Feeling violated and betrayed by your own body is a normal side effect of a cancer diagnosis and treatment. As physical and emotional scars slowly start to heal, we strive to learn how to love ourselves again. This task may seem daunting and you may feel alone at times, but I promise you that many women feel this way. The path towards healing seems endless as we try to navigate our new bodies and piece ourselves back together.
Whilst in treatment, my body and mind were in survival mode. I didn’t have time to stop and contemplate the hormonal, surgical, mental and emotional changes I was going through because I was constantly focused on the next thing I had to do in order to save my life. Once treatment was over, people stopped checking in and doctor appointments died down and suddenly all I had was time. Time to stop and think about how challenging and morbid it was to have been faced with my own mortality.
When I looked in the mirror, I didn’t recognize the girl looking back at me anymore. She seemed like a stranger. The girl had wildly curly hair, (thanks chemo curls) her chest and abdomen riddled with scars, her petite frame was thin and frail, and her eyes looked tired. I thought to myself, Holy crap girl…what have you just been through? In my head when I thought of living without cancer, I thought I would be back to the old me– everything would just go back to “normal.” That wasn’t the case.
I was angry. I almost died. I was practically poisoned. I was given second degree burns ON PURPOSE! I lost my hair, boobs, and ovaries. I lost my ability to conceive. My brain is basically equivalent to Dori in Finding Nemo and instead of toting my once curvy body, I now have the body of a 3rd grade boy. I found myself struggling to connect with people my own age and who weren’t survivors themselves. It felt like cancer thrusted me forward a few years psychologically and emotionally.
I felt isolated. Like, for the first time in my life, I was really on my own, forced to navigate my own journey towards healing alone. No one could do the work for me, I had to do the work for myself. Instead of being blinded by rage for what cancer had taken from me, I would look for the gifts that cancer had given me. It was time to focus on myself and learn to love myself again — because if you don’t love yourself, then how could someone else? If I wanted to truly heal and start living, I had to make some changes.
The first thing my husband said to me after I was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer was to quit my job. I had been teaching for 13 years and was burned out. I have no doubt in my mind that the constant state of stress that I was under for so long, coupled with the fear of never being good enough, contributed to my first and second breast cancer diagnosis. I had the very rare and wonderful opportunity to find my passion and purpose in life. Old Sammie would have stayed in a job she hated in a constant state of anxiety and fear. New Sammie was finally able to use her skills to actually make a difference in the world and help others. She works at her own pace and knows her worth.
I knew that if I were to have any shred of a possibility of living a somewhat normal and happy life, then I was going to have to change the way I viewed cancer. The word “cancer” is terrifying. However, the word “illness” is much less scary. Instead of telling myself and others that I have cancer, I say that I have a chronic illness. The chemo pills I take are not much different than a person taking medicine for their diabetes or rheumatoid arthritis. I also realized it wasn’t productive to think about when the cancer is going to take over my organs and kill me. Everyone’s got a date with Mr. Grim Reaper, mine just might be sooner than others. I promise that fears about “death” do start to go away with time. The powers of mantras and meditation can go a long way. I put my energy into practicing gratitude and self-care. I give myself permission to feel ALL my feelings whether they be good or bad. As a recovering control freak, I am slowly learning to focus on the things I can control.
Cancer treatment as well as the plethora of surgeries my body has been through have really taken a toll on my body. The most obvious area of my body that has changed is my chest. Before cancer I had dense D-cup boobs. After my bilateral mastectomy I have B-cup foobs and numerous scars from complications after surgery. Another big change is being forced into surgical menopause. I am going to be really honest here and tell you that I continue to struggle with menopausal symptoms today but I have found a few things that help ease some of the symptoms like depression, vaginal dryness, sleep problems, weight gain, fatigue, and hot flashes. I have changed to a plant-based diet and cut back on alcohol, sugar and fried food. Since I get tired very easily now, I plan my days and make sure I get a ton of rest before any activity or event that I have committed to. I am on a sleep schedule where I try to go to sleep every night at the same time and wake up every morning at the same time. Not only has this done wonders for sleep, but also helps remind me to take my morning and evening pills.
The end of treatment can be a time to look forward to the future. New rituals and new beginnings can bring a sense of relief and joy. Many people with cancer describe their experience as a journey. Although not a journey they would have chosen for themselves, survivorship is all about getting to know the “new you”. Every day that passes is another opportunity to find something else I love about myself.