Thriving after double mastectomy for breast cancer without breast reconstruction (Guest post)

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Sam recently forwarded this New York Times article to me, about the increasing numbers of women who are choosing to “live flat” after mastectomy, forgoing the reconstructive surgery that would give them artificial breasts. I’ve talked here and here about my own choice to live flat after a double mastectomy for breast cancer, and I continue to be completely comfortable – even enthusiastic – with “life after breasts.”

What boggles my mind is that the health professionals – including surgeons, oncologists and nurse practitioners – helping women through breast cancer treatment don’t see seem to realize that for some, the choice to live without breasts can be an incredibly satisfying one.

That’s certainly been my experience.

I love not having breasts anymore. I’ve never for one moment regretted my decision to have a prophylactic (preventive) mastectomy of my left breast at the same time that my right breast was removed for breast cancer. I feel sure that I would have been very, very unhappy with only one breast – or with reconstruction of one or both breasts.

In my case, I just didn’t like my breasts. They’d been quite large for most of my life, and I was uncomfortable with the way my body moved and felt with large breasts, as well as how I looked. If you’d come up to me 20 or 30 years ago and told me that I was going to get breast cancer, and asked if I wanted to have my breasts removed, I would have jumped at the chance even back then. I loved (and still love) being a woman; I just didn’t like having large breasts.

Lucky for me, I did get breast cancer, which came with a complimentary breast removal.

I love the way my body looks now. (With clothes on. Without clothes, I obviously have two huge scars across my chest, and a lot of the subcutaneous fat was removed on the right side where my cancer was, so that side of my chest is a little sunken. But I’m okay with how I look naked.)

I love how it feels to move through the world without 5 pounds of tissue hanging from my chest. Sports (running, calisthenics, martial arts) feel so much freer now. Before my surgery, I was always conscious of that weight bouncing uncomfortably up and down whenever I ran or jumped. I struggled to find sports bras I liked, and struggled even more to find sports bras that were easy to get on and off.

Not having breasts is fantastic. I wear tank tops under my shirts most of the time, just to keep my scars from being visible when I bend over in a low-cut top. The straps are also a visual clue to people that I’m a woman, which I found especially helpful during my chemo, when I was bald and looked very masculine. (I have never worn breast prosthetics, BTW – the idea of having fake breasts just doesn’t appeal to me at all.)

My mom met a woman my age at the cancer clinic one day, and this woman had had a single mastectomy when she’d wanted a double (without reconstruction). She was psychologically quite traumatized about her situation, and angry at her surgeon for refusing to remove her second breast.

I’ve also met another woman like me, who chose to have a double mastectomy and is living flat, and like me totally loving it. I wish I could counsel other women who are facing this choice, and let them know that not only can you live healthily with no breasts, but you can actually thrive – feel better than you did before.

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Michelle Lynne Goodfellow works in nonprofit and small business communications by day, and also enjoys writing, taking photographs, making art and doing aikido. You can find more of her work at michellelynnegoodfellow.com. Michelle has also written about her breast cancer journey on her blog, Kitchen Sink Wisdom.

Breast cancer is turning me into a man. And I’m kind of okay with that. (Guest post)

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I was diagnosed with breast cancer this summer, and since then have had a double mastectomy and two courses of chemotherapy that have left me breastless and bald. For a woman who had large breasts and long hair, it’s been a big change. But I’m finding I’m strangely comfortable with my new appearance, shocking as it may be to others.

I’ve written on this blog about how I was really looking forward to my double mastectomy, and I followed up with this post after my surgery about how much I love my post-mastectomy body. The latest change in my appearance came from my chemo. My hair started falling out three weeks after my first treatment, and was a patchy mess when I went in for my second. Shortly afterwards I had a friend buzz my remaining hair off with barber’s clippers, leaving me bald.

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I thought I was ready for it (I’d had the same friend buzz my hair in a very short pixie cut before my chemo started), but it was still a shock. Bald heads are a sign of maleness in our culture; very few white women willingly go bald, and are considered outliers if they do. Long, thick, shiny, straight hair on women is prized by people of European descent. The few times in my life when I’ve purposefully cut my hair very short, I’ve been chastized for it, by both women and men. Bucking the cultural norm is definitely not okay, and even makes news.

And yet I really love my bald head. Many of my friends have commented that my skull is a nice shape. The artist in me thinks I’m more beautiful than I’ve ever been in my life, since going bald. I love looking at my head, and touching it. Part of me wishes I could keep it bald, even after my hair starts growing back. It’s so easy to care for, so minimalist.

My struggle has been going out in public since losing my hair. Until recently I was still working full-time, as a fundraiser for a nonprofit. I felt physically well, but didn’t want people to assume I was sick. (I figured they’d guess I had cancer as soon as they saw the bald head.) Before my first business meeting after my hair was gone, I vacillated: should I wear a scarf on my head? A hat? Did I need to explain my appearance? To be honest, most of the time I forget I look different – I still feel like the same old me on the inside.

(The business meeting? I wore a hat because it was cold out, but took it off as soon as I got inside. I explained that I was doing really well physically. It seemed to be a non-issue.)

Then one night I was passing by a mirror in my apartment, and caught sight of myself out of the corner of my eye. I was shocked – I really looked like a man. To be honest, I thought looked like my dad, who had been bald. My mom affirmed it when I posted this photo on Facebook.

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For many women going through breast cancer treatment, this part – losing the external signs of womanliness – can be very hard. At every step along my cancer journey, health care professionals have assumed that I wanted to mitigate this loss with prosthetics and wigs. And I’m not diminishing that need that some women may have. But I’ve been very clear with myself and others since my diagnosis: if anything, I want to be the poster girl for normalizing the realities of breast cancer treatment. I want it to be okay to be breastless and bald if you’re a woman. I want it to be okay to work through illness, if that’s what you want to do. I want it to be okay to be who and what you are, to be flexible in the moment, and do what you need to do to be well and whole (be it a take a nap, or go for a walk, or have a good cry.)

