Why Comparing Ourselves is a Losing Game

Today continues my series that gives you a peek into what it’s like to have a preventative double mastectomy with reconstruction and how my lessons learned apply to everyday life.

In the early weeks after my mastectomy, I was nauseous, dizzy, and in pain, unable to put any weight on my arms or even take a walk without help. There were long drains coming out of my armpits that kept me in constant discomfort, and I could barely dress myself due to limited chest and shoulder mobility. I spent mornings working at my computer and afternoons exhausted and hurting (don’t even mention evenings, which can still be tough). So I read, listened to TED Talks, zoned out in front of the TV, and wondered when I’d be normal again, much less back in the gym.

One day, as I lay propped up in bed with six pillows of various sizes to ease the discomfort, I came across an article about Angelina Jolie’s bilateral mastectomy. As I read it I remember my mouth literally dropping open. Her surgeon, Dr. Kristi Funk, says:

On day four after her mastectomies, I was pleased to find (Jolie) not only in good spirits with bountiful energy, but with two walls in her house covered with freshly assembled storyboards for the next project she is directing. All the while she spoke, six drains dangled from her chest, three on each side, fastened to an elastic belt around her waist.” [1]

The article listed a plethora of supplements Jolie took at perfect pre- and post-op intervals to minimize scarring, bruising, swelling, nausea, and infection and to maximize oxygen flow. Only the very last item in the list was “various medications needed for pain.”

The “various medications” I took were my lifeblood during those early weeks and included antibiotics and probiotics, remedies for constipation, diarrhea, and nausea, and of course, pain meds of all varieties, rotated and overlapping as needed.  There was also a pain pump to haul around (removing it is akin to pulling a long string out of your skin). This doesn’t even include attending to the drains, which must be emptied and measured twice a day.


But if you believe Dr. Funk,  supplements played the biggest role in Jolie’s recovery and you should be up and at ’em within days after surgery. (Most women take 4-8 weeks off from work after a mastectomy.)

The image of a vibrant and fully functioning Jolie only four days after her mastectomies left me temporarily demoralized and worried. But mostly I felt peeved at her surgeon, who idealized the whole process, as if a mastectomy was a walk in the park. In reality, Jolie is a gazillionnaire whom I’m 99.9% sure hired a full staff to attend to her pre- and post-op needs, along with renting an in-home hospital bed and other equipment. (Oh, and her surgeon drops by her house – in my dreams!)

I might add that although the article offered insight into the process, it didn’t talk about how much Jolie hated her tight, stiff tissue expanders, the weeks of physical therapy to regain upper-body mobility, or the ups and downs of recovery and reconstruction.

Stretching it out!

My favorite position on a foam roller, now that my pectorals are less stiff.

Compare? Au contraire

I’ve thought about that article a lot since those early post-op days. My frustration is more with the reporting as opposed to Jolie… It was after Jolie went public with her surgery that I truly began respecting her as incredibly strong, wise woman. Her public disclosure, along with her candid assertion that she still felt feminine after her reconstruction, gave me a sort of permission to see it as a viable option for myself.

But the media tends to gloss over important details, and celebrities want to present a positive image to the public. All the same, we compare ourselves with unrealistic images, stories, and people, even if subconsciously, and often feel inadequate as a result. In fact, we compare ourselves to regular people too, which provides an equally unreliable frame of reference.

As a fitness and nutrition coach, I’ve learned that there are no one-size-fits-all workouts or diets; everyone is incredibly unique. Sure, it’s possible that Jolie’s care was so epic and her recovery so smooth that she didn’t experience any of the things I did. (A few articles have accurately alluded to the fact that it wasn’t an easy process.) But whatever you read or see, including my own story, is not your frame of reference. We’re each coming from a completely different place in completely different circumstances. This applies to your fitness journey, recovering from an injury or surgery, or any other challenge.

As for myself, I’ve come a long way in the last eight weeks at my own pace. I’m proud of each victory, even if it’s simply moving my arm more directly overhead or driving a car. In three weeks I’ll have an exchange surgery to replace the expanders with soft, pliable implants (woot!). I’m not comparing myself to anyone, because I’ve learned both personally and professionally that there is simply no way my experience could be like someone else’s.

Words to live by during a period of challenge or any ole’ day.

[1] “Angelina Jolie’s surgeon reveals each step of her treatment” / dailymail.co.uk

This article originally appeared on www.workoutnirvana.com.

4 thoughts on “Why Comparing Ourselves is a Losing Game

  1. I can’t begin to express how incredibly strong, brave, resilient, smart and capable you’ve revealed yourself to be throughout this most challenging time. And I’m super proud of you for being so transparent and sharing your journey with the many other women who’ll need to go through it themselves and will now have your posts to read xoxoxo


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