Cancer treatments create a massive physical struggle and a daily fight for survival. Constant medical scrutiny leads to insecurity. Treatments strip take away strength both physical and mental. Then one day, my last treatment is done and it hits me: What comes next? Is the cancer gone? How will I know? Isn’t there anything else that can be done? Where do I go from here? The season after treatment is very difficult, filled with emotional instability, questions, fear, and uncertainty.
Unfortunately, for many of us, once treatments are complete, we enter a season of feeling stuck in a post-treatment anxiety. There are many fears and unanswered questions. These thoughts fill us with a new type of need but they are needs that cannot be easily revealed nor clearly communicated. How do I start again? Has everyone already forgotten that I had cancer? How will I pay for these past two years? How long before this all begins again? What is this pain in my side? On and on the questions roll, controlling our emotions and crushing our ability to thrive.
In this emotional process of beginning again, the question ‘Who am I?’ emerges. This question might seem trite, but in this season of significant change, it deserves proper attention before we are able to heal emotionally.
Before cancer, I would have described myself as a confident, centered person on the best path for my life. Then my life stopped. I was stripped of my confidence and my path. I was left with nothing but the question, ‘Who am I?’. All of the adjectives I would have used to answer the question before cancer, no longer apply. At the same time, I came face to face with new truths about myself. Before cancer I would have stated with confidence “I am more than my circumstances”, yet when terrible circumstances, came my way, I was left changed and shaken. Before cancer I would never have thought, ‘I am defined by my physical appearance,’ yet when my hair fell out and my eyebrows and eyelashes gone, I truly struggled to find myself, in the mirror or otherwise.
Cancer’s impact on my self-image showed me that I have a lot of room for growth.
The truth is that I am more complex than I will ever know. There are pieces of myself that I put on, and bring forward daily for all to see. There are parts I do not even want to show myself.
Upon honest examination, there are an unknown number of layers that make up who I am. Each significant story in my life created a layer. Some layers happen to fall on the surface and receive the spotlight while others lay hidden despite their significant value.
One exercise for escaping a post-treatment anxiety, is to take time to find an honest answer to the question “Who was I?” and the follow up question “Who do I want to be?”.
These are not easy questions to resolve. I am fractured. I am different at work than at home. My ideal “me” is different than who I am everyday. There are many versions and many visions of myself. Fortunately, this complexity provides opportunity for who I can become.
Cancer took at least one version of me. It disappeared and was left in my past. As treatments end, it is important for me to take time to mourn for that version of me. I have spoken to survivors who wrestle with picking up the pieces in order to put that old “self” back together, with minimal success. I feel we must be reminded that whatever picture of self that was lost during cancer is not the only version of you. Perhaps it is not even be the best version of you.
Cancer stripped me of both good and bad, but I have the ability to rebuild. I have the power to recreate myself not as who I was, but who I want to be. I have the opportunity to minimize the negative aspects in my life and replace it with what I want to define my future.
Post-treatment is a unique moment of time to become whomever I want to be. It is a moment of vulnerability and rawness. A moment when I am not healed but I have moved beyond the sickness. There is stillness, as the routines of life have not swept in, but there is also churning within my thoughts. My old expectations are gone along with many of my fears. So what do I want for myself now? Post-treatment is a season of freedom. Freedom is a gift that is both liberating and terrifying, and beginning again requires significant courage.
So let us fortify ourselves as we consider who we are.
As a cancer survivors, we have accomplished an impossible task. There was something in our life, in our body, trying to kill us.
You made difficult decisions, that only you could make. Perhaps when you received the diagnosis, there was no question that you would proceed with treatment or perhaps you struggled with where to begin. Either way, it requires significant courage to willingly submit yourself to chemo, radiation and surgery. Once treatment begins, it requires more and more courage to continue through the process. The night before a scheduled chemo is filled with choices. Can I handle another treatment? Do I want what tomorrow will bring? Then despite the knowledge of what is to come, you moved forward, pushing through treatments and in the end accomplishing impossible things. You pushed back a disease that wanted to kill you. You beat the odds. You are triumphant. You are fierce. You are strong. You may not feel it today, but it is there inside of you. If you choose to own this piece of your new self it can monumentally change how you answer, “Who do I want to be?”.
I am choosing to embrace the strengths cancer revealed and I have placed this strength on the surface of my new identity. I consider this a gift of cancer. Before cancer I would never have described myself as fierce, but now, if I am honest, I know that inside of me is a strength that will rise against any challenge in my life. I can face any impossibility with confidence. I have done impossible things, I can do it again. I have pushed through crippling fear, I can do it again. I have submitted all that I am in order to accomplish a goal, I can do it again. I am driven by a deep unshakable confidence and courage that I never experienced before cancer. As I learn to walk in this new strength, I become more and more thankful for my cancer experience.
So, who am I? I was changed by cancer that is true, but how I was changed plays an important role in my future. The presence of cancer in my life did not change me, there were months or possibly years when I had cancer in my body and I was unaware. My life began to change because of what I chose to believe about myself and others after I heard the words, “You have breast cancer.” Through treatments, did I believe I was all alone in my fight or that I was surrounded by a community? As a survivor do I believe I have overcome cancer or I only have a few years before the fight begins again? It is what I choose to believe that changes me, not the cancer itself.
Cancer provides a platform for deep reflection. It showed me what was already inside of me. It revealed my insecurities and fears. I cannot blame cancer for the baggage that was already present in my life, just as I cannot blame cancer for who I am. Cancer taught me many things, and helped me take an honest look into the layers of who I am. Now, what I choose to place on the surface, for all to see, is different than before. Now the characteristics I simply did not acknowledge before, I choose to embrace. Who I am after cancer is not a puzzle needing to be put together in the correct way, but rather is one layer upon the next. Like the layers of the Earth, each layer tells a story. Each story cannot stand alone for they are all interconnected and require each other for a true understanding of all that I am. My cancer experience, has become a layer in my life. A layer that tells a new story of who I am. Cancer is only one layer though, what I do with that part of my story, is up to me.