But I can’t deny it’s been fascinating – and a little disconcerting – to explore the emotional and spiritual landscape of ambiguous gender appearance. I feel like our culture has become more open to considering gender identity since celebrities like Chaz Bono, Laverne Cox and Caitlyn Jenner have shared their transgender experiences. But each of those celebrities seems to have settled on a gender appearance that puts them very squarely within the norms of their identified gender. I wonder if society is ready for people who are openly gender-ambiguous, even if only in appearance.

I guess what I’m trying to say is, I’m a woman and I love being a woman, but I’ve been wondering what it would be like to live the rest of my life in the No-Man’s (and No-Woman’s) Land of asexual appearance. Where I could be mistaken for a man (or transgender, or a lesbian) sometimes, and that would be fine.

I also wonder if I would feel differently if I were younger, or in a relationship with a conservative partner. Maybe part of my comfort with ambiguous gender appearance comes from being near menopause and single – and happy with both of those conditions. I was already knowingly entering a part of my life where my appearance and desirability were becoming less important. I’d heard from older women that you become invisible after “a certain age”. That didn’t seem like a bad thing to me. There’s a reason that contemplatives take a vow of celibacy – the pursuit of sex takes up a lot of energy. What if looking gender-ambiguous saves me from superficial and superfluous flirtations and drama? What if I can focus more time on my work and my creative projects? What if I can have more authentic relationships where people look past my exterior and value the person I am inside?

Part of me still worries about being labelled strange, however. About being ostracized for being different. If I were another 10 years older, I would laugh it off, because by then I’d be facing my 60s, and I know it really wouldn’t matter what I looked like. But I’m finding I’m thankful for activities like aikido, where everyone (male and female) dresses the same for practice.

Honestly? Breast cancer isn’t turning me into a man – it’s turning me into a pre-pubescent girl. (This will become even more true when I begin taking hormone-blocking drugs after my chemo.) And if I remember correctly, my 10-year-old self was pretty awesome. Who could complain about that?

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You may also be interested in these blog posts by Michelle about her breast cancer experience:

Michelle Lynne Goodfellow works in nonprofit and small business communications by day, and also enjoys writing, taking photographs, making art and doing aikido. You can find more of her work at michellelynnegoodfellow.com. Michelle has also written about her breast cancer journey on her blog, Kitchen Sink Wisdom.

What martial arts taught me about fighting breast cancer (Guest post), #breastcancer, #cancer

MLG“You’re the happiest cancer patient I’ve ever seen.”

I was having coffee with a psychotherapist friend, and her words caught me off-guard. I thought I was handling my breast cancer diagnosis well, but I hadn’t realized my attitude was remarkable.

Most people I know are scared of cancer. Scared of hearing about it, scared of getting it, scared of fighting it, scared of losing their lives to it. There’s been a lot of cancer in my family, and it’s taken the lives of one of my grandmothers and my father. I’ve seen what cancer can do to a person. I’ve seen my father shriveled up to a brittle rattle of skin and bones, in constant pain, all hope gone.

I know what cancer can do.

But I’m being completely honest when I say that from the moment I was first diagnosed, I was not worried about my cancer. Instead I’m upbeat and positive – even joyful – about my future. Aside from some fatigue in the days leading up to my double mastectomy, I’m living a full life and enjoying the things I love, like walking in the woods, working out, meeting with friends for coffee, and working on a few extracurricular projects I’m passionate about.

Is there something wrong with me? Am I suppressing fear, anger, or grief?

After some reflection, I’ve realized that my attitude towards my cancer probably has a lot to do with my personal beliefs, and my aikido practice.

I am completely addicted to aikido. I’ve been studying this martial art of self-defense for a year-and-a-half, and I attend four classes per week. I don’t have anything like a balanced sports life. It’s aikido, and the stuff I do that supports my aikido (like physiotherapy for my aikido injuries, gentle walking, gentle yoga for flexibility, and some bodyweight exercises for strength).

I’ve written about why I love aikido here on this blog, and my feelings have only gotten stronger over time. But I never realized how much aikido has changed me until my friend told me I was a too-happy cancer patient.

Unlike most martial arts, aikido doesn’t teach you how to attack – only to defend yourself against attack. You blend with your attacker’s energy and redirect it, so that the encounter leaves both of you unharmed.

Some beginners struggle to give their full energy to aikido practice with a partner (Sam has written about this here), but for me this is one of my favourite parts of aikido. There’s a particular kind of technique where you’re encouraged to “enter” the attack that’s coming towards you – to intentionally move in to meet the attacker’s strike. I love this kind of practice best of all.

When I see my attacker raise his or her arm, I propel myself forward with lightning speed to connect and blend with their striking arm, and offer up one of my own fists to their face as a distraction, before throwing them to the ground. I can’t describe how thrilling this is – to leap intentionally into harm’s way, knowing that you can avoid being hurt by moving quickly in the right way. There’s something so satisfying about being proactive in a risky situation, and I love it.

I found a lump in my right breast in early June. I also noticed that my nipple was turned inwards, and that the skin on one side of my breast dimpled when I raised my right arm. I’d read enough about the warning signs of breast cancer to know that all of that was potentially not good news. I waited and watched my breast for a menstrual cycle, to see if it would change, or if the signs would go away, and they didn’t. During that time I also read a lot about breast cancer on the Internet.

