Identity After Cancer

Last weekend I took my daughter for a lunch date at a local cafe, and I found myself transfixed by a waitress’ breasts. I fully recognize this sounds weird, and I’m not even going to attempt to defend it — it is super weird.

This woman was relatively small with an enormous bust. I realized after a few minutes of side-eyeing her, that I was transfixed in part because I think I might have looked like her. You know, before cancer. It made me realize why people (mostly men) used to stare at me before.

Treatment seems to affect most of us the same way. We lose our hair, our muscle mass, and any preoccupation with the mundane. Our bodies inflate from the steroids and then the inactivity.

When I meet other “cancer friends,” they are post diagnosis. Some are post treatment. I know these women’s hearts. I know them. But I know the post-cancer them. When I see photos of them on Facebook from before cancer, they have long hair and are thinner, and are sometimes rock climbing or bungee jumping or doing something they sure as hell don’t do anymore. So do I really know them?

I moved to a new city after my treatment, so I’ve met a lot of people who only know the After Cancer me. These people know the person I have become. Emotionally I am stronger, wiser, and have a laser-focus on what matters to me.

But my body doesn’t feel like it’s my own. It is a stranger. It’s a soft-in-all-the-wrong-places, weak, and sometimes scary place to live. I don’t know what I’m able to do anymore, physically. I worry about my aches and pains, unsure of what their cause is. I’ve had my hip and my chest x-rayed, worried that prolonged pain meant a distant recurrence to my bones or lungs.

When I meet people now, I can choose to tell them that I had cancer or I can hide it. If I tell them, most won’t have a clue what I’ve been through or how it’s affected me. Some get super awkward, because I’ve just dropped an unexpected emotional bomb and they don’t quite know what to say. If I hide it, I hide a huge portion of what makes me, me. And it makes it seem like this body and this hairstyle are what I’ve chosen to define me. Like I’m the type of woman who gets a short haircut, when in reality I do not have the cajones to do that.

I had dinner with a group of girlfriends the other night. I met these wonderful women through Charlie’s preschool. They knew me before cancer, supported me through treatment, and know me now. I felt seen. These women don’t treat me any differently than they ever have – though I do get the sense that they are perhaps extra thankful that I’m sitting at that table with them – and for that I am grateful. They know my whole story, and honest-to-god, I feel they know me.

Identity after cancer is a weird, murky thing. It’s sort of like going through adolescence and having to figure out who you are all over again (but without the seventh grade bullies, whew). I’ve been feeling more like myself lately, which I attribute to two really superficial things and one really deep thing.

The two superficial things are this: 1) I got my eyebrows microbladed (permanent makeup). My eyebrows never came back after chemo, and I woke up every morning looking like a cancer patient. This is one of the best things I could have done for myself, because I finally recognize myself in the mirror again. And 2) I got a new office job that gives me a reason to wear my cute clothes and jewelry again, which is fun and creative and me.

The one deep thing is this: My new office job is not about cancer. My new office job is creative and fun and I am surrounded by passionate people who have nothing to do with cancer. It’s a job with deep meaning — feeding hungry people in five counties — and lots to be done. This means that on a daily basis, I am using my brain to do something fun instead of getting distracted by cancer. This new chapter made me remember myself again. And like my eyebrows, my new office job is one of the best things I could have done for myself.

The months after treatment are long and confusing. There’s nothing to focus on except what isn’t right: your brain is foggy, your chest is super weird looking, random body parts hurt, you’re exhausted, overweight, and have no idea which way is up. During treatment, you know exactly why you feel awful. After treatment, you wonder if you’re supposed to feel this awful, or something is wrong.

I am coming up on my two-year Cancerversary. I was diagnosed on July 14, 2017. I finished treatment April 27, 2018 — over a year ago. If someone had told me that it would take me a year to stop feeling flat-out awful, it would have depressed the hell out of me. I’m pretty sure the only thing worse would have been to say nothing and then send me back to work, which is exactly what they did.

Healing after cancer is a physical and emotional process, and it takes time. I’m still working on it, and I have down days — especially when I get morbid about my life expectancy — but I can see some light now. And for that, I am thankful.

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