Consistently living in the past with a cancer diagnosis will never let you just enjoy the life of the present.
Dana Stewart was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2010 at the age of 32. She is the co-founder of a cancer survivorship organization called The Dragonfly Angel Society. She volunteers as an advocate and mentor, focusing on young adults surviving cancer. She enjoys writing about life as a cancer survivor, as well as connecting survivors to the resources, inspirations and stories that have helped her continue to live her best life, available at www.dragonflyangelsociety.com.
I am an expert on dwelling on the past, a place I can never change. I’m also really great at trying to control the future. All in all, I am good at obsessing over all things I can’t change. The issue at hand then becomes that I completely forget how to live in the present.
Let’s start with my cancer diagnosis. I was diagnosed seven years ago with breast cancer when I was 32 years old. It was the biggest shock of my life. I found the cancer by accident. I was diligent about self-exams, but this time around I found the lump when I had an itch on my breast.
Fast forward a few years into life as a cancer survivor. I was in a constant struggle with my fears and emotions. Every day I was living in the past, constantly thinking about my cancer diagnosis and what would have happened if I never felt that lump. Would I be alive? Would it have spread? Would the doctor have found it at my annual exam? The thoughts swirled constantly, which then lead me down a path of constant fear of the cancer returning. I would check my body every day for lumps reliving that diagnosis again and again, thinking that I had to be on the lookout for any future signs of cancer. It’s an agonizing way of going through life.
For me, living in the past seemed safer. I knew what to expect. People always say hindsight is 20/20. So, that’s how I lived. In the past, I knew all the answers and I knew how to prevent the bad stuff from happening. I also never had to face the present or the unknowns that are always lingering in the future. I never had to come to terms with what happened to me because I was always living in the past as the victim. The problem with this is the same – I never came to terms with what happened to me and what I lost. I also had no joy or happiness. Everything was too scary to face.
It took a long time to see this alternate reality was no way to live. I started reading about different techniques and therapies to help someone who has faced a traumatic experience. One of the keys is exposure and bringing yourself face-to-face with what you fear most. For me, it was the cancer diagnosis of the past. It was time to face that head-on and begin to mourn the things I had lost. Mind you, this happened four years after I was diagnosed. Some people can do it right away, and some can’t. I was the latter, so if this is you, don’t be too hard on yourself or compare yourself to others going through the same thing. It may just take you longer to come to terms with the cancer.
I started writing a lot of my thoughts and memories from my cancer diagnosis down. The goal was to be as detailed as possible – to remember every sight, smell and feeling. I had to bring that detail to life once again, to see it and face it head-on. This was hard and took a long time. I needed to see that cancer diagnosis as it was. I needed to connect with it as something that had happened, but had happened in the past. It was not something I was facing today. I practiced this for quite some time and it was extremely hard. Slowly but surely, I was finding that I could sit in the same room with the cancer fears and not have to constantly feel around for the lumps I figured everyone else was missing. I was learning to be able to enjoy a day without the worries that the other shoe would drop and cancer would just pop up out of nowhere as it had done before. I started to remember what it was like to just be defined as a person enjoying the day as opposed to being labeled as a cancer survivor constantly living in fear. Day by day I began to understand what it was like to just live in the present. It was terrifying and liberating all the same.
But I have not forgotten how scary the diagnosis was and I am still diligent about listening to my body. I still have fears, and sometimes I still live like I am in the past facing my cancer all over again. As for the future, I sometimes still wish someone could just tell me what will happen. Will the cancer come back, and if so, when? Wouldn’t it just be easier to know? However, all in all, I try to ground myself in the present and just enjoy what is happening today. The past is the past and the unknowns of the future will always be there.