Six tools you need to reinvent yourself beyond cancer


Debbie Woodbury

"Life isn't about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself." George Bernard Shaw

When cancer happens to us it's common to feel completely out of control. We go from our "normal" lives to something we reluctantly call the "new normal." The problem is that it doesn't feel normal at all because we are changed suddenly and forever.

I got a glimpse into the emotional trauma caused by sudden, catastrophic change as a trial attorney. Almost every accident victim I spoke with was overwhelmed by it, "I was going along fine and, all of a sudden, my entire life changed completely in a split second." I didn't relate then, but years later when I heard "You have cancer," I completely got it.

In truth, we feel out of control as we rocket through the diagnostic and treatment phases of cancer because we have little control. This is the nature of the beast. For the first six and a half months of my cancer journey (from mammogram to mastectomy), I white knuckled every decision, test, doctor's appointment and surgery.

It was only after my mastectomy that things began to slow down enough for me to begin the clean-up work that follows every emotional hurricane. For me, healing required accepting change and working through issues such as body image, mortality, stress, loss, loneliness and anger. As I did so I discovered the creative power of reinventing myself.

Although I had no control over the many sudden, traumatic changes cancer dealt me, when it comes to reinventing me, I have a lot of input. I can find little ways every day to live with mindful awareness. I can practice yoga and let uplifted feet lead to an uplifted heart. I can make small, healthy changes in my diet. I can savor moments of gratitude and cherish every opportunity to give back.

The following are the six tools you need to find your creative power of reinvention:

1. Resilience: The reason we're all still here and upright is because we're resilient. Nurture your resilience on a daily basis. (Read "Six Truths I've Learned About Resilience.")

2. Grief: No one gets hit by a bus and reinvents herself the next day. Grieving is the process of coming to accept the "new normal." It's painful, but it's a vital step in reinventing yourself.

3. Gratitude: I firmly believe that gratitude is the single most important building block of reinvention. Without gratitude, there is no hope. With gratitude, anything is possible because we know how very blessed we truly already are.

4. Support: Speak up, tell your story, share! If you want to find support you have to communicate. The beauty of finding others who "get it" is the strength they give you to reinvent yourself.

5. Small Successes: Make small stabs at reinvention to achieve small successes. As you do, you get bolder and can stomach more risk. You can do it!

6. Carefully Chosen Words: Reinvention is self-inflicted change and change is scary. That's why, even when you're excited to reinvent yourself, you're also anxious. Instead of scaring yourself unnecessarily, why not change your words and thus your approach. If you break out in a sweat every time you say, "I'm going back to work," try saying, "I'm excited to find new opportunities to (fill in the blank.)"

Reinvention also takes time and, most importantly, permission. We can reinvent ourselves and take back control over the "new normal." We can take what we've learned from our struggles and use our creative power to reinvent ourselves. When we decide "WhereWeGoNow," our reinvented selves create inspired healing, wellness and live out loud joy!

Debbie Woodbury is the author and founder of WhereWeGoNow, an interactive community for cancer survivors creating inspired healing, wellness and live out loud joy. Debbie is a blogger at The Huffington Post, an inspirational speaker, a support volunteer with The Cancer Hope Network, a member of the Carol G. Simon Cancer Center Oncology Community Advisory Board, a patient educator with the Pathways Women's Cancer Teaching Project, a wife and mother, and a former very stressed out lawyer. You can also find Debbie on Twitter and Facebook.



Very insightful post, Debbie. Thank you for providing valuable advice for dealing with cancer. I wish this post existed when I was first diagnosed.
- Posted by Beth Gainer 5/7/13 12:47 AM

Hi Beth:

Thanks for joining me here at Cure! I wish I knew then what I know now too. We're all living and learning as best we can, day by day. Glad we're doing it together. Stay well.

- Posted by Debbie 5/7/13 8:12 AM

Great post, Debbie. I think reinvention is important after wading through cancer sludge. In a way, I feel, reinvention is about reconnection to ourselves - that sense of self which is so threatened by the experience. Your steps are big parts of reinventing and reconnecting. ~Catherine
- Posted by 5/8/13 10:29 AM

Hi Catherine:

"Cancer sludge" Wow, that really says it all! It definitely takes reconnecting to ourselves to wade through it. For me, that required a conscious decision to creatively reinvent myself. Thanks so much for commenting on my post.