When my lump didn’t go away, I went to my family doctor and she recommended a mammogram and ultrasound. Those results were inconclusive, so a biopsy was ordered. By the time I got my biopsy results a couple of weeks later, I’d read even more about breast cancer, including most of the information on both the Canadian and American Cancer Society websites. I can tell you how breast cancer is staged, and about all kinds of benign breast lumps. I read about lumpectomies and mastectomies (and decided that if I did have cancer, I wanted a double mastectomy). I read about genetic cancer and cancer survival rates. I read about reconstructive surgery (and decided I didn’t want that).

So when I was finally sitting in the doctor’s office and the words that came out of her mouth were “I’m afraid it’s bad news,” I wasn’t taken by surprise or shocked. I just did what my aikido practice had taught me. I entered the attack.

One thing I’ve learned in the weeks since my diagnosis is that every cancer patient’s journey is unique. There’s no right or wrong way to fight cancer, and I respect every cancer patient’s personal reactions. There’s nothing wrong with being devastated, or sobbing for days, or shaking with fear, or screaming with rage.

But here’s what I know: Entering the attack feels amazing.

This is the first of a three-part series on breast cancer, sports and body image.
Part 2: Why I’m happy about getting my breasts cut off
Part 3: My pre-surgery boudoir photo shoot

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You may also be interested in these blog posts by Michelle about her breast cancer experience:

Michelle Lynne Goodfellow works in nonprofit and small business communications by day, and also enjoys writing, taking photographs, making art and doing aikido. You can find more of her work at michellelynnegoodfellow.com. Michelle has also written about her breast cancer journey on her blog, Kitchen Sink Wisdom.

Here comes the Sun! Summer sports and skin cancer

Skin cancer is on the rise in Canada, dramatically so. And we’re emerging from a particularly brutal winter so it can be hard to believe that the sun is our enemy. I think Canadians tend to not pay attention to skin cancer and sun because much of our year is so dark and cold. When I was cycling in Australia I was struck by the absence of sleeveless cycling jerseys. No one wore them. Not just because of silly cycling fashion rules either. They often wore full sleeve jerseys in the summer and/or white arm covers that protect you from the sun.

Here’s a blog post on arm coolers, as they’re called. They are designed for use in extreme heat and sun and have a high SPF and are supposed to help keep your arms cool. The post just mentioned reviews several brands but I haven’t seen them at all out on the road in Canada.

DeFeet Armskins Ice

Image description: woman on her road bike wearing blue short sleeved jersey plus DeFeet Armskins Ice, from http://lovelybike.blogspot.ca/2013/06/arm-coolers-for-summer-cycling-look-at.html

 

In Australia it wasn’t a joking matter. In pretty much every group of cyclists I met, there was someone being treated for skin cancer. (On the beach in Australia I was struck by two camps, the little children dressed  in full length top and bottom bathing suits that looked kind of “hazmat” like, with hats, always with hats, and the older people, both men and women, in tiny teeny speedo style suits.)

Now here in cold, dark Canada I have a few friends with cancer and the norms are starting to change.

The Canadian bad news gets worse because it’s melanoma that’s on the rise here. That’s the kind of cancer that kills. See the Globe and Mail piece on the spike in deaths.

Skin cancer, one of the most preventable forms of the disease, is also one of the fastest-rising in this country, according to a new report from the Canadian Cancer Society that notes the death rate for all cancers combined continues to fall for most age groups.

“Melanoma is certainly increasing more than nearly all other cancers,” said Frances Wright, the head of breast and melanoma surgery at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in Toronto. “They [rates] are increasing rapidly and it’s probably related to behaviour, related to lack of sun protection.”

When it comes to malignant melanoma – the type of skin cancer that is likelier to spread and kill – the rate of new cases has climbed significantly over the past 25 years. So has the melanoma death rate. Only lung cancer deaths in women and liver cancer deaths in men have increased at a faster pace, according to Canadian Cancer Statistics 2014, the annual compendium of cancer figures and projections published by the Canadian Cancer Society, Statistics Canada and the Public Health Agency of Canada.

The report, released Wednesday, estimates 6,500 new cases of malignant melanoma will be diagnosed this year, with 1,050 expected to die from the disease.

I’ve been aware of the risk of skin cancer for a long time. Here at the B-F household we had our wake up call early. My partner Jeff had some pre-cancerous lesions on his hands in his twenties from years of sailboat racing. He was told to wear a hat and sunscreen at all times and signed me up for that plan along the way. Later we had some incredibly fair skinned children, of the sort who burned after minutes in the sun. We bought them full body bathing suits and big hats too.

An aside: This why whenever Tracy mentions nude vacations as an antidote to body image woes and as fun in their own right, my first thought goes to buckets of sunscreen. I rarely sit on the beach, even with all my clothes on! And then I think about a forested nude holiday, hiking in the woods maybe, and then I think about mosquitoes and tics. The fact is I’m happy with nudity and I love the outdoors but for me, I don’t see the two mixing. The World Naked Bike Ride isn’t for me.

But still, even after I adapted to the ways of the sun avoiders, I had some false beliefs about tanning.

I once had an argument with my thesis supervisor in the Philosophy department lounge over whether it was okay to go out in the sun for short period of time once you were tanned, and if you didn’t burn. He insisted that it was never okay and that a tan was just evidence of sun damage. One should never feel good about having tanned. He liked to argue, he was very good at arguing, he was married to a medical professional, and he directed me to Cancer Society resources.

Of course he was right.

The Centre for Disease Control says that “tanning does not protect against sunburn. In fact, a tan only provides a sun protection factor (SPF) of about 3 (CDC recommends sunscreen with an SPF of at least 15.), so a tan does not provide enough protection against the sun. The important thing to remember is that a tan is a response to injury: skin cells respond to damage from UV rays by producing more pigment.”

