emphasised their femininity in other ways. Sophie collected colourful scarves that matched her outfits, while Alexandra went to a beautician friend and made a point of putting on make-up every day. It wasn’t just the hair on their heads that fell out, but their eyebrows and lashes too: “The advantage is that we don’t need to pluck anymore,” says Sophie cheerfully. “We’ve learned new skills in the art of camouflage,” adds Alexandra.
Margareth didn’t have to deal with losing her hair, but she did have to accept the loss of a breast: “The enemy was inside. I understood that I had to grieve for my breast, because it had become a sort of foreign body that needed to be removed,” she says. Breasts are a symbol of femininity and motherhood: “It felt a little like a mutilation, but I quickly came to my senses and understood that I wasn’t just a breast, it didn’t define who I was, and I clung to that idea.” When she woke up after surgery, Margareth admits that she couldn’t face her scar: “It was ugly, I couldn’t touch it.” Time passed, and now she says without hesitation, “This scar has become a badge of honour, it’s my war wound.”
Each of them sought to compensate for the damage caused by the treatment, and they admit that their appearance has changed. For Alexandra, “I look different, and I feel nostalgic about my previous appearance”, but she adds quickly, “When you come close to death, none of this really matters. I have hair, and even if it’s not beautiful, I’m not sad about it.” Sophie doesn’t recognise herself in old pictures: “The real Sophie, that’s me now, and I prefer how I am today.” As for Margareth, she’ll soon finish her breast reconstruction with her surgeon: "I want my appearance to suit me, even if it is not the same as before." As the final step in the reconstruction she will have a nipple tattooed on to the new breast: "It will be the icing on the cake" she says with a touch of humor but also of tenderness.
They all agree that cancer has changed them, and not just physically. Sophie has published a humorous book to share her experience and help others, while Alexandra enjoys simple pleasures by looking at life in a new way. And Margareth now knows that the most important thing is what we leave behind for those we love.
All three have a wonderful life lesson to share; something we must never forget.