I spent the majority of my twenties doing the “right” things—working to put myself through college, graduating, landing a job, being responsible, building credit, achieving career goals—and when I hit 30, in spite of all this, I hadn’t really accomplished much outside of society’s norm. I knew that’s not how I wanted to live my life, and more than that, I realized it could never make me happy. My thirties were much better. It was then that I made a deliberate effort to get to know myself and make some pretty awesome memories. I met my lifetime hero, Dolly Parton, I conquered my fear of flying, visited some incredible places and even worked in my dream state, Alaska, for an entire summer. I guess you could say that somewhere in my thirties I “found” myself, or better yet, I created myself. So when I turned 40, I fully expected that my next decade would be one for the record books. Instead, I landed the role of “Girl with Cancer” and suddenly I didn’t recognize myself anymore.
According to the Loyola University Medical Center, “For people with cancer, the diagnosis not only brings a fight for one’s life but may also introduce a battle for personal identity. ‘When you look in a mirror, you expect to see a certain reflection, but as a result of the cancer as well as the treatment, the image reflected can be very different. This can be frightening and overwhelming, bringing its own struggles and pain,’ said Patricia Mumby, PhD, director of Health Psychology for the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Neurosciences . . . .” I certainly went through that period of adjustment, concerned about the alteration of my body, but I found my identity crisis didn’t stop there. I also clawed my way through a period of self-expression where it felt like I must share my journey with anyone, and I mean anyone, who’d listen. That eventually evolved into my quest to help others and resulted in my online Facebook community page, a safe place for survivors, co-survivors and supporters to bond over their experiences.
Even though I wasn’t necessarily dwelling on the negatives of cancer, stressing over my body anymore, or even obsessing about my after-care, I found myself still all about cancer. Sure, I channeled that into a desire to help others, but just because I wasn’t paralyzed with fear didn’t mean I wasn’t consumed. On the contrary, I’d aligned myself with a cancer support group, attended cancer events, volunteered my time with charitable causes, and created an online community reaching out to others who were going through it too. All great things, of course, but it wasn’t until my third year of survivorship that I realized EVERYTHING in my life was centered on one thing. I spent a large portion of my day strapped to my laptop maintaining my cancer support page, brought to my attention by my very patient fiancé who couldn’t pry it from my hands. Even though I was definitely proud of where I’d been and how far I’d come, how did I get so wrapped up in this cancer identity? Almost as though my other accomplishments—those amazing things I did in my thirties–paled in comparison? I was a survivor, yes, but after a while, that’s all it felt like I was. Here I was healthy again, and yet all I ever did was cancer, cancer, cancer. How did my forties take this turn without me even taking note?
Never in a million years did I think my identity would be hijacked by cancer. I never considered that I’d be monitoring my disease for the rest of my life, living with side effects, or desperately trying to protect myself from recurrence, but I also never considered I might overextend myself in the cancer community either. As Linda, a Stage IV thriver told me, “I am choosing to live my life as though I am in perfect health. I take my meds, I get my tests, and I spend my time doing the things that I love . . . living day to day, and enjoying my family, my friends, and as much travel as I can fit in. Life is grand, and I plan on being around a very, very long time.” Linda, like other Stage IV fighters, will never see a break from treatment, but she continues to teach me a thing or two about perspective. Like other metastatic thrivers, she’s a wife, mother, sister, daughter and friend. She lives in the moment, and she hasn’t allowed cancer to steal her true identity. So, in the spirit of Linda’s sage advice, I had to back off a bit from my whole cancer gig. Reassess my life. Change course. Re-establish my hobbies. Point myself in new directions.
My first step was to find an outlet. I chose bodybuilding. I set my sights on a pre-cancer goal that I had, and even though I had some limitations with a weakened chest and radiation-induced Lymphedema, I moved forward. With proper guidance from my medical team and my specialized trainer, I embarked on a 13 month journey beyond cancer. And a few months after my debut on the bodybuilding stage, I landed myself a gold medal in my second fitness competition. My hashtag became #CancerSurvivorToBikiniCompetitor because I wanted to be so much more than just my stint with cancer. It was a transition point for me, and it helped me unchain myself from that identity. I still maintained my allegiance to supporting men and women on my page, and I still acknowledged that cancer had affected me, but I shifted my focus and found some balance, I guess you could say.
I still struggle. Sometimes I think it’s the guilt I live with that traps me into this cancer identity. I miss the days when I could be genuinely upset about something just because I was upset. Now I feel this immediate default response to suck it up. I can’t give myself full permission to grieve about it or be angry because I automatically revert back to “Count your blessings. You’re still here. You’re alive.” I sort of miss just being a regular person–someone whose mind and responses aren’t tangled up in cancer quicksand. Someone who can respond to life’s situations without the guilt. I’m coming to terms with the fact that I can be both grateful for the second chance I’ve been given AND liberated from the new identity forced onto me. And though my cancer experience will be forever a part of me, it is not all I have to offer. Here’s to the rest of my forties—a decade for the record books, for sure!