What about vitamin D? I rely on the Canadian Cancer Society for advice. (This is an area where paying attention to the credibility of online sources is particularly important as many are funded by the indoor tanning industry.) The cancer society says our vitamin D needs are easily met with a few minutes of indirect sunlight a day and that tanning is never recommended. Their slogan is “a little sun goes a long way” and they recommend Vitamin D supplements–never artificial tanning–in the winter.

Cyclists joke lots about our tan lines.  I confess I use a lot of sunscreen (on my face year round, in fact) but I also use fake tanning lotion to avoid the pale legs thing. I feel bad about that as it perpetuates the summer tan norm but I can’t shake my dislike of my legs without.

Bicycling Magazine warns that cyclists shouldn’t be proud of our tan lines. (I think we think of it as evidence of how much we’ve been riding but surely our Garmins and Strava times are better things to be proud of.) See How to Prevent and Recognize Skin Cancer Crisp tan lines shouldn’t be a badge of honor. Here’s why—and how to shield yourself from the sun’s harmful rays.

In the last three decades, more people have had skin cancer than all other cancers combined, according to data from the Skin Cancer Foundation. And between 2000 and 2009, cases of melanoma (the deadliest form of the disease) rose steadily by almost 2 percent a year. It’s also the most common type of cancer in people ages 25 to 29.

Numerous studies have shown that regular exposure to ultraviolet radiation from the sun leads to an increased risk of melanoma and that outdoor endurance athletes are particularly susceptible to skin cancers. While there is little research on cyclists specifically, we are clearly vulnerable given the sheer amount of time they spend outside, says Prentice Steffen, MD, physician for Team Garmin-Sharp. One study published in the journal Dermatology found that during eight stages of the Tour de Suisse, riders were exposed to levels of harmful UV radiation that were 30 times more than recommended limits. Several factors compound the risk, say experts, including sweat, which increases the skin’s sensitivity to UV radiation.

Less worrisome but just as sobering, a staggering 90 percent of skin changes—like the fine lines and wrinkles that we attribute to just getting older—are caused by the sun.

I can attest to the age point. In visiting Australia and New Zealand I was constantly mistaken for a much younger person. And judging from the condition of the skin around me and the ages of my friends there, I don’t think they were joking. That too has prompted me to keep slathering on sunscreen and wearing nerdy sun hats.  When prudence and vanity point in the same direction, it’s an easy choice. I might even order arm coolers this year.

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I walk 20K steps a day… and I’m getting rid of my Fitbit (Guest Post)

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Sam’s recent dilemma about whether or not to replace her Fitbit (and Tracy’s two cents about the whole issue of performance tracking devices) got me thinking about my own Fitbit. Like Sam’s, mine was falling apart, although the app was still syncing well with the device.

Here’s the thought process I’ve gone through.

I originally got a Fitbit a few months after finishing my chemotherapy for breast cancer. (Read all about my breast cancer observations, here.) I’d read an article about how a woman increased her steps to 20K a day, and after months of lying in bed feeling ill, it sounded appealing.

I liked some of the outcomes:

The author made a great case for how easy it was to add an extra 10K steps to your day without even trying. I liked that. Good outcomes, little effort.

Hmm, I thought. I’m going to walk 20K steps a day. And I need a Fitbit to tell me whether or not I’ve done that. So I bought one.

For the first few months, I only got about 6-8K steps per day. I couldn’t wear the Fitbit on the aikido mat, because a lot of our practice involves grabbing each other’s wrists. So I didn’t worry too much about my numbers. I figured I was probably getting close to 10K steps with the aikido, and didn’t change my behaviour at all – didn’t monitor my Fitbit numbers throughout the day, to walk more if my count was low.

I was Fitbit “friends” with my sister, and later my nephew and my niece. I noticed that I was not at all competitive. Just did not care that they were walking more steps than I. One weekend they challenged me to a weekend challenge, and my nephew won with an absurd (to me at that time) 42K steps (he was working as a cart clerk at a grocery store that weekend). I didn’t care that I lost the challenge.

My highest ever day (more than 30K steps) was the day I moved to my current home. I used professional movers, but helped them by moving all my boxes and bins (literally dozens upon dozens) from one of my bedrooms to my living room. Plus I unpacked or sorted a bunch of stuff when I arrived at my new home that same day.

I know how exhausted I was after walking 30K steps (and lifting dozens of boxes). I’m not inclined to ever try and repeat (or better) that record.

A few months later, I took a part-time seasonal retail job at a local bookstore. I was on my feet for most of my 4-hour shifts, and it was cool to see my daily step counts go up, although I still trailed behind my sister and niece. (My nephew had long since abandoned his Fitbit.) Didn’t bother me one bit to still be last. I kept wearing the device mostly out of habit, hoping that my number of steps would go up, but doing nothing to change my behaviour.

The thing is, I never modified my behaviour. At all. Never checked my Fitbit during the day, and walked more if the numbers were low. I walked 2 km every morning, but if I wasn’t at the bookstore, I was pretty sedentary. I was working on a couple of my websites at the time, and doing a lot of drawing. I was also taking a lot of naps.

When the bookstore job ended, I got another retail job, this time in a fabric store. For the past eight months I’ve worked three or four 8-hour shifts per week, and usually one additional shorter, 4-hour shift. I’m on my feet the entire time, not counting breaks.

My steps went through the roof. I regularly have 20K-step days, on the days I work. I shot to the top of my leaderboard, regularly clocking 110-120K steps per week. It was nice, but again, I didn’t do anything to modify my behaviour when I wasn’t at the store. If anything, my stratospheric weekly step totals gave me permission to be incredibly lazy on my days off.

