Shannon Cury on Body Image, Beauty Standards and Cancer Survival

Sometimes I think of my body as a garden. One that for most of my childhood and early adulthood, I absolutely hated. No matter how many times I’ve tried to nurture and celebrate its beauty, I’ve only seen its weeds: arms too big, legs too slow. A body that did not look or move as I would have liked.

In high school and college, I tried to counter the resentment I felt by “getting healthy”. I wanted to be smaller, slimmer, slimmer … to look like the happy bodies I saw projected around me. But a wrong focus on weight loss has turned into disordered eating and unhealthy exercise patterns and general misery. Trying to slip my non-size zero body into a size zero dress was a normal occurrence. Skipping pool parties to avoid being in swimsuits with classmates was often the case. All the while, I have been trying and trying to conform to beauty standards, and in doing so, I have become a master at igniting the flames of my insecurity and shame.

portrait of the writer

ARUNAS KACINSKAS

After graduation, anyone would think I was flourishing: I was climbing the corporate ladder in the tech world; my Instagram was full of photos of me having fun with my friends. But my relationship with my body still sucked. Whenever I looked in the mirror, I saw an imposter. My thoughts were a constant stream of negative talk. Yes, I went to therapy. But sleeping, eating right, and exercising – read: anything that was supposed to provide physical or emotional nourishment – seemed like just another chore at the bottom of my to-do list.

Then came the breaking point, the summer of 2020. I was only 29, but I started to experience continuous chest pains and profound fatigue. After years of hiding in my head to avoid living inside my body, I couldn’t decipher the signals. I had disconnected to the point of not being able to tell if I was just stressed out or really sick. And so I continued, through a pneumonia diagnosis and recovery, a series of negative tests for COVID-19 and eight weeks of back and forth with doctors trying to figure out what the hell was going on. Eventually, my chest pain was unbearable. I couldn’t move, laugh or cry. When I got to the hospital emergency room, the doctors were still baffled. Until they weren’t. It was lymphoma. Cancer.

After years of hiding in my head to avoid living inside my body, I couldn’t decipher the signals

What comes after a cancer diagnosis? Shock? Fear? Devastation? Yes, but that wasn’t all. When I got the news, the clarity consumed me. Thinking about death gave me an unexpected sense of freedom. I was finally able to release the feelings of unworthiness and my own harsh criticism that had kept me from loving myself for years, because I realized that my body, the same thing I was rejecting, the same thing it was also rejecting me, it was also going to be the thing that got me through all of this.

writer celebrating with friends

Shannon with her support group during treatment.

Courtesy image

Don’t get me wrong, my cancer was traumatic. I went through six rounds of chemo, lost all my hair, and spent three weeks in the hospital with no visitors in the middle of a pandemic. Some days I couldn’t move. I just had to sit with my pain, a new and different version of the feeling I had been avoiding for years. But this time, there was a bright side: being forced to stop fighting my body and start listening to it made me realize that if I wanted to survive cancer and live my life with real purpose, I had to recognize it without my body. , whatever it may seem, there is no life at all. I dug up that garden and started replanting.

Now that I’m in remission, taking care of both my mind and body fills my cup. Consulting with a nutritionist helped me reconnect the beliefs I learned through toxic diet culture. Food is energy that fuels my growth, not a reward or punishment. Training is a privilege, not a chore. I am grateful for the opportunities to move, dance and build strength. Practicing breath work and meditation keeps my mind-body connection strong, helping me to water these new seeds of self-love and acceptance.

I know it sounds weird, but as horrible as cancer was, it gave me the opportunity I needed. When I look in the mirror, I am proud of what I see. And it’s not what my body looks like, but what it feels like to live in it.

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