As someone who lost many loved ones to cancer, I always thought on some level I understood the struggle, both physical and emotional that they endured.
And then one day I got the diagnosis: invasive breast cancer. I was 49, a wife and mother to three young daughters. I quickly realized that I understood nothing about what my loved ones endured. I was scared not so much by the thought of a mastectomy and chemo, but about dying. I quickly went into survivor mode and almost existed outside myself. It felt like I watched myself make decisions about treatments, have surgery, go for chemotherapy and lose my hair.
Inside I was very fragile, but to my children and to my family I kept my chin up and sent the message that I was just fine. By the time 14 months of treatment were through, I was watching a woman I no longer recognized and could not bear to look at in the mirror. I was depressed (although at that time I could not put a name to it) and I could not imagine how I would ever feel good about myself again.
My husband kept saying, "It's over honey, now we can go back to normal and get our life back." What he did not realize is that even for those like me who are given the sweet news of remission, there is no going back to the way things were. I did not go through cancer treatment and remain the same person, and I don't know how anyone really could. Not only are you changed physically, but you are changed emotionally and mentally.
I found it was hard not to worry about the cancer returning, I did not know how to jump back into my life without having to go to the hospital every week, as that had become my "new normal" during treatment. I did not know how to make peace with the physical changes that had taken place. I had implants that felt cumbersome and left me with chills and spasms. I had gained weight from all the drugs, and I was left feeling like a shell of what I had been. I truly did not know how to be me anymore, and I struggled with all I believed I lost.
All of a sudden, I was not afraid to die— I was afraid I did not remember how to live. It took months for the cobwebs to clear my brain, for the chemotherapy toxins to really leave my body. Slowly, I realized that to truly be a survivor, I had to readjust my expectations of myself. I was not going to be the person I was before, I could not be—but I could be so much more. I had handled one of the most difficult experiences a person can go through, and I did not crumble. I called upon strength I did not know I had, and in that strength I found beauty in myself again.