When I left the Hospital and Realized I Wasn’t The Same Anymore
September 26, 2016
I was thinking today as we visited the Denver Botanic Gardens about all of the time that cancer patients devote to receiving treatments generally in some combination of chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery. How do we view our time spent in the hospital? What do we do when we leave the hospital and realize that a lot of time has passed and we aren’t the same as we used to be?
When I was in the treatment phase of my cancer journey, I approached the time spent in the hospital with what I call the stop watch mentality. I felt like I could push a button that stopped time, then, endure treatments for a time that was somehow off the grid and push the button again when the cancer was gone starting time where I left off. I knew that the time spent in the hospital was going to be hard but it would just be one hard year and then I could bounce back into my same old regular rhythm. I would finally grow my hair out to where it used to be, get back into the ballet studio and dance like I used to, and have a wonderful cancer-free senior year of high school. This kind of thinking was all I had access to during these tender years. I had no way of knowing that I might run into some severe challenges during this transition. Let me tell you the realities that I discovered in the year that followed my remission.
You see while remission is a light at the end of a tunnel, I learned that it in no way provided me a segue to go back in time, or be who I was before cancer. The truth of the matter is that cancer changed me. Just like the world that is continually turning, changing, and evolving, so am I. Especially in these trying circumstances. Now, if you are anything like me, this is a hard truth to accept—particularly because my changes didn’t look like positive ones. I lost the ability to run, jump, and do a lot of physical activities I used to enjoy. I started having horrible nightmares and anxiety. I had an incessant ringing in my ears that drove me nuts. And I had an identity crisis that left me feeling lost and isolated. Because of this I longed for who I used to be. I prayed to get sucked back into that stop watch mental bubble where I envisioned that everything would go back to ‘normal’ after treatments ended. I resisted change. But as much as I resisted change, change always won, and eventually I had to give in and stop fighting.
The identity crisis I experienced entering back into high school bald and with a new leg really challenged my perceptions of myself. My physical qualities were stripped away and all I had left to piece together was what was going on inside my heart and mind. I had to better understand who I was at my core because my physical identifiers had failed me. This was truly the largest and scariest crisis I ran into in my entire cancer journey. But over time as I explored my values, interests, hobbies, morals, and everything else that gives us a sense of who we are, I had the opportunity to get to know myself in a way that I may not have been prompted to do otherwise. I began to love the new and changed version of myself, and I didn’t need pretty hair and a strong ballerinas leg to do it. That was and continues to be an incredibly liberating feeling. Cancer changes us, but it will makes us stronger as we practice acceptance of the changes that take place.
I want people to see me and other cancer survivors around the world that are working through the trials that accompany remission. I want people to stop grieving the loss of their old selves and look up and discover and love who they are now. I want to show those that are in the depths of disparity that it can and will get better. I want to inform those that still have cancer of the trials that can occur in remission but the hope that we can find to get through it. Let’s not feel isolated in our trials, but instead feel validated, strengthened, and encouraged. Cancer treatments do not work like a stop watch—time keeps going and we often come out different people than we were when we went in; but trials and change provide the opportunity for us to grow and become strengthened. That is a beautiful part of cancer, and a beautiful part of life. I’m grateful for times like today at the gardens that allow me to slow down, reflect, and share. Wishing you all the best in your individual journeys!
(Scroll down for a lovely poem)
The tree that never had to fight
For sun and sky and air and light,
But stood out in the open plain
And always got its share of rain,
Never became a forest king
But lived and died a scrubby thing.
The man who never had to toil
To gain and farm his patch of soil,
Who never had to win his share
Of sun and sky and light and air,
Never became a manly man
But lived and died as he began.
Good timber does not grow with ease:
The stronger wind, the stronger trees;
The further sky, the greater length;
The more the storm, the more the strength.
By sun and cold, by rain and snow,
In trees and men good timbers grow.
Where thickest lies the forest growth,
We find the patriarchs of both.
And they hold counsel with the stars
Whose broken branches show the scars
Of many winds and much of strife.
This is the common law of life.