We all know that going through the diagnosis and treatment of cancer changes you forever. Our bodies, minds and psyches are irreparably scarred in ways it takes years to understand. We’ve lost jobs we loved and friends we thought loved us. All those things that defined us pre-cancer get shaken up and resettle like bits of glass in a kaleidoscope.
For me, the turmoil of cancer begged the question, “Who am I now? Physically, I was being whittled away. First, by the stereotactic biopsy which put a small divot in my breast. Then came the surgical biopsy, which left an angry, black scar circling my nipple. The mastectomy removed the nipple completely. The TRAM flap reconstruction resulted in a scar from hip to hip. Just for fun, my belly button was moved and rebuilt. A second surgery gave me a faux nipple and more scars on my healthy breast.
Although I looked like a complete mess, I didn’t dwell on feeling less feminine or sexy. No, it was much worse than that. I dwelled on feeling less “me.” For 50 years, I had a body that was familiar and mine. Now I watched helplessly as a disease broke it down and a plastic surgeon reconstructed it. I looked in the mirror without any connection to the image looking back.
And the emotional changes! Beyond body image, there is cancer anger, stress, and loneliness. I battled back by showing up every week to talk to an oncology therapist. I started therapy a few weeks after my mastectomy, when I still couldn’t drive and had to ask for rides to the cancer center. I thought at the time that I was stuck on the “Who am I now?” question. But, it turns out that just showing up week after week was the action necessary to begin answering the question.
I’m still working on who I am now beyond cancer. But, I now know that the answers I’ve received have come through action. And what does action have to do with mindfulness? If you are mindfully living in the moment, you know what you need to do. Lying in my hospital bed just two days after my mastectomy, I was very much in the moment when I learned about the oncology therapy offered by my cancer center. I remember immediately feeling as if I had been thrown a lifeline and all I wanted to do was reach out and grab it.
As a result of my commitment to oncology therapy, I eventually got more active in rehabilitative exercise, support groups, the Pathways Women’s Teaching Project and, ultimately, creating WWGN. Have you taken action after your diagnosis and treatment that has defined your new life beyond cancer?
Survival > Existence,
Image Courtesy of Bill Richards