I Didn’t Age Slowly; It Happened All At Once — How I Reversed It

When I got cancer, my looks and health changed dramatically in the space of a year.

woman in towel Serlena Bessonova/ Shutterstock

Aging and physical changes are inevitable.

How you deal with the changes — which can be depressing or at least worrisome — is the trick.

When I got cancer, my looks and health changed dramatically in the space of a year. It wasn’t much fun.

Especially when people around me could be thoughtless in noticing my descent.

"When I get old, I’m going to work really hard at looking good and staying healthy," my young family member said. "I’m not going to let myself get ugly."


She eyed me critically. Or was that my imagination? I felt so defensive and hurt.

The last two years were hard, and I’ve changed. I can see it. She can see it, I’m sure. Why else would she have said such a thing?

Thinking back to that horrible moment, I can see the remarks for what they were — insensitive and thoughtless.

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However, there is some truth to being proactive, wherever you’re at in your health and age

And there’s also some truth to 'course correcting' when you’ve had a really bad year, like mine. I’m working hard to reverse the clock and get healthier, despite one heck of a hard couple of years. I’m getting younger by the day.


Let me share the back story.

I looked good and thought I was really healthy until 2021 when a surprise cancer diagnosis laid me low for about a year. Overnight, everything changed.

Until my year with cancer, I had glossy thick hair, glowing skin, and was in good physical shape. My waist was smaller.

Within two weeks of my cancer diagnosis, my appearance changed dramatically, as I was exhausted from studying the internet to learn about surgeries, cancer, radiation, and chemotherapy.

I was my own worst enemy, researching until I was worn out. My eyes were swollen. I stiffened up from too much sitting and staring at the computer.

Two surgeries, both painful and distressful, occurred. I had to ditch a doctor, as he was horrible — ungloved exam, patronizing. I moved on and got a better oncology team. That took a lot of energy I didn’t have.


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The cancer had hit me like a torpedo hitting its target — blowing apart everything.

I felt like I was occupying alien space.

My belly was witness to the hysterectomy, along with a lot of other bits of me removed. My sexuality was destroyed. I didn’t even want to think about what was going on 'down there,' as it felt like it had become decimated. Barren landscape.

I hated what I had become. My hair became thin and dull, and I felt sexless and ugly. I didn’t recognize myself, this old person with no waist and a sadness that wouldn’t go away.

Aging and worry came like a thief in the night to steal my looks and my happiness.


Could I recover my appearance? Could I become happy again? I didn’t need to look fifty, or even sixty. I knew I would feel better and happier if I could get healthier. Physical and emotional health is everything.

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When I’m in trouble, I start walking.

On my phone, I found a walking app in which you could simulate a long-distance hike — from many places around the world — and clock your miles. At the end of the 'hike' you would receive a beautiful blue lanyard with a medal. It was called The Conqueror Events, for those interested.

The phone app tracked each step and tallied the miles.


That’s what I need, I thought. A goal. Something I can do. Anything would be better than lying on the couch and crying.

The surgery was painful, emotionally and physically. Even worse, the fear of a cancer recurrence was overwhelming.

I needed to overcome the depression and walk under the open sky.

While I’ve been one to go overseas and walk the Camino de Santiago — a pilgrimage hundreds of miles long — I knew my health wouldn’t permit that kind of journey. So, I simulated the walk!

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The phone app showed photos of villages I’d seen along the way when I walked Camino Frances. I became interested in studying those places again.


I walked out the door of my home in the country and moved slowly around the driveway in front of our home. The pond. The neighborhood.

By God, if I couldn’t travel, I’d do what I could do. And that’s the trick. Just do something every day.

I walked 500 miles using that phone app, in a two-month period.

I wasn’t in Spain or France, or even in the mountains somewhere. I was at home, walking around the yard, the driveway and the neighborhood. It wasn’t my 'trip of choice,' but it was what was available.

I forced myself. I had to. Most days, the couch looked much more appealing.

Any hour off the couch became a win, and the walking helped snap me out of a deep depression.


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But what more could I do? I wanted my previous self back.

I began drinking lots of water and green tea. I noticed in some of my post-surgery selfies, I looked dry and dehydrated. Even my lips were kind of shriveled.

I increased my water intake and used olive oil on my face and lips, massaging it in and taking time with it. I began looking significantly more radiant, if at times a bit oily!

My hair needed brushing, and I ran my fingers through it, working out the tangles.

I became unkempt — a wild woman — when I was in the depths of despair. Now, I took time to shower, and wash and condition my hair. Little things are big things when you’ve been depressed.


I had to build myself anew, and I did. It took time.

I began eating chicken, leafy greens, and some fruit. While my post-surgery body was uncooperative with shedding weight, I would be healthy, as healthy as I could be.

I experimented with roasting vegetables and drizzling olive oil lightly over the top. My favorites are carrots and Brussels sprouts.

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And so it has been that, while I’m not quite my old self, I’m feeling better.

I’m taking time to take care of myself.

With improved health, I look better now too. I buy clothes that fit and wear turquoise earrings. I brush my hair.


In time, I may even fit into my skinny jeans again, but I’m not banking on that. It could happen, though. Health is everything, and I’ve mostly got that again.

At sixty-three, I’ve had some more attractive years, but I’m finding that the healthier I am, the less it matters. My happiness and health will carry me, but I work to maintain them as best I can. I try to be more gentle with myself these days.

And I’m still walking. That’s a win.

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Debra Groves Harman is a creative non-fiction memoirist who's been published in myriad magazines.