And you know what? Walking 20K steps in a day isn’t the magic bullet to a more amazing life. I didn’t necessarily feel better than I had been feeling at 6K, or 10K.

So a couple of days ago I decided to take the Fitbit off for good. I’ve never liked the way it looked. I’m on my second band (which came with the original device) because the first fell apart a few weeks ago. I often forgot to check my daily totals, or even check if the battery on the device was low.

I’m still going to wear the Fitbit at night, because I really like the sleep monitor function, and I do want to improve my sleep. But that’s it.

Have you made a decision to wear – or stop wearing – a Fitbit?

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Michelle Lynne Goodfellow is a writer, artist, maker, and proud breast cancer survivor. She loves drawing adult coloring pages and sewing. You can see some of the things she makes on her Instagram feed. Michelle has also written about her breast cancer journey on her blog, Kitchen Sink Wisdom.

​No alcohol for 40 days: Facebook challenge turns into major lifestyle change (Guest post)

Image description: A pint of Guinness

Image description: A pint of Guinness

Hi, my name is Muriel, and I no longer drink.

It started simply enough. A friend said on Facebook in late February that he was looking to give up something for Lent. I suggested, somewhat casually, that we give up drinking. No alcohol for 40 days and 40 nights. It meant saying goodbye to a big part of my life, at least temporarily. My friend agreed. And so, two days later on March 1st, my new life as a church lady began.

Now, Lent is over, Easter Sunday has come and gone, Christ has risen from dead, and I am still not drinking.

I have decided not to drink for many reasons. Although it started simply, the origins of my drinking problem are not really simple at all, and the results, so far anyway, are startling. There is nothing like being clear-eyed and bushy-tailed every single day.

When I finally stopped, I had been drinking four nights out of seven. And I did not consider myself to be an alcoholic or to have a serious drinking problem or even to have much of a problem at all. But I did many stupid things while under the influence, including angry texting and emailing in response to conflict, and I lost a few friends along the way. It had became too much of a price to pay.

Image description: A table in a bar. On the table there are beer bottles and cans and glasses of beer.

Image description: A table in a bar. On the table there are beer bottles and cans and glasses of beer.

Toronto’s Centre for Addiction and Mental Health makes a distinction between physical dependence on alcohol and problem drinking. It says of the latter: “This term describes alcohol use that causes problems in a person’s life, but does not include physical dependence.” Such dependence involves tolerance to the effects of alcohol and withdrawal symptoms when a person stops. I am not physically dependent, thank god.

A big part of the decision had to do with health. When I announced to my doctor that I had quit, she was all smiles. She said about drinking: “Medical research definitely shows that more than one glass of a day for women is associated with a higher incidence of heart attacks, cardiovascular disease, stroke and breast cancer.”

I had chosen health.

I also, I must admit, wanted to lose weight. And it has been a miracle of sorts. Though I don’t weigh any less, I feel lighter.

It just seemed to me not to make sense to sweat doing Zumba for an hour, tire myself out while line dancing for another hour, stretch my endurance while swimming for more than 20 minutes, in one week, only to throw all that effort away by sitting in a bar for a few hours and getting bloated from drinking Guinness.

I think, in retrospect, I drank because I was angry, stressed and sad. I needed to blur the edges of the day.

I would always have a glass of wine on Tuesdays, which is actually my Fridays, since I work weekends. On Wednesdays, I would go to the nearby Irish pub for takeout, and while I waited for my wings, I would have a Guinness. Thursday was and is my big night to go out, so I would drink then too. Then on Friday and Saturday nights, I would drink, because, you know, it was Friday and Saturday night. Any excuse, any day of the week, would do.

I drank everything from Guinness to Pinot Grigio, rum and coke on the rocks to gin and tonic on the rocks, Coors Light when there was nothing else around, bottles of homemade peach wine with my Newfie friends, and maybe even the odd shot of Tequila Rose.

Being angry comes from being a woman in my 50s and divorced. Being stressed comes from working in the media and struggling financially as a single parent of young adult children. Being sad comes from having lost my father in October 2011, who had faith in me, and having a mother, 90, who is suffering from dementia. It also comes from not being where I want to be at this point in my life. And it comes from having lost friends.

I have been told that I have “a complex history of grief and loss.”

Late last year, I was kicked out of a single moms group I called the cabal. We had been getting together every few months for the past 10 years. One member decided she didn’t like me anymore. A dog walker, she convinced the others to exclude me from the pack. It hurt and it felt like grade nine all over again. I meant to ignore this unwelcome development, but after a night in the bar, I told her and the two others in the group by email exactly how I felt. The dog walker responded by sending me an open letter to my therapist to explain her side of the story. In the end, I lost three friends in one go, and this was my rock bottom.

I do think, when people are unkind, it’s best to walk away, but there’s no walking away when you’ve been drinking.

Yes, life is not easy, and we all have problems.

Drinking, however, is not the answer. And not drinking means: I no longer wake up with hangover. I am calmer. My thinking is not disordered by alcohol. I am much more aware of what is going in my life and around me. I am an introvert and drinking helped me be more of an extrovert. Now, without the booze, I need more down time because there is nothing blocking the stimulating world outside. There is also no filter between me and my feelings, and now when I am sad, I am really sad. The feelings are intense. It can feel like the end of the world, if only for a few moments.

But overall, I feel better. I am alive. And I am less angry. Imagine that.
And although our society is awash in alcohol, and people my age drink when they socialize, and I am aware of who is knocking it back around me, I have chosen not to be a part of all that. They say older women are the new hard drinkers. In my case, I was headed down that road. But sobriety is my path now.

