March 04, 2023

Naked Cancer


In The Buff
I’ve been blogging and thinking about cancer and moms this week since my Monday night Stupid Cancer Show interview with Pat Taylor, filmmaker and the mother of a young adult cancer patient.

Today I dug up an outtake from my book, an excerpt from a conversation I had with young adult cancer survivor Chrissy Coughlin about moms. It opened up a different avenue of thought about nudity and cancer care. Here’s Chrissy:

“It was definitely strange when my mom was taking care of me and seeing me unclothed. But then I just got to the point where I felt very comforted by the care. It was like a job for her too. She had to do a lot of work and we had a little system down and you just kind of get over it. At first you’re like, “I don’t want you to see my boobies!” and then you just get over it. You just realize the most important thing is you have a mother there who cares about you that much to be able to help you in that way.”

I could totally relate to Chrissy. I felt the exact same way as I got used to my mom bathing me after surgery and when I was exhausted during treatment. But what about friends seeing me naked?

During treatments my sweat became radioactive. I was in isolation for five days and had to scrub myself down in the shower like the scene from Silkwood. It was exhausting. The day my isolation ended, I was too tired to shower. My friend Loren filled a pot and helped sponge bathe me while I sat on a towel on my living room floor. There was also a time when I was so feeble, my friend Anthony helped me to walk to the bathroom and get on and off the toilet. He stood a few feet away with his back turned while I peed.

In my work as a modern dancer and choreographer, I was used to quick costume changes in make shift dressing rooms crowded with men and women. I also lived in crunchy Boulder” for a while, where it ain’t no thang to strip down naked and hop in a hot tub at a party. I think this made it a bit easier for me to be naked in front of some of my friends during cancer.

Have you ever had to be naked in front of friends and family so they could care for you? What was it like? Did it flip you out? Comfort you? Are you any more or less modest since cancer?

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  1. BPGL Julia Says:
    March 4th, 2009 at 11:19 PM

    When my mom had cancer, one of my sisters and I went with her to a doctor’s visit at the Scottsdale Mayo Clinic. We sat in the room with her while the doctor examined her. She had always been such a private person. Yet, here she was, naked on a table with a male doctor palpating her breasts while her daughters watched. I remember being embarrassed for her, but she seemed totally calm. We later went on a tour of the x-ray area, where we knew she would lie naked (or partially, I don’t recall) on the table while the technicians honed in on the tatooed areas on her chest. I imagined how vulnerable she must feel, she who never even let her daughters see her in underwear. Somehow she overcame her shyness in her fierce fight to survive. I can only marvel at her quiet strength and her dignity, even while naked. Thank you for sharing your essay. It brings back memories of my mother, a quiet hero.

  2. Mary Says:
    March 5th, 2009 at 5:14 AM

    I got my period the morning of my most recent surgery and hospital stay. After the surgery while I was still in the hospital, I wasn’t able to take care of that stuff on my own - my mother, partner, and best friend took turns cleaning me up, changing pads, etc. At the time, it was just what needed to be done, and I was fine with it. Maybe it was the drugs, I don’t know. Now, when I think about it I’m a bit embarrassed by it!

  3. Devi Says:
    March 5th, 2009 at 2:56 PM

    Your dignity is the first thing to jump out the window the minute you fall sick. It started with my surgery, and continued throughout chemo and then radiation. Hospital staff tend to stop looking at patients as people after a while, I guess, and I don’t know if you can blame them.
    My mother had to help me dress most times, and I had to take off my clothes so many times at hospitals for tests and other things, I only wear easily removable clothes for my hospital trips. After the first time, I even stopped caring about taking off my scarf and exposing my bald head anymore. I was too sick to care, anyway.
    Definitely less modest since cancer, I would say! :-)

  4. Nancy Says:
    March 5th, 2009 at 6:36 PM

    I quickly got over any shyness with female nurses and female doctors but couldn’t bring myself to show off my nekidness to my male doctors. It probably didn’t make it any easier that they were young and handsome. It was embarrassing because I actually refused to let them see certain things and a nurse would have to do it..

  5. Paul Says:
    March 19th, 2009 at 1:12 PM

    Immediately after my surgery and while I was still in the hospital, for the first few days I refused to let anyone bathe me because I felt like it was just one more thing I couldn’t control myself. I was also fitted with a condom catheter with a big bag strapped to the side of the bed for urine, and I wouldn’t urinate into the condom catheter if anyone else was in the room - even though they couldn’t see anything and would have no idea that I was urinating, it felt degrading.

    Finally, I was smelling so bad from sweating out god knows what along with my own body odor that I agreed to let one of the health aides give me a sponge bath in bed. As she started bathing me, she started singing something to me in Haitian Creole and I started sobbing while she was bathing me (no one was more surprised by my reaction than me). That was kind of like the dam breaking, and I would allow the health aides to bathe me every day after that. I guess I just wanted someone to care for me in a way that didn’t involve tubes and IVs.

  6. anonymous Says:
    April 6th, 2009 at 2:09 AM

    I have read some stories of patients who regret having RAI treament. My friend is 32 and just had his thyroid removed (papillary cancer) his next step is the RAI treatments, after reading some info I not so sure it’s safe, and doesn’t do more damage than good? Any suggestions would be appreciated.
    Thank you.

  7. Kairol Rosenthal Says:
    April 7th, 2009 at 6:27 AM


    It is important to weigh risks vs. benefits when you are looking at any kind of health care decision, and the choices are sometimes confusing when it comes to cancer treatment because our regimens often carry lots of toxic side effects.

    Thyroid cancer has the highest survival rate of any kind of cancer. One of the reasons is that our treatment (Radioactive iodine - aka RAI) is so extremely targeted and effective. Yes, there can potentially be long term side effects, and I cannot comment on specific cases, but in general RAI is an extremely effective treatment, with usually quite manageable side effects.

    I have had this treatment twice and would be very happy to talk to you or your friend more about it. Remember that when you read stories online (patients who regret having treatment) there might be other circumstances about their cases that are not the norm that could have lead them to have this opinion. I think you are on the right track in that you are proactively researching and then asking good follow up questions to the information you are finding.

    You are a good friend!

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