Life doesn’t just go back to normal the day after treatment ends. Here are some of the ways breast cancer continued to affect me — and how I eventually found gratitude.
Cancer changed me. There hasn’t been a day since my diagnosis that it hasn’t crossed my mind in one capacity or another.
I often find my mind wandering back to treatment or to all the what-ifs. I picture the faces of the men and women I grew to love that are no longer here with me, and it’s easy to become overwhelmed or wonder why I made it through, and they didn’t.
I think it’s completely normal during treatment to imagine yourself getting better and then just leaving cancer in the past once you do. Unfortunately, we find out all too often that’s just not the case.
Cancer will revisit you time and time again, even if you do win your battle, but it isn’t always in the most obvious ways. As I approach the 4-year mark of my mastectomy, I can’t help but think of it more often, but ultimately, I’m just happy to be here to celebrate life and existence. Here are some of the things I wish I knew about life after cancer.
When I was diagnosed, I was 33 and a mother of 2. I was a newlywed living in sunny California and looking forward to many things. My diagnosis was hard, and treatment was harder, but I beat it with positivity and a whole lot of chemotherapy.
Once I rang that bell and celebrated being “no evidence of disease,” I started laying out a new roadmap of where I wanted my life to go. I thought I’d hit the ground running, but no one told me how much harder cancer would be for me when I didn’t have it in my body any longer.
My mind feared everything. I feared metastasis, I was scared of even the thought of pain, and mostly, I didn’t know how to be the old me before I got sick. I wanted the social girl who loved life and wanted adventure, and what I was left with was a shell of that person who sought the 4 walls of our home and no further.
I feared metastasis, I was scared of even the thought of pain, and mostly, I didn’t know how to be the old me before I got sick.
No one told me how tired my body was going to continue to be for months after treatment. They didn’t tell me how horrible I’d feel taking routine maintenance drugs like tamoxifen.
No one told me about the mental strain cancer leaves behind, that I had to form a new me because the old me didn’t exist anymore. I felt like a Taylor Swift song in real life, and it terrified me.
So, I sought a counselor that specializes in therapy for women who went through treatment, and she led me to a group of extraordinary women who understood. Group and individual therapy were incredibly helpful in getting me to understand that it’s normal to feel out of place in your new body. It’s something I highly suggest everyone tries. Therapy is awesome.
After focusing on getting my mind back on track, I had to reenter life. To be honest, this was very hard for me. If I had lost a leg, others would be able to observe that and possibly understand if I had a setback where I couldn’t be at 100%.
With the loss of my breasts, something that’s invisible under my clothing, many assumed that having cancer was a slight setback and that I should now be completely back to normal. But I was far from being my normal self, and it was even harder to let those around me know that I wasn’t OK.
Then COVID happened, and things got even weirder. Learning to ask for help became easier and easier as my body healed. But voicing my concerns or my limits was up to me, and it took courage.
It’s completely OK not to be OK. Cancer is an all-encompassing illness, and it reaches every aspect of your life. It’s OK if restructuring needs to be done afterward.
Knowing that others assume you’re fine when you’re not is only half the battle, though. The biggest battle is learning to love yourself in the chaos.
Learning to love myself after cancer was by far the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and I have been in combat zones. I had to sit with myself in the mirror and do some hard searching.
Learning to ask for help became easier and easier as my body healed. But voicing my concerns or my limits was up to me, and it took courage.
What did I want with this second chance at life? What was my plan to get it? Who was still on my team — and did my team still believe in me?
Learning to live with a body I didn’t expect or ask for was hard, but knowing that it kept me alive was the first step to being OK with it. I looked at every scar and learned to be thankful.
A lot of things feel really heavy after cancer, but the will to live and just being thankful to be here are the things that aren’t expressed enough. Life hurts, and it throws curve balls. It’ll knock you down time and time again, but it’s beautiful.
One thing no one told me, and I never expected to know, is that, eventually, you’ll be grateful such a trial was set on your path. Without it, you wouldn’t be able to breathe in the air or listen to the sound of traffic and just be happy you’re here to experience it. I’m just so happy to be here, and I’m happy you are too.
Medically reviewed on March 27, 2023
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