A breast cancer survivor shares her experiences with the BRCA gene.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Beauty & the Beast of Breast Cancer

In today’s celebrity-obsessed culture, women are pummeled with the message that to be loved and happy, they must possess beauty and physical perfection.

It’s hard enough for the average person not to succumb to this pressure, but how much more for women battling cancer.

Breast cancer treatment can assault a woman's femininity, sexuality and attractiveness.

I asked my friend, Virginia Apperson, how to deal with this. I figured she was the best person to turn to since she's a Jungian psychoanalyst and author of the book, “The Presence of the Feminine in Film."

“We’re a superficial culture that sets certain requirements as to what is beautiful—especially for women—and if we don’t fall into these standards, we don’t feel like we have value,” she said.

"But the irony is that it’s out of suffering and illness that we deepen ourselves and discover aspects of ourselves that are more genuine than striving for outer perfection."

The reality is, there’s nothing pretty or easy about cancer treatment. However, in the midst of it, there are choices as to how to endure, she pointed out.

Virginia said you pretty much have to put on blinders and 'start living in another ‘universe’ (how Jungian). In other words, find a place where not being perfect is acceptable.

"Surround yourself with others who can commiserate with your issues, and can acknowledge what you’re going through and grieve with you," she advised. That can be found with friends, support groups, or with a therapist or a pastor.

She also suggested expressing your feelings in "physical form"-- as she put it-- through writing or art.

“We’ve so sanitized our world and been told not to have bad feelings. But, the hope is, if you confront the despair and express it, it ceases to have power over you.”

Instead, she said, it could give you a deeper understanding of who you are and what's important to you.

Another tip - avoid magazines and TV programs that emphasize beauty and glamor. There's nothing worse than picking up a copy of Vogue with a cover of an emaciated teenager airbrushed to perfection.

Virginia encourages women to seek inspiration from role models in literature and film "who allow their inner self to be valued"--"characters who have the fierceness to say, ‘I’m not playing along!’ "

A good example is the movie, "Cold Mountain." Ruby -- who is plainly in need of a makeover--displays "a life force that’s unstoppable,” as Virginia describes it. Ruby is paired with Ada, who although is beautiful, finds that beauty won't keep her alive. Ada learns how to be strong through Ruby and Ruby learns how to dress better through Ada, which all leads to a somewhat happy ending.

So toss out your latest copy of People and watch an old Betty Davis movie instead. After all, Betty was not the beauty that many starlets of her time were, but she outshone and outlasted them all.