5 Stages of Grief: Breast Cancer + Body Image

It's hard to anticipate how we're going to feel when significant changes happen to our bodies. Over time, we come to feel at home in the skin, shape and skeleton we’re born into, and when a part of us gets injured or marred due to injury or illness, we are forced to accept a new normal. This process affects us physically, emotionally and psychologically, and often leads to struggles with body image, confidence and self-acceptance. Some changes are temporary, such as hair loss and weight fluctuation, while others are more permanent, including the loss of breast(s), scars and early onset of menopause. In these moments, the effort to feel comfortable in our own skin again becomes pronounced and whether the changes are short-lived or permanent, we find ourselves in a process of grieving.   

Here at Everviolet, the topic of body image is near and dear to our hearts, and when writing this story, we found ourselves thinking about it in a deeper way. The experience of grief one goes through after surgery or illness can be likened to any other period of loss in which one typically grieves in five stages – beginning with denial and then, yo-yoing between anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. To better understand the five stages of grief, in relation to cancer and body image, read on.1

1. Denial  – "This Can’t Be True!" 

The first stage of grief typically involves denial, or the shock, disbelief and numbness we feel as we try to wrap our mind around our diagnosis. This reaction is a natural defense mechanism and a way of gradually accepting a painful truth. Denial helps us cope with the fear we’re encountering – fear of not only cancer and mortality, but of surgery and other changes associated with treatment. Many often describe this initial phase as an out-of-body experience in which it seems as though doctors are speaking about someone else. The upside is that this dissociation gives our shocked mind and bodies a break from the trauma just experienced and some bandwidth to intellectually process the frenzy of a new diagnosis – appointments, testing, scheduling – before emotions set in. Often times, the need for immediate treatment pushes us through the denial phase and requires us to adjust to the news rather quickly.2

2. Anger – "Why Me?"

When the shock starts to wear off, it's common to enter a new stage of intense emotions filled with anger, sadness and confusion. Often fraught with vulnerability, this is a time when we start to imagine leaving behind our loved ones or feel angry or betrayed by their bodies. As the facts sink in, so does the blame -- "Why did this happen to me? What did I do wrong? How could I have prevented this? What caused this?" The anger phase is a combination of denial and trying to control what is happening. During this period, it’s common to experience physical manifestations of stress (lack of sleep, digestive issues, etc.), and to begin mourning parts of our body that are changing. We start imagining ourselves without a breast or sick for months due to chemo or burnt from radiation. It’s the beginning of letting go of our body as we knew it.  

3. Bargaining – "If Only I Did This..."

The third stage of grief includes bargaining in attempts to prevent any future loss – the willingness to try anything that will improve our health or buy us more time, such as new treatments or changes to our lifestyle. It's common to think about all the "what ifs" and wish we had done a handful of things differently in the past. This is also the time when, body-wise, we’re forced to find new solutions to our medical situation, such as ways of moving around post-surgery that won’t cause pain, garments that won’t irritate sensitive treatment sites and new methods of navigating life activities and events. This phase is also considered to be one of disorientation or confusion, as we try to reconcile the impact of what has just happened. 

4. Depression – "I Feel Alone"

When bargaining is no longer an option, we enter a phase of isolation and detachment. Depression can be overwhelming and there can be a tendency to want to withdraw from the world. It’s hard to imagine that anyone else  – except for maybe another person going through something similar – can really understand what we're experiencing and too much contact with others can feel like a lot of work. In this phase, it is almost easier to be alone – to take time to fully absorb what we're going through or continuing to endure.3 

5. Acceptance – "I'm Ready For What Comes"

At the final stage, we begin to settle into our new normal. Whether it’s a hopeful remission or a chronic condition, we start to experience moments of joy (albeit small at first) and accept the changes that have impacted us. Of course this acceptance varies greatly based on our prognosis, but the wish is that we can find some light to brighten us. Often times, that glimmer comes in the form of a community who understands first-hand what we’ve been through or taking time to appreciate the aspects of our bodies that haven’t changed. Offering support to others on their journeys, volunteering or simply dedicating to living our lives to the fullest are all ways of reclaiming our sense of self in the face of fresh reality.  

Ultimately, the amount we struggle with body image has a lot to do with both the significance we place on our pre-diagnosis body as well as the severity of the ongoing side effects from treatment. Each of these phases of grief serve as a guide – every woman processes them differently and over varying lengths of time. Some even bounce back and forth between the various stages as the healing progresses. Our hope is that we remember, at every turn, to support one another and focus on the real truth: beauty that comes from within. The more we can separate from the physical appearance of our bodies and honor the passion, strength and vitality that enable us to navigate these challenging times, the better we will feel about ourselves, inside and out. #beautyofchange 

"Grief can be the garden of compassion. If you keep your heart open through everything, your pain can become your greatest ally in your life's search for love and wisdom." – Rumi