Dealing With a New Body After Cancer
- Fitness influencer and mother of one Pertina Barber was diagnosed with cervical cancer shortly after giving birth to her son. In the wake of chemotherapy and radiation treatment, she experienced side effects of surgery requiring her to use an ostomy or stoma bag.
- Cervical cancer is a tumor that starts within the cervix, which is the conduit between the vagina and the uterus.
- Although it took Barber a while to accept her new body after cancer, she now finds strength from her experience, as evident in a photoshoot proudly showing off her stoma bag. A significant health challenge can impact your body physically and emotionally, causing noticeable changes to your appearance.
- Psychologist Dr. Marianna Strongin encourages cancer warriors to take ownership of the parts of their bodies impacted mainly by cancer treatment.
- She says although they may represent “fear and pain,” they may also represent “strength and courage.”
- Cancer patients are encouraged to lean on their support group and care team to provide help when needed. These people can help you not feel so alone in your journey with your new body.
A fitness influencer and mother of one who battled cervical cancer has turned her battle scars into tokens of empowerment. Pertina Barber was fitted with a stoma bag in the wake of her cancer treatment, which caused her to lose her sense of self and femininity. She would often find herself sobbing while browsing her old photos. However, she understood that her strength and inner beauty count the most over time. Her resiliency culminated in a powerful photoshoot alongside other women living with stoma or ostomy bags.
“I have made it my mission to help other women come to terms with their stoma. With these pictures, I wanted people to know that a stoma isn’t something that needs to be hidden; it needn’t be a source of shame or make anyone feel somehow less than,” Barber wrote in an essay to U.K.-based news outlet The Daily Mail.
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Roughly a decade ago, Barber had a prosperous career working in the human resources field. Around this time, she gave birth to her son, and life was seemingly blissful until she started experiencing stomach pains. Her gynecologist performed tests and ultimately diagnosed her with advanced cervical cancer.
Cervical cancer is a tumor that starts within the cervix, which is the conduit between the vagina and the uterus.
Although she had just been diagnosed with cancer, Barber couldn’t stop thinking about her son at the time.
She underwent chemotherapy and radiotherapy to treat her cancer. She admitted some of the side effects were grueling, causing her to rely on a wheelchair to get around.
“[The treatment] left me so weak my husband had to push me around in a wheelchair. I didn’t even have the strength to hold my baby,” she said.
Expert Advice for Coping With Cancer
Side Effects of Cancer Treatment
The best way to manage chemotherapy side effects is to prepare for them. Dr. Matthew Carlson, a gynecologic oncologist at UT Southwestern Medical Center, offers some examples of helpful ways to manage chemo side effects.
For nausea, doctors will usually prescribe effective medications, including Zofran, to help. “We have many, many, many medications that we give before, during, and after chemotherapy that should minimize the nausea that patients experience,” Dr. Carlson says, adding that there are also quite a few medications available for constipation and diarrhea. However, doctors may recommend dietary modifications first.
For fatigue, while there aren’t quite medications the way there are for nausea, Dr. Carlson says that some patients may find it helpful to complement their treatment with alternative medicine supplements such as American Ginseng.
And then there’s the chemotherapy side effect everyone asks about hair loss.
“When it comes to the hair loss associated with chemotherapy, we can’t keep you with a full head of hair through your chemotherapy,” says Dr. Carlson.
So, yes, hair loss can be expected with the chemo drugs commonly used for ovarian cancer, carboplatin, and Taxol. But just like with the other side effects, methods are available to help.
Wigs, scarves, caps, and cutting your hair short can all help, as can scalp-cooling devices, which can prevent some (though not all) hair loss. Of course, it’s important to remember that hair loss is only temporary and that your hair will grow back after treatment.
WATCH: What’s it like undergoing radiation treatment?
Radiation therapy itself is painless, but some people may experience some general side effects as soon as seven to 10 days after treatment starts. The side effects may include fatigue, nausea and vomiting, appetite loss, blistering or peeling skin, and hair loss in the area where radiation enters the body. These side effects can be severe if the radiation is given along with chemotherapy, but they usually go away after the treatment ends.
