I was having dinner with a dear group of friends this week. We all met in a breast cancer support group, and though we have all moved on and don’t attend the group anymore, we get together as much as we can to reconnect, catch up, and of course talk cancer. Finding these people had a huge impact on my healing, which I’ve written about before (check out that entry here), and whenever I see them, I am reminded of how important it is to have a group of people you can turn to who just get it in a way that no one else really can.
One of these ladies is approaching the end of her active treatment. Like me, she has been on Herceptin for the last year, so treatment has been quite long. She is facing the weirdest dichotomy of emotions: happiness at being done treatment but fear over the start of this next new chapter and the end of reassuring trips to the cancer center. I remember the feeling well. At dinner, she asked us if we had experienced a loss of identity and an unpredictable ebb and flow of emotions. The answer was a resounding YES. If this is where you are at, it is entirely normal.
Her question got me thinking about our sense of identity and how cancer affects it. Before cancer, it wasn’t something that I had even considered as a possible part of the cancer journey, and it’s not really something that gets talked about all that much. But a diagnosis and everything that comes with it really does affect this level of our being, and those effects in turn can impact our mental and emotional wellbeing.
The first effect I remember was when I started telling people who were outside of my closest family. I was so upset at the thought that instead of the young, vibrant, happy person I was, these people were now going to see me as a cancer patient above anything else. It was the first time I realized I was grieving the loss of who I used to be, who I wanted to be again, the life I had and wished I could go back to if I could only erase my diagnosis. That’s the first hit our identity takes; it gets lost in the sea of appointments and expressions of pity, the questions of “How are you, really?”.
Then a period of adjustment comes. You kind of get used to the chaos of cancer, and you start to identify with “cancer patient”. You get to know your oncology team, you work on healing what’s gone wrong and, if you are like me, you learn and implement as much as you can on your own too. You feel a sense of reassurance when you go to see your doctors or receive a treatment because it means you are doing everything you can to fight this and, quite honestly, these things fit with your new identity of “patient”. However difficult and unpleasant it all may be, this is what you are supposed to be doing, what a cancer patient is supposed to be doing. You adjust to this new normal and it becomes routine. It’s incredible just how much a person can get used to if necessary. And somewhere along the way, it all becomes absorbed into this new identity.
And then you reach the point I did last year, the point my friend is at now. Active treatment is done and the appointments stop. If you are doing alternative treatments as well, you go down to maintenance doses and you decrease the supplements you are taking. You continue, hopefully, with the diet and lifestyle changes you made, but on the whole, people expect you to go back to normal, to your old self. But the problem is that identity, the one that got lost in the beginning, it’s lost forever. Because cancer doesn’t end when treatment does, when you are declared cancer free. Its shadow will continue to cast darkness on your life, for the rest of your life. With time it decreases, but it never quite goes away entirely. You have a new normal to adjust to, and it requires a new identity. You aren’t who you used to be and you aren’t a cancer patient anymore; so, who are you?
The road to figuring out who you are now is going to look different for everyone, and it’s an ongoing process. I’m still in the midst of establishing and exploring my new post-cancer self. Some people will struggle to find themselves in their new life, while for others it may come more easily. What I encourage everyone across the board to do is to find something that allows you to search for and explore these new depths within you. It might be meditation or journaling, talking it out with your partner or a friend, finding new hobbies and passions or rediscovering old ones. You might find creating art helpful or writing poetry, or you might find guidance in a beloved author or speaker. I personally found a book by Brené Brown (“The Gifts of Imperfection”), writing this blog, and getting back into theatre to be the most helpful in my own discoveries and explorations (for more on this process, see my 3-part blog series called “We Are Worthy”).
What I also realized was that who I am now, my new identity, wasn’t really new at all; it’s always been there, it’s who I’ve always been, I was just letting fears and insecurities and self-judgement get in the way of me becoming that person before cancer. Cancer showed me how strong I am, how difficult but beautiful life is, and how to appreciate all of it more. It has made me happier and more content with my life. It was a catalyst for self-acceptance and dream chasing, which have both led to positive growth and me really becoming the best version of myself to date. I am, as the kids say, living my best life. And the discovery of myself, my identity post-cancer, has hugely contributed to that living.
I humbly recognize that this will not be as easy a process for some. It can be painful and difficult to look at things like our insecurities and fears, and even more so to dig for their roots. You may find that you need professional help to find who you are now and get to know and love that person. It is normal to grieve for the person you used to be, and you may need guidance through that process as well. But as a starting place, just recognize that you are a different person now after cancer and that it is totally normal and okay. Start accepting this new self by finding good ways you or your life have changed, and then start getting to know this new self through one of the tools I suggested above with self-love and no judgement of what you discover. The key is loving and accepting whoever it is you find, imperfections and all. There is no right way to do this and no wrong way; it’s all good 😊 Be patient with and kind to yourself as you walk through this. And if you do decide to seek professional help with this, do so without shame. There is nothing wrong with reaching for a helping hand from someone who can make the process easier and more meaningful.
I wish you strength as you embark on this exploration and hope that you are able to discover the new, amazing person you have become with as much ease as possible. You are not alone. Reach out in the comments section below or in the Facebook group if you want some encouragement and support! We’re always here.
Happy Healing ❤️
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