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Who Am I After Cancer?

Discovering a new journey.

Key points

  • Cancer is a trauma, and there is an important period after cancer to accept the trauma.
  • One step to healing can come from finding community through a support group. 
  • Stress is considered the biggest enemy of happiness.
Source: Kie-Ker/Pixabay

When you walk into Cancer Support Community Los Angeles, you are greeted by a large wall of butterflies. Each one is preserved beautifully in a small glass box. They represent beauty and hope. When a caterpillar goes into the cocoon, much like a person newly diagnosed with cancer, it fears that its life could be ending. And yet, they emerge so much more beautiful on the other side.

The difference between the butterflies and those of us who survive cancer is that they don’t struggle with these questions: Why? What if? What now? All they know how to do is simply stop and smell the flowers. They allow their beautiful new identity to fly colorfully and joyfully for everyone to enjoy.

It’s not that easy for us humans. Cancer is a trauma.

Lynda Wolters says, “Everything changes with cancer—everything. Life will never be the same again. Even in the smallest of levels, something will be forever different. There is no going back to who you once were, so embrace it and grow from it and with it. Find the new you in the new space and make it wonderful.”

Making it wonderful is a process. There is an important period after cancer to accept the trauma. Our brains must allow time to embrace the PTSD. You can’t heal until you feel.

There are so many questions that need to be addressed.

  • Why did this happen to me?
  • Why did I survive when cancer kills so many?
  • What was this meant to teach me?
  • What will my life be like now?
  • What did I learn?

While we’re going through all the treatments, we have a plan, a direction, and a goal. We do what the doctors tell us, and we become somewhat comfortable in the discomfort of our routines.

Then life completely changes when the doctor says, “You’re fine now. You can go on with your life.” What life? Life as I knew it is gone.

Everyone else is so happy to hear the great news that the cancer has been conquered, leaving the patient feeling alone and confused. I have stated this so many times. For me, cancer was easier than "Now what?"

One of our first and most important steps is to process our grief. The losses are on many different levels.

  • Loss of our normal daily innocence.
  • Loss of life as we knew it.
  • Loss of some relationships. Those friends who disappeared.
  • Sometimes the loss of a part of our body.
  • Loss of identity.
  • Loss of confidence
  • And most importantly, as Elizabeth Harper Neeld says, loss of our assumed future.

It takes a while to work through these questions. Please allow yourself that time to embrace the new realities, always knowing that there is hope in the future. You can eventually turn your grief into glory. Your love, your strength, and your hope are in your soul. They are there. They were given to you at birth. Don’t ever lose confidence in them. Don’t let your mind, or another person, steal them from you. Sometimes it is our own brain that convinces itself that we no longer have hope or love.

Hope and love are always there.

The first important step to healing can come from a new community. Find a group that understands you. There are support groups all around the country that are formed for the exact reason to allow survivors to process their journeys.

The National Cancer Institute lists five huge advantages of joining a support group:

  • Feeling less isolated and judged.
  • Gaining a sense of empowerment and control.
  • Improving coping skills and sense of adjustment.
  • Talking openly and honestly about feelings.
  • Reducing stress, depression, anxiety, and fatigue.

There is also the incredible healing aspect of helping others. We begin to listen to our own voice when we hear it giving empathetic advice to others. Also be aware of what the world is telling you. Look for signs and signals that are telling you something. If an opportunity comes up that scares you, say yes. Explore new avenues.

Be aware of the words you use. We don’t remember incidents. We only remember the words we use to describe them. Eve Ensler, author of The Vagina Monologues, spoke at a Cancer Support Community luncheon. She told the audience that in one of her early chemotherapy treatments, she decided that she would imagine the chemo drugs burning away all the traumas in her life. She chose to change her perspective from “poison” to a beautiful medication to eradicate her horrible past. She soon started to look forward to her treatments because they brought her amazing peace. These medications gave her an entirely new outlook about her future.

Whatever words we use to describe our cancer journey and our open future, we will reframe our minds to only hear those words. “Cancer was a gift because it gave me the opportunity to ..." A total readjustment.

Another great lesson from the butterflies is about having fun and shining a new light on your own personal joy and on the world. Only you can define what the word “fun” means. Happiness is a personal choice. You can’t be told how to be happy. That is one of the six descriptions of happiness.

The second one is that happiness is not relative to the happiness of others. Don’t worry if your joy is making others happy.

Calmer people are happier. So relax and smile. You can’t be sad if you’re smiling.

Happiness can be generated through the expressions of positive emotions. Express gratitude. Make a list of things and people you love. Tell others that you love them. Tell yourself.

We get happier as we get older. People over 60 are happier. Women are generally happier than men, and parents are happier.

Lastly, stress is the biggest enemy of happiness. Stress is the feeling of lost control. Remember that control of your own personal life is your choice. Again, that’s both a blessing and a curse. Life is sometimes easier when the doctors are in control.

As you begin to heal and grow, allow your new hope to meet your new future. Remember that it is never too late to begin. In my next post, I will offer a list of questions that might help in your new exploration of a new future.