After Cancer: What I Learned About Myself

I was scrolling through Facebook yesterday when I landed on a breast cancer graphic. In big letters it read, “I had cancer. Cancer never had me.” I know it’s meant to be one of those inspiring, motivational shake-your-fist-at-cancer proclamations, but it’s been 6 years now since my breast cancer diagnosis, and I can freely admit that cancer had me – a few times.

You’re probably thinking, “What?”

Spotting this slogan on Facebook triggered some memories, and it really prompted me to examine my cancer experience. Maybe it’s just me, but did anyone else feel like there was an unspoken expectation that cancer patients remain positive through it all? Everyone I knew – and even total strangers – told me to “stay positive.” Usually, that was followed up by, “and you’ll beat it.” I know positivity does help with the body’s healing, but I also know some pretty fierce, positive people who’ve died at the hands of cancer. I remember thinking, “Stay positive and you’ll beat it?” Really? Is THAT all it takes? And if so, why didn’t those other people make it? Were they not positive enough?

That statement, although designed to give me hope, did little to inspire me. Perhaps I over-internalized all of the “feel better” sentiments I received following my diagnosis, but all they really did was fill me with unnecessary pressure to outwardly handle my chronic disease with a perpetual smile on my face. A good attitude certainly doesn’t hurt, and if I could be positive, all the better, but I realize now that it was silly of me to expect that I wouldn’t have some downright bad days.

As cancer patients, there are days during treatment when we flat out lose it. There are days when we don’t get out of bed. Days when we lose our grips, yell at our husbands, kids and maybe even the cashier at the grocery store. And it’s perfectly understandable – because cancer is hard. So, yes, cancer had me a FEW times.

While this probably isn’t the case for everyone, that “stay positive” business reinforced this notion I had that I wasn’t allowed to be anything but happy during my cancer experience. I felt like I was being judged – even if I wasn’t. I’m sure none of the well-meaning people who told me to stay positive ever even knew that was the message I internalized, but nonetheless, I felt overwhelming pressure to handle everything on my own and to make it look effortless. In my mind, I was supposed to be one of those people you hear others say stuff about like “She never complained a bit and was always smiling right up until the end.”

This brings me to my thoughts on that point. First of all, nobody should have ever uttered that last part to me at ANY time during my illness. I wish I could say that no one did, but if you’ve been through cancer, you know you hear a lot of unnecessary comments. I realize it was meant to be a compliment, a testament to the stellar personality of the person they were talking about. But it scared me. Was I going to have “an end?” And if I did, would they say that about me? Or would it go something like, “Man, she was a negative Nelly. No wonder she didn’t last!” I mean, I doubt anyone would ever say THAT, but in my mind, those thoughts played out, and if that’s the way it went down, I wanted to be the heroic cancer patient.

I’m pretty positive by nature, but cancer itself produces a lot of pressure for even those of us who are natural optimists. Pressure I probably put on myself, yes, but I think the lesson here might be that patients often take the well-meaning advice of others to heart. You said, “Stay positive and you’ll beat it,” and I heard, “Never complain about anything you’re going through because that’s negative.” You said, “Everything will be fine,” and I heard, “Why are you worried? This is a cinch.” What it boiled down to is that I felt like I was not doing cancer right if I had any visible negative moments, and I was afraid to be real because I thought I’d be labeled as negative or, worse, weak.

And so after about 3 weeks of my own private hell, I took to Facebook – it made a great diary – and I started opening up about my journey. I forgot about being positive. I just started being real. I celebrated my highs, and I revealed my lows, and you know, I did have my critics who thought I was negative at times, but I learned that being honest about my feelings was ultimately what allowed me to be primarily positive. Facing the loneliness and the fear diminished the lingering negative feelings and freed up room in my head for life’s joys that were still to be had in spite of what was happening to me.

Most survivors will tell you that they learned a lot of life’s lessons while undergoing treatment. I think it’s impossible not to come out of it a changed person. If I could go back, I’d undo it – don’t get me wrong – but since it happened, I do appreciate how it impacted me. I’m not quite so hard on myself. I recognize the need for others in my life. I appreciate things to a depth I didn’t know existed. And I am not unrealistic in my expectations of myself and others. I did have cancer, and cancer had me. Not permanently, of course, but that brings me to my most important lesson of all. It’s okay to be brought to your knees. And it’s okay to kick and scream. But it’s not okay to stay there.


Victorious Val

Follow Val on her Facebook community page, Victorious Val & the Breast Cancer Crusaders.