There are lots of things to drink and they don’t need to contain alcohol.

God has granted me some “serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, wisdom to know the difference.” Now, I am trying to be brave, and I am happy with the new me.

Image description:A headshot of Muriel, a white woman in her early 50s, photographed against a set of silver gym lockers. Muriel is smiling and wearing white swim goggles on her forehead.

Image description:A headshot of Muriel, photographed against a set of silver gym lockers. Muriel is smiling and wearing white swim goggles on her forehead.

Muriel Draaisma is a mother, dog owner and an online news reporter with CBC Toronto.

Fit is a Feminist Issue, Link Round Up #78

This is where we share stuff we can’t share on our Facebook page for fear of being kicked out! Read why here. Usually the posts are about body image, sometimes there’s nudity but we’re all adults here. Right?

Dancers destroying stereotypes

Akira Armstrong was in two Beyoncé videos, but couldn’t find an agent to represent her as a professional dancer because of her size. To change the narrative around what a dancer’s body should look like, Akira started her own dance company, made up of plus-size dancers. “Pretty Big Movement” is destroying dancer stereotypes, one routine at a time.

 

‘I Weigh 236 Pounds And I Have Great Self-Esteem’

Hi. My name is Sarah. I weigh 236 pounds and I have great self-esteem.

I attended my first Weight Watchers meeting in 1989. My mother is a lifetime member and she enrolled me in the kids’ program. She told me that life would be harder for me if I was overweight. She also said that I would be much happier if I could shop at “regular” clothing stores.

I locked myself in the bathroom and stood on the tub so I could see my legs in the mirror. I hated my thighs. I was nine years old.

Illustrator Explores Femininity Through Modern Cave Paintings

If cave paintings were able to kaleidoscopically cartwheel through a contemporary femme lens, the results would probably end up looking like Louise Reimer’s illustrations. The Canadian artist—who says her work explores femininity, interdependence, performance, and solitude—draws a world that is pink, mystical and brashly feminist.

“I never said to myself ‘I’m going to make feminist art,’ but my work is about girls and women and bodies and freedom, which are all connected to feminism,” Reimer tells The Creators Project. “The world my figures exist in is a kind of female utopia of safety, free from the male gaze, which I think is a feminist paradise.”

Why This Mom Is Sharing Pictures Of Her Body After Breast Cancer Surgery

Jennifer, a mother of two and breast cancer survivor, came across photographer Natalie McCain’s The Honest Body Project, and wanted to participate. The project, which showcases intimate portraits of mothers’ bodies alongside narratives about their lives, aims to empower mothers to feel good about their bodies and help instill body confidence in their children. Jennifer wanted to represent a specific group of moms — those who are battling, or have survived, breast cancer.

 

How the Fuck-Off Fairy helped me fight fat-shaming

“Recently, a personal trainer has been trying to recruit me as a client. When we first met, I told her my goal was to do a pull-up. I’ve been taking some aerial classes, but had plateaued, so decided to lift for a while and build some strength before going back. I told her what I’d been doing, and she was supportive. She made minor noises about how “slimming down” might help me lift my body weight easier. I understand physics well enough to know she is right, and mostly ignored the fat-shaming that was also present in the conversation.”

TOP 5 THINGS TO DO INSTEAD OF LOSE WEIGHT IN 2017

“As you may or may not have seen on the internet, I posed for the brilliant Tanja Tiziana for NOW Magazine’s 3rd annual Love Your Body Issue. This is the much anticipated January issue featuring ten Torontonians who bare all in front of the camera; each one with a beautiful story behind the love of their own bodies. I could tell you that it was easy. I could tell you that thanks to my innate confidence, I got buck and savoured every minute. But that would be a lie.”

How martial arts have changed me. (Results may vary.) (Guest post)

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I’m reflecting on my life at the moment. Maybe it’s the impending New Year, maybe it’s that a dear friend has just died, maybe it’s that a family member has recently had a life-threatening health scare, maybe it’s that the most recent chapter of my life has been one of huge changes – including my own breast cancer treatment, job loss, and ongoing career flux.

Whatever the reason, when I compare the woman I am now to the woman I used to be, I can see that “Now Me” is very different from “Then Me”.

“Then Me” was timid and afraid, always anxious, always worrying, nervous in crowds, afraid of public speaking and performing, a perfectionist who never measured up to her own impossibly high standards, and who avoided uncomfortable feelings at all costs.

“Now Me,” in contrast, is more at ease in social situations. She can get up in front of a large audience and speak without fear. She worries less – even when there’s more (like breast cancer) to worry about. She can let things go without ruminating too much. She does things that scare her, and isn’t fazed when they sometimes don’t work out.

I’ll give you a few examples.

In August 2015, I was diagnosed with breast cancer, and was strangely (to others) calm about it. Even when I first found my lump, I didn’t worry. I’d had mammograms in the past that had led to a breast biopsy, and nothing bad happened. So I decided not to worry until I knew there was something to worry about. And when I discovered there was something to worry about…  I still wasn’t worried.

In September 2016, I moved to a new community and had to switch aikido dojos. I was seriously anxious about my new sensei (teacher) – I’d heard that he was very strict and old-school. But without batting an eye, I visited the dojo, met him, and signed up to study with him. (In the past I would have procrastinated for weeks before meeting him.) He has a very harsh teaching style – he will yell at you during class if you are doing something wrong, and during most classes I do something wrong. But it all rolls right off my back, and I just keep on correcting and adjusting my techniques without flinching or getting flustered.

In November 2016, I gave a speech to more than 400 people, about how aikido helped me be a happy breast cancer patient, and I was not – NOT FOR ONE MOMENT – nervous about sharing my story. (Contrast that to my 13 years of solo singing, when I couldn’t handle my crippling performance anxiety, and finally quit singing entirely.)

