Wardrobe, Weight, and Cancer: My Tips for Adjusting To a New Body

Before cancer, I was a runner. I tried to eat a healthy diet. I always tried to maintain my weight within a healthy range. If a pair of pants was too tight, I knew what I needed to correct so they were comfortable again. This all changed with cancer.

The only thing I knew about cancer and chemo was that I’d be sick all the time and would lose a lot of weight. So, during my first chemo regimen, I never turned down a chocolate shake or a grilled cheese sandwich. I actually gained a few pounds because, in addition to a steady stream of shakes, I was also on steroids. Did you know steroids made you gain weight? Who knew?!? Every week, my support team would be so proud to see I put on another pound or two. All I could think, though, was that my shorts were too tight. At this point, I realized I wasn’t just fighting cancer, I was fighting my own self-image. I remember telling my husband just because I have cancer doesn’t mean I’m not the same insecure person inside.

Each chemo regimen, each round of radiation made me weaker. In October 2012, I had an autologous stem cell transplant. The high-dose chemo wiped out my blood and my appetite along with it. I lost about 15 pounds in about six weeks. As I healed and recovered, my appetite returned, and I eventually found 10 of the 15 pounds I lost. Unfortunately, that transplant failed, and it was back to more chemo, radiation, and a second transplant. Even though I was underweight, and my clothes were a little big, it wasn’t anything a good belt couldn’t handle.

The second transplant took its toll on my body. I was sick from day one of the chemo, and continued to be sick for about two weeks as I struggled to find the right combination of anti-nausea meds. I would eat a little bit of cottage cheese and canned peaches. Let’s just say if I never see a canned peach again it will be too soon. These two foods seem to be the least offensive to my taste buds and sense of smell.

Once I was released from the hospital post-transplant, I really worked on eating and gaining weight. I ended up having several hospital admissions due to various infections. I noticed over the course of one such admission, I was gaining weight every day. It was to the point I was sending my husband to Target almost every day to buy me bigger clothes—bigger underwear, sleep pants, and t-shirts. As it would turn out, my kidneys were failing, and I had about 20 pounds of fluid on me.

My self-image took a hit. With 20 pounds of fluid sitting on me everything was bigger—my legs looked like tree trunks; my arms were bigger; my face was round. When I looked in the mirror, I didn’t recognize myself.

A funny thing happened when I started dialysis for my kidney failure—I lost too much weight. Once the fluid was pulled off me, I realized I was still underweight, I had no appetite, and I was struggling to adjust to a new, restrictive diet. Now, instead of just being underweight, I was severely underweight. I still didn’t recognize the face looking back at me, but now for different reasons.

When I returned home from my transplant, I had to buy new clothes. It’s funny—the pre-cancer me would have LOVED to be a size 0 or 2, but the post-cancer me hated it. I hated buying size 0 jeans because I knew the truth—the real me isn’t a 0, or even a 2. But, if I was buying these sizes that could only mean one thing, everything I had been through, everything I was still going through, was very real. I had to find a way to accept the new me.

All of this to say, my wardrobe has changed quite a bit in the last four years. I had to buy new clothes. I started with jeans, so I shopped stores like Old Navy, and I only bought my clothes on sale. I figured saving money at least took away some of the sting of buying new clothes.

Here are some of my tips for adjusting to a new body and dealing with wardrobe, weight, and cancer:

Consider the pieces you own that almost still fit. Can they be tailored? Is a new belt enough to hold up the pants? Have a sense for flair and fun—use suspenders to keep your pants up!

If you get down looking at a closet full of clothes that no longer fit, hold a memorial for your clothes. Seriously. I had a few pants, skirts, and dresses I couldn’t bear to part with, but they were too big to be tailored. I tried on each piece, regarded how ridiculous my now-size 0 body looked in pants that were a size 6 or 8, then I folded it and placed it in a plastic bin.

Allow yourself room to make peace with your scars and new body. Over time, I’ve made peace with my scars and now proudly wear tank tops and thin-strapped tops.

Look for a exercise activity or practice that interests you. Yoga and lifting light weights help me feel stronger and more confident.

These are just a few of the ways I’ve found to cope with a changing body and wardrobe. On my worst days, I struggle with my self-image and feeling comfortable in the body cancer left me. On my best days, I remember what my body has accomplished—IT BEAT CANCER, and that gets me through the day.

What's your experience with weight and wardrobe changes during cancer? Share your story in the comments below.

Image courtesy of Unsplash.