What does the phase “taking my life back” really mean to someone who has or is facing Cancer
This is actually a post that I wrote most of, this past summer and couldn’t bring myself to post until I found it again overtaking my thought process.
So here’s some truth. The phrase “I cannot wait to take my life back, doesn’t mean exactly what you think it does, or there is at least a whole lot more to it then you think. As a breast cancer patient, we don’t really have to tell you about the obvious things that we are longing to put behind us, like wanting to have hair again, wanting to spend less time at the hospital or at doctors visits, being able to raise our arms above our head again, being able to plan for things without taking future surgeries and hospital stays into account, having two breasts, being able to buy an age-appropriate bra outside of a mastectomy fitting room at the cancer center, and most of all being able to play with your child without feeling winded, overcome with exhaustion, pain, shortness of breath, or fatigue. The truth is some of this will get better in time, and some of it won’t, but when I say that I cannot wait to take my life back, I mean so much more then all this.
The honest and real truth is that the hardest parts to “take back” so to speak, are most often the parts that we choose not to tell anyone about. Like the fact that you completely lose the ability to relate to “normal people” including your family and your closest friends, that you really no longer know how to have fun because you find it really hard to separate yourself from the new fear-based cancer version of yourself, and most importantly that you feel extremely isolated and alone at times even when you have the biggest support system and you are surrounded by family and friends that love you, because it’s not possible for others to understand where you are at mentally and emotionally unless they have been there themselves.
In the beginning it all happens so fast and then you realize that “life” as you know it, has just chewed you up, and spit you out. You wake up to find that you are no longer “Tammy”, you are instead Tammy… the cancer patient. It becomes your entire world; the only thing you can think about, the biggest fear in every situation, and the newest addition to “the rest of your life”. In those beginning months everyone is around you and wants to know how you are doing. In some ways you want to tell them, or at least you feel like you can give them the cliff notes version. However there also comes a point where people start to distance themselves a bit or kind of just stop asking how you are because they already know, which I totally understand because I have been on both sides of this. Then those around you stop talking to you about problems in their lives because they fear that their struggles are small in comparison to yours. Even my husband is guilty if this one. In many ways I don’t think people actually even realize this is happening or that it could affect me, which of course makes you start to fear that people are not really forgetting what you’re going through, but at least tucking it away into a corner of their mind so they don’t have to think about the scary sad things all the time, and even worse you fear that those around you subconsciously don’t really want to hear about how you are doing because they can’t handle the sadness it brings. Personally I think it’s a situation where it’s hard for anyone on the outside to know what to say at all. This is where the isolation comes in. As the one wearing the “cancer” hat, you don’t want to see fear on the faces of the ones you love, and you really don’t want to constantly bring the mood down, so you start to withdraw from everyone. Without realizing it, you even withdraw from those who love you the most. I remember being in a few social situations at my hardest points and finding reasons to keep leaving the room in the moments that I thought my scary cancer story was going to become the topic of conversation. I struggled because on one hand those closest to me were the ones that I could usually be the most “real” with, but I kind of went through a phase where I felt as if I was the unintentional “Debby Downer” of the group so I stopped being “real” with even them. So rather than answer that “How’s it going” question with an honest…. “Well you know what, it stinks so much worse then even I thought it would, I feel awful all the time, my emotions are off the charts, and I’m scared to death this is going to kill me”… and admit that you really don’t know if you can do this anymore. I said things like “I’m doing ok. I’m feeling more and more like myself everyday and I’m looking forward to taking my life back”. There it is again… Taking my life back, so what does that mean?
The truth is, I think the answer to this question is a constant evolution as so many aspects of this journey are. In the beginning I was in denial, I didn’t want to talk about or associate myself with breast cancer and I saw the pink ribbon as reminder of the terrible reality I was facing and the reason I lost a very special aunt. I wanted nothing to do with the color “pink”. In fact from the point I was told I had breast cancer I didn’t read one single word about the disease, I didn’t open a single packet or booklet that I was sent home with, and I didn’t reach out to any of the many amazing resources this city has to offer for those facing breast cancer. Over the past several months I have had time to let my reality sink in, I have had a chance to connect with others in my shoes, and I have had a chance be a part of the amazing breast cancer movement we have surrounding us in this awesome community. I am now embracing the good with the bad and owning “cancer” as a part of myself. In the past few weeks I have found myself reading every breast cancer booklet I was given, reaching out to those in the community who understand, looking into breast cancer events and charities that I can get further involved with, looking through and reading all of my supportive cards and notes again, studying all of my radiology scans to better understand my diagnosis, and even watching graphic youtube videos of all the surgeries that I have had and will have in the future. I have accepted the fear and I now feel like knowledge can be my super power. I know that this journey is far from over, however now that I’m past the hardest of my treatments, I have accepted this part of me which, in a sense has made me the “pinkest version of myself”. It’s almost as if I have earned my pink badge of honor and I can now wear my ribbon proudly to not only honor those who have lost their battle with breast cancer, especially those closest to me, but also to celebrate my own fight.
While all of this is optimistic, positive, and uplifting, it is also something that again isolates me from those closest to me and leaves me clinging to the few friends I have that have actually walked in my shoes. I have been living “cancer” in every sense of the word, for almost a year now. It became my whole life, my job, my past time, my family time, my social time, and the one thought that absolutely NEVER leaves my mind. Somewhere along the way, I even lost the ability to connect and relate to normal people and everyday situations. Most conversations still somehow trigger a cancer thought in my mind. Even if it’s a positive or happy thought, it is often somewhat cancer related because that’s who and what I am right now, so in a lot of cases, if I do have something to add to the conversation it can typically be traced back to the past year and…. of course my “cancer” which again makes social situations somewhat hard at times.
So to finally answer my question: At this point in my journey I think that “taking my life back, means finding a balance between “pre-cancer Tammy”, “Tammy-the cancer patient”, and “life after cancer-Tammy”. I think it is in part regaining the aspects of my life that made me… “me” like activities, passions, and life goals, but also accepting that some of those things are no longer “me” at all. The honest truth is, you cannot finish cancer treatment and walk back into your former life; cancer changes you forever like other big events in your life but in a very different way. I have realized that there is a part of me that will always be “Tammy, the cancer patient”. But you know what…I think I’m ok with that. Although I am looking forward to the day that there is more then cancer happening in my world and I can bring more non-cancer related thoughts to a conversation, I am actually really happy with where I am right now both mentally and emotionally and I am proud of the fact that I can finally stand up and own what smacked me in the face almost a year ago. I am also realizing that although I know I am more then “cancer” and I know that I will eventually get back to some of what I used to be, the future aspects of “me” will probably be wrapped in a just a little bit of pinkness… even if I’m the only one who notices. But maybe that added “pinkness” is a good thing too.