Who Am I Now After Cancer?

After a time, writing about it has become cathartic. Healing, as if putting my experiences into words on a page somehow manages to diminish the toxicity of the disease. Though recently, I found myself with a case of writer’s block. What else could I possibly say about it? I felt almost like I had said it all, which is quite obviously a ridiculous assertion. But I still stared at a blank page, waiting for inspiration to hit. Spoiler: it didn’t magically appear out of thin air. It came in the form of a gentle nudge – a writing prompt from a fellow cancer survivor who now is a professional writer, publisher, podcaster, and someone who specializes in getting people to tell their own stories.

Countless people have chronicled their experiences with cancer. The testing, the diagnosis, the treatment, the prognosis. Eventually, at the end of an arduous journey, the fortunate ones can say that they are able to move on with their lives beyond cancer. But there is an undeniable effect that cancer has on the trajectory of a person’s life – and who they become afterward. This simple prompt made me take stock of how my life has unfolded, even five years after my own diagnosis.

Who am I now, after cancer?

I am more patient, with others but also with myself. Learning to give myself grace when my body (or my emotional state) was not cooperating with whatever it was I wanted to accomplish at the time may have been a difficult lesson, but it also allowed for a deeper appreciation for small accomplishments and the development of true empathy toward others who may be experiencing these same struggles.

I am more appreciative of so many things. There’s the obvious, such as life and health. The opportunity to spend time with loved ones and to achieve more of my goals. But there are also less obvious things that I have also found that I have appreciation for. The ability to walk into the clinic – the very place where I was told that I had cancer – and not panic or catastrophize (believe me, this was a very hard-fought accomplishment). Or being willing to let go of “the little things” that I previously had trouble releasing, whereas now it is almost a relief to not spend emotional bandwidth on what I now realize are unnecessary stresses.

I am a member of the cancer survivor and cancer support communities. It is understandable that many people want to “move on” after cancer and leave behind the daily reminders of this experience. Attendance at cancer support groups slowly wanes, and over time people find that their thoughts are no longer consumed by cancer. Many people opt to focus on other priorities and truly leave cancer behind. But for those of us who stay, who choose to continue to work or volunteer in the cancer space, we come to realize that it is a privilege to be able to light the path for someone else who comes after us – that we might have some wisdom to impart to ease someone else’s burden just a little bit.

I am more vulnerable, and that’s OK. This entire experience has imparted a forced physical and emotional deconstruction followed by a rebirth of sorts, which I have gradually learned to accept as part of a new, wiser persona that has developed and replaced the previous version of myself. Springing from this vulnerability was a new and unexpected fortitude that I never saw coming, nor did I ever imagine that it would be necessary.

I am more resilient and more reflective now, after cancer. Learning to accept that life is going to serve up some curveballs was a somewhat bitter pill to swallow, but it also generated the ability to pause and allow perspective to percolate into my outlook on most everything now.

Looking back on my personal evolution, at times I am still astonished. And I am certain that this version of myself only exists because of the lessons that cancer has imparted along the way.

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