Making Peace with Body Image: Emily Garnett
After giving birth to her son at age 30, Emily Garnett, of Westchester County, New York, was surprised when her body didn’t bounce back to normal as she had expected.
Emily was accustomed to being active. She demanded a lot from her body and felt in tune with it. She also, at times, struggled with weight and body image concerns. In college, she was a distance swimmer, often swimming miles at a time, and she ran in the 2011 New York City Marathon during law school.
When her son was born in 2015, Emily felt an enormous shift.
“I was so taken over by care for this infant and my body felt like it was falling apart,” she says.
A few weeks after the birth, she began having piercing spasms of pain in the middle of her back. She blamed herself, reasoning, “I’ve gained too much weight, I lost too much muscle, I’m not sitting up straight, I’m breastfeeding.” A back specialist examined her and sent her for physical therapy, which did not help.
The pain continued for about 20 months, extending from her back and ribs to her hips, with Emily trying several approaches to ease it. She and her husband wanted to try for a second child, so she went to her primary care doctor for a check-up. That doctor felt a lump deep in her breast that turned out to be breast cancer. In late November 2017, a PET scan showed that she had breast cancer metastases in her bones. That area of cancer spread was why she had pain.
“In some ways it was a relief [to find out the cause of the pain], even though it was horrifying to hear that diagnosis,” she says. “When you have back pain, your first thought is not metastatic breast cancer.”
Whose Body Is This?
Emily began treatment in December 2017 with palbociclib (Ibrance), letrozole (Femara), leuprolide (Lupron) and denosumab (Xgeva). She feels fortunate not to have had surgery or chemotherapy, although her hair is thinning from treatment and most of her eyebrow hairs have fallen out. She struggles with the physical changes she has experienced and her altered body image.
“I feel much more driven to cover myself up,” she says, “because I’m trying to figure out who I am in relation to this diagnosis and how I want to show the body that I’m still very uncomfortable with.”
Now 32 years old, she’s been going through menopause from treatment. She has hot flashes and says she feels as if she’s in her 60s. Treatment-related fertility loss, she says, is hard to accept but is something that is “completely out of my control.” A combination of menopause, the holidays and “stress eating” resulted in her gaining 15 to 20 pounds over about 4 to 5 months. Although people tell Emily that she looks good, much of the time she’s not happy with what she sees in the mirror.
“Body image is this set of expectations that shifts and that is both personal and cultural,” she says. “Cancer is a catalyst that shifts body image in the same way that being a mother or any sort of major life event can.”
She believes that body image after treatment is especially tough for young women because girls of her generation were raised with a strong sense of personal control over their bodies. This can create guilt about having done something to cause the breast cancer.
“It’s very easy to find blame in yourself because you feel as if your body has failed you,” she says.
Finding a Lane for Coping
Yet, Emily’s perspective also began to change after receiving her diagnosis. She felt she was back working with her body rather than locked in a struggle against it. Wanting to restore her peace of mind and get physically stronger, she found a nearby fitness club with an indoor pool and on-site child care for her toddler son.She got in the water once more and was only able to swim 100 yards (four laps) before having to stop and rest. But moving again was a powerful experience.
“I felt literally buoyed and supported by the water. That was really a transformation for me,” she says. “Whatever my body looked like, whatever was going on, it still was able to do the things that I asked it to do in some small way.”
Since then, she returns to the pool when she can to swim a few laps, calm her mind and restore her body.
“Swimming has allowed me to shift the focus away from the things that were taken from me and shift into focusing on things I still have, things that were lost and that have been found again,” she says. “It’s allowed me to see my body as strong again and reclaim the sense of capability.”
Emily thinks that making peace with her changed body will be an ongoing process of showing it — and herself — kindness, on a daily basis.
“Every night when I go to bed, I have this mantra I tell myself: ‘I am beautiful, I am powerful, I’m stronger than I know — and I can do this,’” she says. “That affirms to me that all pieces of me are on the same team. We’re all working toward the same goal, of keeping me here.”