There were a string of weeks, while I was in the hospital during my initial cancer fight, when I could barely do anything for myself. My body was not my own as a battle between life and death raged beneath my flesh.

On the worst days, I scarcely had the energy to move. My mom would take a wet cloth and gently wipe my face because the effort required to do so myself was just too much. At one point, the cloth snagged on my nose ring and pulled it out. None of us noticed for quite some time, and then the ring itself was lost.

At the time I didn’t care, of course, but as my healing progressed, I missed that faux-diamond stud. I missed a lot about my old self actually, as I felt a shadow of what I once was. My hair was gone and my energy to this day has not fully returned. Old shoes don’t fit as my feet are now permanently swollen. My skin is parched and flaky when I’m on maintenance medication. Any muscle tone I gain in between treatments is quickly lost when I spend two weeks in bed every three months.

Improvements have been small and slow, but they are coming. What has surprised me though, given all that I’ve been through, is how much I care about the progress as it pertains to my physical appearance.

It started when I re-pierced my nose almost a year ago.

Over years of nomadic travel, I’ve come to care less about how I look. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I barely leave the house without mascara on, but there are many things that I easily let go of. It didn’t bother me that I only had three outfits to cycle through on a weekly basis. My skin care regiment was very limited (who has space in their luggage for more than a small tub of Oil of Olay?), and I’ve always cared more about tasting every kind of cheese on the planet than what said cheese would do to my hips. There are times when I did feel underdressed or undermakeuped and inadequate, but those times were few and far between. I always thought that if people couldn’t get past my wrinkled dress or frizzy hair then I didn’t want to know them anyway.

The line between self-care and self-indulgence has always been ambiguous to me. For the same reasons I struggle to fill a home with furniture, or spend money on styling it to be my “own”, I have the same battle with my own appearance. A big and full closet feels wasteful. Caring too much about my looks feels vain.

So then I was surprised at how good getting the nose ring felt. (Well, not the actual piercing part, which hurt like a muthafucker, but I got through it by reminding myself that I have endured much worse pain – like actually having bone removed from my body via a needle bigger than what punctured my nose. And no less than three times.) Having that little bit of flair made me feel like I was actually putting myself back together. That tiny piece of glitter made me feel defiant and strong.

And so I continued the trend:

  • I didn’t want to care about the state of my hair. Losing it was inevitable (and so I took it into my own hands), and to be honest, I kinda liked starting over. I swore that I was going to be much nicer to these new baby hairs than I was to my old mane: I wasn’t going to heat-style them and I was going to let the natural colour shine through. That started to change, however, when my head became a helmet of unmanageable curls and the bare colour was a precise shade of blah. I am now the owner of a round brush and ceramic-plated straightener, and I indulged in streaks of ash blonde to give my colour some more depth. (But without covering the threads of silver though, I actually don’t mind those at all.)
  • I have always been deficient in the department of eyebrows, and chemo certainly didn’t help, so much so that my best attempt at having any brows at all included a combover of the few I had left plus a really bad paint job. The day I went in for a micro blading consultation, the aesthetician asked me which eyebrow I liked best in order to model the new ones – they were THAT different because I was THAT bad at “putting them on”. And so it took little convincing for me to sit for two hours while she used a tiny blade to cut dozens of lines in my face and fill them with ink. They take a while to heal (it’s been just three weeks and they are still settling in), but I can already see they are a vast improvement. My face feels more complete.
  • My left arm has become a tattooed tapestry of significant events in my life the last ten years, and when I finally got the all-clear from my doctor to go under the gun, I did not wait long to make it happen. Just up my forearm from my yellow rectangle (in recognition of the National Geographic honour bestowed on Pete and I a couple of years ago), the alchemical symbol for arsenic is now inked. Taking it as a part of my leukemia treatment has always made me feel a little badass, and so it is perfectly emblematic of my struggle to beat it. No one will likely know what it is when they see it, but it somehow feels more meaningful to me that way.

With any post entitled “self-improvement”, I assume that readers would expect it to be about self in the more metaphysical sense. And this typically sappy writer with Irish cheddar-hips would normally agree with you, as I have certainly written much about that as well.

But I am also beginning to understand how this part is important too. Evolution happens in any number of ways. Mine will now just have better eyebrows.