Loving Your New Body After Cancer
- Army National Guard veteran Constance McDaniel bravely battled aggressive breast cancer while pregnant. Now she’s learning to love her new body, which has a completely flat chest from the removal of her breasts.
- While wrestled with the reality of never having breasts again, and still struggles with her confidence today, she has learned to love her new body and find a new sense of beauty.
- Cancer warriors undergoing treatment may experience changes to their bodies. The changes may be temporary or permanent.
- MacMillan Cancer Support encourages patients to build their self-confidence and lean on their support group to prepare for body changes.
- The American Cancer Society says cancer "can usually be treated safely during pregnancy, although the types of treatment and the timing of treatment might be affected by the pregnancy."
For military veteran Constance McDaniel, she's constantly reminded of the incredible adversity she’s overcome. Like the beautiful baby boy she gave birth to after battling aggressive breast cancer during pregnancy at just 30 years old. But she’s got another reminder too – the seven mastectomy scars and completely flat chest she sees in the mirror every day.
She wrestled with the reality of never having breasts again, and still struggles with her confidence today.Read More
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The Wisconsin Army National Guard veteran admitted she didn't think much of the lump in her breast when she first noticed it in
"I honestly thought it was just a clogged duct because, with my first baby, I had a lot when I was breastfeeding," McDaniel told WTMJ News.
It’s no wonder McDaniel thought that. A clogged milk duct is a common issue new mom’s face, when the new mom's milk can't flow to the nipple because the duct is either clogged or blocked. One of the telltale signs may be a hard, painful lump, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
It's important to know that symptoms from a clogged duct may typically subside with feeding or pumping and other home remedies. But McDaniel’s lump didn’t go away.
A few weeks later in June 2020, then 30-year-old McDaniel was diagnosed with stage 2 triple-negative invasive ductal carcinoma breast cancer.
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Triple-negative breast cancer is one of the most aggressive forms of the disease. That’s because the cancer is not fueled by any of the three main types of receptors estrogen, progesterone, or the HER2 protein. This type of breast cancer won't respond to certain treatments that target these receptors. Chemotherapy is often the first treatment method used for this type of cancer.
When McDaniel was diagnosed, she was 10 weeks pregnant and a little girl at home. She also learned she has a BRCA1 gene mutation, which put her at higher risk for getting breast and ovarian cancer.
After her diagnosis, she began chemotherapy to try to treat the cancer.
"I had four cycles of intense A/C (Adriamycin cyclophosphamide) chemotherapy," McDaniel described.
"Patients may see names like ACT, TC or CMF, but those just stand for the (chemotherapy) regimens that we use," to treat triple-negative breast cancer, says Dr. Elizabeth Comen.
Dr. Comen is a medical oncologist at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. She says it is common to use a combination of chemotherapy drugs to help treat triple-negative breast cancer.
According to a GoFundMe set up by loved ones of McDaniel, she underwent "multiple rounds of chemotherapy" from July through October of 2020. When November rolled around, McDaniel underwent a single mastectomy, or the removal of the entire breast.
WATCH: What goes into a mastectomy?
As McDaniel grappled with her new body following the mastectomy, she also had to adapt to hair loss from chemo. Hair loss is a common side effect of chemotherapy.
Fortunately, losing your hair from cancer treatment is only temporary and it often regrows once treatment is finished.
The brave mother endured the Iraq War in 2010. She and her husband were both in Iraq when they met each other. Ten years later, the couple found themselves juggling the wide-ranging emotions of both the birth of their second child and battling an aggressive cancer.
"While the cancer in her breast was successfully removed at the time, doctors found that the cancerous cells had spread to her lymph nodes as well," Geofrey Cleland wrote in the GoFundMe post.
"While I was actually in the delivery room, I had a few more lumps on my [mastectomy] scarâ€¦They moved me to stage 3 in December due to my aggressive cancer recurring after only three months, and being on chemotherapy that wasn't working," McDaniel described.
She eventually had a second mastectomy to remove her other breast.
Despite the incredible challenges she was facing, McDaniel still gave birth to a healthy baby the couple named Declan.
The determined veteran said, "Cancer is not going to defeat me. It's just one small bump in the road."
McDaniel's treatment continued, which involved radiation. In March of this year, she celebrated being treatment-free for the first time in nearly three years.
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It’s been a journey for McDaniel to adjust to life without her breasts, something so many breast cancer survivors who’ve had mastectomies can relate to.
While some women may decide to reconstruct their breasts with implants or procedures that use their own tissue, other women may decide not to have reconstruction.
Whatever you decide, it’s a personal decision and is totally up to you.