WATCH: Managing the side effects of chemo.
Fortunately for Barber, her aggressive treatments led her to become “cancer-free.” However, she started experiencing “excruciating pain” just a few months after being declared cancer-free.
“[The pain] was caused by pelvic radiation disease, a rare, incurable side-effect of the very treatment that had saved me. The radiation had killed the cancer cells, but it was now eating its way through healthy tissue,” Barber said.
Her doctors decided her affected organs needed to be removed, and after several surgeries, her bladder, bowel, and reproductive organs were all removed. The result left her relying on a stoma bag and no longer feeling like her former self.
“My stoma was fitted nine months ago, after cancer, and then further complex health problems meant my bowel stopped working. Afterward, I felt both physically and emotionally changed – it challenged my idea of myself as a woman. I felt totally broken,” she said.
“Six weeks after my stoma was fitted, I remember looking at some old photographs of myself wearing a bikini and completely breaking down,” she continued.
According to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, “a stoma is a surgical connection between an internal organ and the skin on the outside of your body.”
The pouch that collects body waste is removable and can be temporary or permanent.
Accepting Her New Body After Cancer
Barber decided to work towards reclaiming her former self and, more specifically, her confidence. Her background in fitness was her avenue to success.
“To help myself, throughout this journey, I have focused on regaining my strength through exercise. In doing so, I’ve become a fitness expert,” Barber said.
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“I used to have a large following on social media as a fitness influencer. But since having my bag fitted, I’ve become a campaigner and advocate for anyone needing this surgery, and that’s where I now want my influence to count,” she continued.
Over time, she started getting stronger mentally above all. She now claims her scars are signs of strength.
“My scars adorned with gold, I realize that even though I might have felt broken at times, I’m not damaged; I’m just changed,” Barber said.
While undergoing a health-related issue, you may notice changes in your body. These changes “may be temporary or permanent. They include changes others can see, such as hair loss or weight gain,” MacMillan Cancer Support says, noting physical changes.
“Changes that are not obviously visible to others, such as infertility, can also affect your body image and make you feel vulnerable about your body,” MacMillian Cancer Support added.
One way to prepare yourself for possible body changes, especially during cancer treatment, is to build self-confidence. Your support group filled with loved ones can help you during this stage of your journey.
Many changes your body experiences during cancer treatment come from the treatment itself. Surgery can leave scarring; chemotherapy can cause hair loss. Other treatments can also impact you in ways that make you lose or gain weight or feel tired more than usual.
Psychologist Dr. Marianna Strongin shares with SurvivorNet some additional tips cancer warriors can explore to help manage the emotional toll body changes can have during treatment.
Dr. Strongin encourages cancer warriors to take ownership of the part (or parts) of their body impacted mainly by cancer treatment. She says although they may represent “fear and pain,” they also represent “strength and courage.”
“Research has found that when looking in the mirror, we are more likely to focus on the parts of our body we are dissatisfied with, which causes us to have a negative self-view and lower self-esteem. Therefore, I would like you to first spend time gazing at the parts of your body you love, give them time, honor them, and then thank them,” Dr. Strongin said.
Dr. Strongin then suggests looking at the part or parts of your body impacted by the cancer or cancer treatment. She recommends creating a regular practice of accepting your body image because it helps you accept your cancer journey emotionally and physically.
“As you allow yourself to spend more time looking at all of you, you will begin having a new relationship with your body. It may not happen immediately, but with time, you can begin honoring and thanking your new body,” Dr. Strongin adds.
Seeking advice from your support group or healthcare team can also help prepare you for what you should expect following your cancer treatments, allowing you to understand what is normal or not.
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Barber participated in a photoshoot with several other women with similar experiences. Each woman in the photo uses their stoma bags as a power source.
“We were scared, we were nervous – we were deeply moved as we shared our stories. When we looked at the pictures and saw ourselves and how others will, we felt strong, beautiful, and empowered,” Barber said.