Emerging from Breast Cancer a Sexier Woman

by Eriko Niwayama Pettersson '83

If I had been asked about my body image in early January, I would have said, “I could lose a few pounds, flatten my stomach, and then I would feel better about myself, but overall, I feel pretty good at the age of 42.”

By mid January, my life changed. I had my annual mammogram, and they found a suspicious nodule. Cancer. Within weeks, I had biopsies, surgeries, and lymph nodes removed. “Body image?”Who cares? What image? I just want to be alive when this is all over! After two lumpectomies and a sentinel node biopsy, I was told I now needed to have seven weeks of daily radiation. This breast cancer marathon was not over yet.

By mid May, I was driving myself to UCLA at 6:30 am, to be “zapped” every day. There, in the radiology/oncology department waiting room, I made friends with other patients. We were all going through some kind of radiation treatment for cancer. I was humbled. Most patients drove from a distance, sometimes three hours each way. There was a healthy looking man in his 50s who was diagnosed with brain cancer, another with prostrate, and a young two-year-old with a retinal tear, going blind. I had it easy. I only had breast cancer, and I was feeling pretty OK, in comparison.

By the end of the seven-week treatment, I was exhausted. My body image was non-existent. I felt like a ghost, and did not care. I slept, ate, had my radiation treatment, worked full time, and slept again. This was my routine for seven weeks. I lost my spirit and my ability to smile. People would come up to me and say, “But you didn’t lose any hair? You look great!” Radiation is different from chemotherapy. Most folks get them confused. I may have looked great to all, but little did they know how weak and tired I actually was inside. I must have been a good actor.

Little did I know how, one month post radiation treatment, my entire outlook on life would change.

What kind of body image would I have? They took out more than 35% of my right breast, I was wiped out emotionally, hysically, mentally, and spiritually. I know what some Hiroshima survivors must have gone through. But now, one month later, I can honestly say I feel great! I have lost those few pounds that I wanted. My hair is growing thicker (I did lose a few during the radiation, but only I noticed), the radiated skin has healed as if there was nothing there, and my body image is improving with each day. I started taking Tamoxifen one month ago, which will put me in menopause. Thank goodness, I haven’t felt any side effects. Each day, I count my blessings and am so grateful to be alive.

Physically, I have surgery wounds, but I am proud of them. I am putting on creams to fade them, but they will always be here to remind me how strong I have been and survived. There is a slight change in shape and lift in my right breast, if one looks closely. I joked with my surgeon and asked if he could make the left one look as nice, too.

I am so happy with the outcome. I feel sexier now than I did pre-breast cancer. I am small breasted, and still do not like to wear anything tight these days because any rubbing irritates the wounds. So I don’t wear a bra. Sometimes my breast wound may show through my shirt, but then again, I don’t care. I will not cover it up, or camouflage it, or change the way I wear clothes because of the surgery.

My body image post breast cancer treatment amazes me. I thought I would hide, cringe, and cover up. It’s the total opposite! I am proud of what I have gone through, and walk with more bounce and smile every day. Little did I know that breast cancer treatment would make me feel like a sexier woman.