"This is what a breast cancer survivor looks like. Some days I'm confidentâ€¦others I'm not. I'm not any less beautiful than what I was prior to cancer though," McDaniel proudly wrote in an Instagram post.
"Mental health has been a constant struggle for me throughout this healing journey after cancerâ€¦That constant anger, sadness, and just intense emotions all around, I get caught in them constantly," she said.
One method the National Guardswoman has resorted to is exercising. SurvivorNet experts encourage cancer warriors to engage in activities that relax them, which boosts your overall mental health. These activities may include exercising, watching your favorite TV shows, and spending time with loved ones or your pets.
"Working out has been a great source of release," she said.
McDaniel says she is grateful for her cancer journey because it made her "think differently about life."
Accepting Your New Body After Cancer Journey
Constance McDaniel has shown immense bravery and courage not just at work – while navigating her cancer journey too. Her battle with triple-negative breast cancer did not leave her without battle scars. But she works every day to improve her body image and self-confidence, and learn to love her new self – whatever that may look like.
And that’s an approach our experts say can help survivors cope with their new normal.
"I have no regrets staying #flat. However, it's hard to look in the mirror some days. It's hard to put on clothes some days. Not having boobs and not looking like the World’s definition of what a "normal" woman looks like is hard," McDaniel said.
Ann Caruso, a celebrity stylist, also previously spoke with SurvivorNet about self-acceptance, an essential part of living with any type of health battle and cancer, regardless of how severe.
"Femininity is a state of mind," Caruso told SurvivorNet.
"Society has us thinking that our breasts are what makes us sexy. You know, there are so many other things. There's touch, there's our eyes a glance, the way we speak. It's the curve of our body, it's the way that we think. There are so many special things about being a woman."
"Changes to your body may be temporary or permanent. They include changes that can be seen by others, such as hair loss or weight gain," MacMillan Cancer Support says.
Mayo Clinic explains that changes your body experiences while battling cancer are a side effect of the cancer and subsequent treatment.
"Surgery, chemotherapy or radiationâ€¦can cause dramatic and rapid physical changes," Mayo Clinic explains.
MacMillan Cancer Center encourages cancer warriors facing possible body change to prepare themselves for this emotional leg of the journey. They recommend building up your self-confidence before treatment intensifies. To help you build confidence, your support group filled with loved ones can play a big role during this phase.
Others suggest looking at yourself in the mirror and focusing on the parts of your body most impacted by the cancer. Then, as you see them, you can work to accept them and make peace with the changes. This can help improve your body image and help you learn to show love to your new body.
Breast Cancer and Fertility
Undergoing Cancer Treatment While Pregnant
Cancer can strike anytime, even when a woman is pregnant. McDaniel's diagnosis came just a few weeks into her pregnancy.
The American Cancer Society explains that your body may undergo changes when you’re pregnant. But it’s important to talk to your doctor about any new symptoms you experience, as some physical changes could be due to another health condition, such as cancer.
Unfortunately, cancers can be harder to find when you're pregnant because it can sometimes be hard to know if changes in your body are from the pregnancy or from cancer. The American Cancer Society notes the following scenarios as examples:
- Changes in hormone levels during pregnancy can cause the breasts to become larger, lumpy and/or tender. This can make it harder for you or your doctor to notice a lump caused by cancer until it gets quite large.
- Bleeding from the rectum could be from benign hemorrhoids, which are common during pregnancy, or from colon or rectal cancer.
- Feeling tired could be from weight gain from the pregnancy or from low red blood cell counts (anemia), which can be seen during pregnancy or with cancers such as leukemias and lymphomas.
- The growth of the fetus and uterus can make it hard to detect ovarian tumors.
WATCH: Can I have a baby after breast cancer?
Given these challenges, cancers that develop during a pregnancy are often diagnosed at a more advanced stage than they otherwise would've been. It's important to address any lumps, new pains, or other bodily changes that concern you.
Anything suspicious should be promptly checked out by a medical professional.
“Cancer usually be treated safely during pregnancy, although the types of treatment and the timing of treatment might be affected by the pregnancy,” according to the American Cancer Society.
Every pregnancy and cancer journey are unique, so it's important to discuss your specific situation with your doctor. There are ways to treat cancer during certain times of pregnancy with little risk to the fetus, such as surgery.
A treatment like chemotherapy may be more risky in the first trimester but has limited side effects for the fetus in the second or third trimester, according to the American Cancer Society.
Other treatments may not be safe for the fetus at any time, such as hormone therapy or radiation. Your doctor can help guide you in what options are available for you.