Old Photos Give Cancer Survivors Snapshots of Their Former Selves

August 23, 2020

While it may seem beneficial to attach ourselves to the memories of our pre-cancer existence, it does little to help us focus on the here and now.

I was recently sifting through an old collection of photographs that have survived for 70 years, locked away in a wooden box that had long ago (according to the label pasted on the top) held a child’s blanket, two teddy bears and half a dozen “Hardy Boys” mystery novels.

The handwriting on the box appeared to be my mothers, and the black and white photos were dated 1957. In them I saw a seven-year-old boy sitting at a table with a chocolate birthday cake in front of him. There were seven burning candles waiting to be extinguished through a wish and a breath. The boy had a black patch over one eye, a plastic sword in one hand and a paper pirate’s hat on his head. That boy was me.

My pirate birthday party opened a door of creativity and wonder for me that day, and over the ensuing years while growing up, I learned how imagination is a crucial part of our survival and development as human beings. In my mind I was that pirate, growling and snarling and flexing the muscles of my manly chest as I searched for the treasure that had been hidden by my mother, somewhere in the house.

Little did I know that 57 years after that photograph was taken, half of that manly chest of mine would be removed and I would be diagnosed with a rare form of breast cancer.

That’s when life itself became the treasure for me. Not my former, pre-cancer life, but the life I’m living at this moment; the one that has cancer in it. And I suspect that many of us with a life-threatening disease might see our former selves with some trepidation and perhaps even a bit of sadness.

We can never predict our future of course, but looking back, there will always be snapshots of our former selves. One of the keys for me in accepting my disease as something more than simply an unfair curse was in seeing those snapshots of me before I had cancer as a separate life in a sense. Sure, those memories are of me as a healthy man, totally unconcerned with what my health in the future might look like. But cancer changes everything.

And while it may seem beneficial to attach ourselves to the memories of our pre-cancer existence, it does little to help us focus on the here and now. After my wife died of cancer 25 years ago, I struggled to find some hint of a positive future; a future that didn’t include missing her every day and a future that contained new events and friends and experiences that didn’t include memories of her either. At first this was a painful endeavor but as I came to understand that I was beginning a second life; life No. 2 with a whole new set of circumstances and goals and challenges; that pain began to soften.

That didn’t mean that I was losing the love and joy of my past.

It was important for me to understand that those memories from before; those 22 years of marriage, travel, family and work weren’t going away, but rather they were just making room for my second life to emerge.

It was tough for a while. But surviving as a guy with cancer demanded that I imagine a world where being alive was fun again, where love and laughter existed again and where good health was available once more. But it would be different. Ever so slowly, I began to picture a world where life was just as fulfilling as it had been for all those years, but this time around I was a new man: A guy with cancer in his breast.

I still enjoy those snapshots of my former self, but now they’re housed in their own special library and labeled “Book One”.The sequel is a work in progress.


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