Not long after I was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin Lymphoma (Diffuse Large B-Cell if anyone was curious), a woman at Johns Hopkins Imaging Center told me that when my hair started to fall out from chemotherapy, the first thing to go would be my pubes. She wasn’t wrong.
At first, I was stoked about the hair loss. I’m thinking…hey, the only Brazilian my insurance will ever cover! But then the hair on the rest of my body, including my head, started to fall out and shit got real. I’m not going to lie…I cried pretty hard when I had my head shaved. I went from having over two feet of hair to having absolutely none and while I knew it would be hard to part with, I had no idea how attached I was to my hair until it had to go.
Since then, I have gone through a number of internal and external changes that continue challenge my ability to self love. First of all, becoming akin to a hairless cat (My true form? We’ll see). Second, general lethargy and decreased stamina for any and all activities and contrarily, the addition of insomnia to my nightly routine. (I’ll save appetite and taste bud changes for a separate post.) And thirdly, as a highly social human, not having the energy or being too grumpy to be around people I want to STAY friends with is a large, un-coated, bitter pill to swallow. There are days where I feel like a very different person from who I know I am. Fortunately, these changes should all be temporary, just side effects of the cocktail of drugs I’m on, but I have to actively remind myself that these are good things if it means I’m kicking cancer’s ass.
Over the past eight weeks since my diagnosis, these are five mantras I’ve been focused on to keep the self love strong. Even, if you aren’t going through chemo - and I hope you aren’t - if you struggle with self love, they are practices that can be carried out in a regular and healthy life.
Embrace the things that make you different
Everyone has unique beauties and flaws, shortcomings and successes, things we like about ourselves and things we don’t. When I was younger, I used to look at the things that made me different (my beauty mark, being the only asian kid in an all white school, my height - I was 5’7 as an eighth grader) as things I wanted to change. Now, I’m choosing to embrace the features that make me distinct from my peers - currently, my baldness. I thought about getting a wig, I still might, but I feel just as confident rocking that bald as I did with a full head of hair. It’s not always easy to feel this good being bald, but I’m making an active choice to embrace it.
Find a Signature that brings you joy
Before chemo, I would have said my hair was my signature feature. When I cut it, one of my girlfriends commented that it took her a second to recognize me from the back because she was used to looking for all that hair. I had close to 28 inches of hair that I had proudly grown over a number of years; I can’t even remember the last time I had more than a trim. When I shaved my head I made the decision to embrace it right away but I felt a little naked without all my hair. I had already been in the habit of wearing large and flamboyant earrings, but now I’m just going all out. I find comfort in the fact that they either pull attention away from my absence of hair or add to the whole bald, tattooed, badass vibe I have going.
Always dress to impress
Okay, okay… I learned this one before I was diagnosed with cancer but the chemotherapy has helped really drive the point home. On days I felt crummy, grumpy, unattractive, bloated, etc, I would dress up to help boost my mood in a real way. Now that I wake up feeling like crap on the regular, I’ve decided to be extra all the time. I want to wear a gown to work? Doing it. I want to rock temporary face tattoos? Doing it. I want to pair checkered pants with a striped top? Doing it. If I put together a fire outfit and know I look damn good, then I feel damn good.
Listen to what your body (& soul) need
Listening to my body is what helped me figure out something was wrong so why would I stop there? Some days, I need to sleep until 10am, some days I need to rally my ass, go out and be social. Paying attention to how I’m feeling on a physical and emotional level is more important now than ever, but this is a great practice to put into play, regardless of your tumor status (hopefully negative). Don’t let yourself feel guilty for having days where you do nothing or do things only for yourself. While those days are not productive to have in excess, they are important to have when you truly need some extra self time.
Accept help from others
Damn, this one is so hard! I am extremely independent and if you couple independence with Catholic guilt (meaning you feel guilty for literally everything), you get one v stubborn and rebellious cancer patient. I don’t like the idea of people cleaning my house for me, my mom cleaning out my car, accepting advice and resources or financial assistance. I don’t want to take it, I don’t want the help and I feel guilty about all of it. But the fact is, I need the help. It’s not safe for me to be around lots of dirt, dust and germs. I need the resources and the money to help me make it thru as a sane person with limited financial fallout. While I may feel there is never going to be a way to properly express my gratitude to the doctors, nurses, techs, family, friends, and community for all they have and are continuing to do for me, there are things I can do to pay it forward and help someone who may be suffering or feeling just as lost as I sometimes do. So accept that cup of coffee from the friend that makes more than you, let your significant other vacuum out your car when you are too busy, and remember you can ask for help too. Just be sure to pay it forward.
I hope these lessons of self love are helpful to anyone who needs a practical way to love on themselves a little more. They aren’t just for cancer patients and I will surely be practicing these little lessons even after my treatment is over. Remember, if you learn to love yourself, and I mean truly love and care for yourself, no one will love you better.
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