- Posted by Debbie 5/8/13 11:09 AM

Wonderful thoughts to strengthen and support.My wife passed away 1 year ago.This was her life for 3 1/2 years,it was important for her to talk about her life and fight. Gratitude and hope is part of her and became sincere compassion for other, she was saintlike. Your voice will help others in their new normal.
- Posted by Mithc Wellsteed 5/8/13 4:50 PM


Thank you so much for your kinds words. I wish I had known your wife, she sounds like an amazing woman. By sharing her story, you're also helping others and I'm sure your wife would be very proud of you and her legacy. Thank you again.

- Posted by Debbie 5/8/13 5:42 PM

Gratitude for what? I sure hope you don't mean for having had cancer... because in my personal opinion that is one of the bigger lines of crap fed cancer patients - that we somehow need to feel grateful. I am grateful there are treatments, however I will never be grateful my life was turned upside down by cancer.
- Posted by Liz 5/17/13 1:24 PM

Cancer patients are not the only ones who need to read this. I have cortico-basal syndrome and this fits me too. I need to reinvent myself. I am a shadow of my former self. Few people understand this.
- Posted by Lana Schelkun 5/20/13 8:29 AM

Although i think this is post and agree that all six tools have been part of what's gotten me from dx and through treatment to the other side, I also think we have to be very careful about being prescriptive about what people need.

As we all know, cancer can be vastly different for different people and so too, can their experiences and thus what tools they need to process it.
Thanks for sharing,
- Posted by Michael 5/21/13 3:14 AM

I appreciate this post. I had not thought of reinventing myself but when I stop and think I realize that I have. I am a more gentle person, no need to argue or feel that I have to be right like I used to. People have to live their lives as they see fit, right or wrong in our eyes. I have a cancer that there is no remission for. Perpetual chemo is what keeps me going and yes for that I am GRATEFUL. Yes my world has been altered but so have I and as far as I am concerned it is for the better. I have found renewed love with my husband of 34 years when we were on the verge of not being together. I have changed who I was to someone I now love. Never loved myself before. Thank you for this article
- Posted by mary 5/21/13 4:44 AM

Thank you all for your thoughtful comments. I can't speak for anyone else, but when I talk about gratitude I never mean to suggest that anyone feel grateful for a cancer diagnosis. Instead, I refer to the overwhelming gratitude I felt for the support of family, friends and medical professionals, because I could not have healed without it. Like Mary, I am referring also to the reinvention that has made my life richer. I also agree with Michael that no size fits all when it comes to doing cancer. I only hope my list inspires other survivors, like Lana, to move forward with their own reinvention. Like Liz, we've all had our lives turned upside down by cancer. As survivors of any traumatic illness, we're doing our best to get through each day and I'm grateful we can share our stories.

- Posted by Debbie 5/21/13 8:02 AM

Thanks Debbie for mentioning the grieving process. In coming to terms with my diagnosis of stage 4 breast cancer, I have not allowed myself to sufficiently grieve. Instead I forced myself to be overly calm,very practical, and overly concerned with my work related responsibilities. People commented on how "great" I seemed to be doing. What I haven't fully allowed myself to do, however, is grieve. As you mentioned, it is a process necessary for accepting the new normal and that it doesn't happen overnight. I don't think I could have identified the feeling if I didn't see it in your blog. You really hit the nail on the head and I actually feel better and more accepting of my inner sadness. It gives me permission to not have to be overly cheery and deny my inner turmoil and anxiety. I hope to re-build and re-invent myself as time goes on. As mentioned, I have been very cerebral about this whole thing, but have wondered why I couldn't calm down even after taking a few mild tranquilizers.
- Posted by Dianne 6/17/13 11:02 PM


Thank you so much for letting me know my post helped you recognize your grief. You sound like a strong woman who can handle your grief, on both a cerebral and emotional level. I'm a big believer in owning all of our cancer-related emotions, because that is how I found healing. I wrote more about sharing the "inner sadness," or what I call my "bad attitude" on my website here:

Take good care and I support your right not to be cheery all the time! Keep recognizing and sharing your emotions and you will re-build and re-invent!

- Posted by Debbie 6/18/13 11:09 AM


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