Also in November 2016, I started a temporary seasonal job in a popular bookstore. I had my cashier training on the same day as the beginning of the store’s Black Friday sale. I had a lot of information to take in, in an incredibly fast-paced environment, but rather than being stressed, I actually kind of enjoyed it.

As I look back at those experiences now, I am kind of shocked. “Then Me” would have fallen apart during any one of those situations – plagued by panic (in fact I used to suffer from panic attacks during my university years), self-flagellating thoughts, and fear of unpleasant future outcomes.

To be completely honest, when I was standing onstage giving the speech in November, I suddenly wondered if I were developing the symptoms of sociopathy – I truly had no nerves, and it was very odd. (Of course I realize I’m not a sociopath – if anything, I empathize with others too much, not too little. And I do still feel fear about many risky things – just a lot less fear than I used to.)

So what’s changed? What has given me, to use a popular self-help buzzword, so much resilience?

It’s probably a complex mix of several life experiences, including 13 years of classical voice training, a year of Toastmasters membership, several years of stressful workplace leadership experience, caring for my father through his death from cancer, a lifetime of enduring chronic pain – including migraines, endometriosis, back pain, and sports injuries – and some excellent psychotherapy.

But…  and…  I think it also has a lot to do with aikido.

I recently recorded this video of myself (below), sharing the speech that I’d prepared for the November speaking event. In the weeks leading up to the speech I realized that there were some very specific lessons I’d internalized from my aikido training.

The first was a sense of agency and self-confidence that came from the regular (and frequent) practice defending myself against physical attacks. Even though the real world doesn’t have the predictability of the aikido mat, practising for the worst can be calming. And in aikido, I practised. As in, dozens of times every class, several hours per week, year-round.

The second was learning to fall, and get back up quickly after falling. To be absolutely okay with being really crappy. Embodying a beginner’s mindset. Knowing that I was going to do badly at things when I first learned them, and that even after years of study, there would still be things to correct. I watched brown belts prepare for their black belt tests and leave each practice session shaking their heads, feeling like they knew nothing. I witnessed black belts admit that they felt like beginners, and I watched them diligently work to improve their skills. I learned to admit what I didn’t know. I learned to enjoy fumbling.

The third was learning the thrill that comes from the mastery of acting proactively against a threat. Of leaping into risky situations…  and doing it successfully, enough times to give me an appetite for more.

I really like “Now Me”. She walks, grounded and quietly unflustered, through her life. She’s good in an emergency. She has no trouble committing to a course of action. She can step back and see the bird’s-eye view. She’s happier, even when there’s more to be unhappy about.

I’m not sure that it’s the aikido. But I wouldn’t give back those hours on the mat for anything.

___

Michelle Lynne Goodfellow works in nonprofit and small business communications by day, and also enjoys writing, taking photographs, drawing adult coloring pages, and doing aikido. You can find more of her work at michellelynnegoodfellow.com. Michelle has also written about her breast cancer journey on her blog, Kitchen Sink Wisdom.

Fit is a Feminist Issue, Link Round Up #75

This is where we share stuff we can’t share on Facebook page for fear of being kicked out! Read why here. Usually the posts are about body image, sometimes there’s nudity but we’re all adults here. Right?

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This NSFW Photo Series Is Allowing People to Love Their Bodies Again

Artistic curiosity surrounding the naked body has existed for centuries, and a recent nude photo series featuring a diverse group of people proves that the human form still can still be used to make a powerful statement.

The series, which was created by a California-based photographer Anastasia Kuba, has received lots of praise and sparked ample discussion online for encouraging others to embrace their bodies after struggling with self-acceptance issues. It has also been lauded for revealing the raw body image experiences and challenges of a broad range of individuals, and not just people who fit stereotypical cultural ideals of beauty.

‘I Weigh 236 Pounds And I Have Great Self-Esteem’

Hi. My name is Sarah. I weigh 236 pounds and I have great self-esteem.

I attended my first Weight Watchers meeting in 1989. My mother is a lifetime member and she enrolled me in the kids’ program. She told me that life would be harder for me if I was overweight. She also said that I would be much happier if I could shop at “regular” clothing stores.

I locked myself in the bathroom and stood on the tub so I could see my legs in the mirror. I hated my thighs. I was nine years old.

Why This Mom Is Sharing Pictures Of Her Body After Breast Cancer Surgery

One courageous woman wants to spread awareness about breast cancer by sharing gorgeous images of her body after surgery.

Jennifer, a mother of two and breast cancer survivor, came across photographer Natalie McCain’s The Honest Body Project, and wanted to participate. The project, which showcases intimate portraits of mothers’ bodies alongside narratives about their lives, aims to empower mothers to feel good about their bodies and help instill body confidence in their children. Jennifer wanted to represent a specific group of moms — those who are battling, or have survived, breast cancer.

The Vulva Gallery Wants Women To Know That Body Diversity Is Beautiful

According to illustrator Hilde Atalanta, “all vulvas are amazing and beautiful just the way they are.”

Atalanta would know ― she is the digital proprietor of the Vulva Gallery, a collection of illustrations that celebrate the vulva in all its glorious diversity. She is also the gallery’s primary artist; all of the portraits showcased on a dedicated website and on Instagram are hers.

 

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9msxf3XtLuk

Being okay with what is (Guest post)

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In a recent post (What if this is a good as it gets?), Sam mused about whether or not to quit aikido, or continue training – possibly forever as a green belt (4th kyu). I read the post with great interest, because I’ve recently struggled with the exact same dilemma, and I was curious to see where Sam landed. What if I, too, am a green belt forever?

