“I’m so fat.”
“I hate the way my thighs look when I sit.”
“My cellulite and stretch marks are ugly.”
“Look how big my stomach is.”
“Why are my arms so big?”
“Ugh, I hate that picture, I have a double chin.”
“I wish I looked as thin as I did last year.”
Oh wait, last year is when I was underweight. Last year is when the cancer cells invaded my body and started tearing it down, wearing away at it and ripping away my energy. Still, sometimes there is a sliver in time when I wish I could look that thin again. I don’t wish to be that sick again, but I wish I was thinner.
How can I then—knowing I was underweight and extremely sick with a foreign entity growing in my head—still wish to look that thin? What does it say about our culture that I would want to look like I did when I was fighting for my life? How twisted is that?
I have struggled with body image issues for as long as I can remember. It dates back to being picked on in elementary school for the extra baby weight I carried in my stomach. When I was a freshman in high school, I kept a strict food journal. I counted my calories, tracked everything I ate, and if I considered it to be unhealthy, I would not eat it. I would sometimes skip breakfast, even though I felt hungry, for fear that I would gain more weight. Not to mention the fact that I was on the rowing team in high school, burning thousands of calories during each workout. My mindset eventually changed as I began to fall more in love with the sport and saw others around me who were built just like I was. I realized that I was strong and beautiful, and I learned to accept my body. I come from a long line of powerful, strong women who also happen to be beautiful and curvy.
Something happened in the summer of 2022 that was certainly not anticipated, which changed my perspective of my body. I began experiencing strange neurological symptoms. I experienced episodes where I felt spacey, disoriented, and confused. I suffered from vision loss, headaches, and what we now know were absence seizures for about eight months. During this time, I also lost a lot of weight very quickly and unexpectedly. Looking back, I lost about 20 to 30 pounds in less than a year. After a while, I noticed this change, and felt confused. I had not changed my diet; I was exercising the same amount and my lifestyle had not changed in any significant way.
I remember receiving compliments from people, telling me “Wow, you lost weight! You look really good!” or “Wow, what happened? You lost some weight!” or “You look like a different person!” There was one comment that I remember vividly to this day. Someone who used to be a family friend looked at me and said, “Wow Savannah, you’ve lost weight! You look really good! What have you been doing differently?” I remember this comment specifically because I felt a mixture of emotions when they told me that. I felt good because I felt like I had just received a compliment. But that comment also made me feel really bad about the way I looked before. I remember thinking, “Geez, I was not overweight before, did I look bad or something?”
When I was diagnosed with a brain tumor in April of 2022, my perspective of my body began to change. I had a craniotomy, and several weeks later received my diagnosis of Grade III anaplastic ependymoma, a rare type of brain cancer. I underwent 30 radiation treatments and 42 days of oral chemotherapy. On the one hand, I resented my body for allowing this cancer to invade it. Getting cancer is no one’s fault, yet I kept asking myself, “What did I do to deserve this?” On the other hand, I started to appreciate my body more and realized how critical I had previously been of myself.
Someone I considered a friend at the time commented, “Well at least they didn’t have to shave your head for surgery!” I thought to myself, I really don’t care if they shave my head, I just want to survive. I was told prior to the start of my treatments that I would most likely experience hair thinning or hair loss on the left side of my head where my tumor was located. I was prepared for this and told myself that I did not care. This was truly how I felt until my hair started falling out. About halfway through my treatments, I started losing my hair. I remember looking at myself in the mirror crying. I did not think a bald spot would bother me, but I found myself constantly worrying about the way others would perceive me.
My body changed drastically from treatment. Aside from losing a lot of hair from radiation, I also gained weight. I was surprised when this happened because I had been cautioned about the possibility of weight loss, not weight gain. I ate very well during treatments; in fact, my nutritionist at the hospital told me I had one of the healthiest diets she had seen. My doctors told me that my weight gain could be due to a variety of things, such as the medications I had to be on after surgery. My clothes started fitting tighter and I did not feel pretty. However, I made an important realization: I recognized how incredible my body really is for all that it has endured.
The media really does a terrible job at representation and recognizing that one does not need to be a stick to be considered beautiful. Every body is beautiful, and everyone deserves to love themselves just the way they are. It wasn’t until I got sick that I truly, fully realized that our bodies are just a vessel. Why are we so concerned with the appearance of this vessel? Is it because we have been fed lies by those around us about the way we look? Or are we just too afraid to pay attention to what’s on the inside?
My body is tired, but my body is strong. My body has carried me through some of the happiest and also darkest moments of my life. It supported me through surgery and treatments. Maybe instead of focusing on the appearance of our bodies, we should focus more on the ways in which our bodies have served us.
Although there are slivers of time when I yearn for the body I once had, I know that body no longer exists because that version of me no longer exists. The scars on my body represent the pain I endured and the strength I have acquired from what I have gone through. I have changed and grown, just as my body has changed and grown. Not many people can say they have stared death in the eyes and fought it, but I can. My body helped me do it, and I’m damn proud of that.
The Gen Z column is a partnership with Teen Cancer America and allows members of Gen Z to speak their truth about living with cancer as younger AYAs.
Every adolescent and young adult (AYA) that gets diagnosed with cancer in the United States deserves access to specialized clinical care and support services that improve their survival and quality of life during and after treatment. Teen Cancer America provides the expertise that hospitals and healthcare professionals require to understand the unique needs and nuances of AYA cancer care. They help health systems develop age-specific programs and restructure those systems to best support the currently underserved population.