I recently moved to a different city a couple of hours away from where I lived before, and have had to leave behind my (and Sam’s) dojo for a new one. It’s made me very reflective about aikido, although it’s not the first time I’ve pondered my long-term commitment to the sport.

There are many reasons why people practise martial arts. Some really like physical fighting, and enjoy learning techniques and improving their fighting skills, to get better at winning fights.

Some people like the physical exercise involved in martial arts training – the calisthenic warm-ups, the full-body workouts from taking a class.

Some people “chase” belts, and value the status from achieving a high rank in a martial art. Some people like the community and the camaraderie. Some people like all of the above.

Myself, I was initially drawn to aikido because it was beautiful and graceful and powerful and thrilling, whether I was performing one of aikido’s unique self-defense techniques, or on the receiving end of a technique. The movements were completely foreign to my body, but I loved learning to move my body in new ways. I loved seeing my progress as I gradually picked up the movements, learned the names of the techniques, and became proficient at some of them.

In the case of aikido, I also love the philosophy behind the sport – the idea that if you are attacked, you can have a positive impact on a situation, redirecting the energy and leaving the situation better than it was. This lesson really hit home off the mat when I was diagnosed with breast cancer over a year ago, and I realized that I was reacting to my diagnosis in a very unusual way because of my aikido training.

Which is not to say I haven’t thought about giving up aikido at any point over the past two-and-a-half years. In fact I’ve entertained the possibility more than once, as I’ve struggled with overuse injuries to my knees and right ankle. As much as I love aikido, I also want to be highly mobile for as long as possible, and I don’t want to risk permanent injury. At their worst, my chronic injuries have had me hobbled, and in constant pain.

Over the past year I’ve also had many, many conversations with a good friend who is an aikido black belt, and who was also facing the possibility of giving up aikido for the sake of his body. We talked about whether modifying aikido to accommodate our injuries was a game changer. With my knees the way they are, there are several kneeling techniques that are difficult, if not impossible, for me to do without pain.

At my old dojo I felt confident that I had the support of my sensei and many of the black belts in accommodating my injuries, and felt like I would be allowed to continue to progress through the ranks with modified tests – switching out the mandatory kneeling techniques that exacerbated my injuries for other, equally difficult ones that didn’t require kneeling.

It was hard leaving my old dojo behind when I moved, and a big part of the fear of joining a new dojo was wondering whether there would be similar accommodations for testing. Could I continue to progress through the ranks without doing all the mandatory techniques? I realized that I very much want to achieve at least sho-dan (first degree black belt), which at the moment is four belt tests away from my current level. And if I can’t progress any further in aikido, do I still want to attend classes?

My new dojo (which I have quickly grown to love) is very different from my old dojo. We practise the same style of aikido, but the dojo cho (head of the dojo) has a different teacher lineage than my former sensei. I’ve attended eight classes so far, and there are obvious differences in every single technique and movement, as well as many differences in the protocol and class rituals.

My new sensei is very traditional, and I wanted to come to the new dojo with humility and an openness to quickly adapt to any differences. I didn’t want to appear difficult or resistant to his teaching…  so I was quiet about my chronic injuries (which admittedly are doing pretty well at the moment – partly because there are fewer aikido classes per week at my new dojo, and my knees have therefore been getting more rest).

Last week Sensei surprised me by giving me the dojo testing syllabus, and encouraging me to learn the techniques that would be required for my next belt test. I don’t think either of us are under the illusion that I’m going to be testing anytime soon – my deficiencies in his style of aikido are glaringly obvious, given the multiple times he corrects my techniques each class.

I looked through the syllabus and noted that there are many differences between it and my old dojo’s syllabus. The kneeling techniques that gave me the most problems in the past aren’t required until closer to first dan (black belt). At that point, Sensei will hopefully know me much better, and might consider making accommodations for me.

Or he might not.

My new sensei has talked many times during class about how things must be done just so. When he is directing his corrections at the junior belts, he warns them repeatedly that candidates can fail tests – especially advanced black belt tests – for even small slip-ups, mistakes, or breaks in form. And I don’t doubt that he would fail someone, whereas at my old dojo if you were asked to test you were pretty assured of passing, since it was generally acknowledged that you weren’t asked if you weren’t ready to progress to the next belt level.

There’s an older participant at my new dojo; I chatted with him briefly a couple of weeks ago. He’s in his late 60s, a physician, and has been a student of Sensei’s for 30 years. Despite being a ni-dan (second degree black belt), he no longer practises the tachi-waza (standing hand-to-hand techniques), but only participates in the weapons classes, which are gentler on the body because they don’t required breakfalls and pins.

He seemed at peace with his modest belt level (given his many years of practice) and level of participation. He comes to watch the tachi-waza class before the weapons class, then does weapons, and that’s enough for him.

I’ve realized that for me, my belt level is not important. I would love to teach someday, and need a black belt to officially do that, but I don’t have to teach. What I do want is to keep learning, and I feel like there’s so much I can continue to learn at my new dojo. I have dozens of techniques in my repertoire, and now I can learn them all over again in the new sensei’s way. I love that he’s exacting – I love being precise with my techniques. Even the breakfalls are slightly different. I love that there are classes only three days a week instead of six days like at my old dojo – it’s easier on my body.

I don’t need a certain belt colour around my waist. What I do want is to keep learning. And I can certainly do that where I am now.

___

Michelle Lynne Goodfellow works in nonprofit and small business communications by day, and also enjoys writing, taking photographs, making art and doing aikido. You can find more of her work at michellelynnegoodfellow.com. Michelle has also written about her breast cancer journey on her blog, Kitchen Sink Wisdom.