As I near the end of chemo, I am forced to confront the effects my diagnosis and treatment have had on me and how this experience will shape my future. As I look ahead to my life after this initial stage of treatment, I am scared. I have been so focused on surviving that I haven’t had a chance to get to know my new body, rebuild my confidence or figure out how this experience may have changed my priorities. While I try to adjust to these changes, I still grieve for the future I thought I’d have and the woman I used to be. I miss her constantly.
I miss the way my husband used to look at me before he was my caregiver and the way people would stare when I’d walk in a room. I miss the honeymoon stage of our marriage and our excitement about planning for a family. I miss the pregnancy books I ordered and the maternity outfits I’d pinned. I miss my excitement to see him as a father and planning for a nursery in our new home. I miss my hair and my breasts and my confidence in my womanhood. I know I’ve traded all of that for survival for a chance to fight to keep this life of mine and that’s worth the cost but I still miss the way it used to be.
It took me 27 years to become the person I was pre-cancer and to build a life I was proud of and happy to live. In just a matter of months, I feel as though my life has been changed forever. Cancer put everything in perspective and the things I used to worry about or deem important now seem trivial. I find myself searching for a greater purpose and for happiness. How will I make use of this second chance at life? I am scared to be alone and confront these feelings and fears. I feel as if I have to rebuild myself from the inside out. How will I find happiness and not live in fear of recurrence. How will I come to accept and love this new body of mine? All of those questions plague me now. I trust I will find peace eventually but right now the fears and the questions are overwhelming.
I am not quite sure how I will overcome these fears and answer these questions, but I do know I have an arsenal of tools to pull from. Many years ago my therapist talked to me about something that I like to call “belief talk”. When our brains go down a route of fear or anxiety, we fall back on what we believe to be true in order to reinforce our fears and anxiety. This thinking takes us down that downward spiral. In order to take our brain down a different path we have to question what we believe to be true. So let’s apply this strategy to one of my current fears about life after cancer. I am afraid the changes I have gone through will separate me from the people I love. I am afraid that my husband and close friends will not like the new me, and I will end up isolated due to this experience I have gone through. The negative beliefs that reinforcing this fear are: the changes I have gone through are negative and that my husband and friends are not accepting of change. If I change my mindset to a new belief such as, the changes I have gone through are positive and my husband and friends are caring and accepting people, it is much more likely that my brain can take me down a less fearful path. With a new mindset and a shift in my beliefs, it will be much easier to accept a more loving and nurturing outlook on my future.
I happened upon a great article from Forbes, which supports this way of thinking. The article is about how we can rewire our brains for happiness. Vanessa Loder writes, “scientists have now shown, we can literally rewire the neural pathways that regulate our emotions, thoughts, and reactions. This means we can create new neural pathways – highways in our brain – that lead us to compassion, gratitude, and joy instead of anxiety, fear, and anger. We can reprogram our brains’ automatic response, and all it requires (this is a simple thing…but not an easy one) is a conscious effort to build new pathways.” So how do we begin this process of building new pathways? How do we lay the framework for a new way of thinking? Loder says, “practicing self-compassion is one powerful way to start building these new pathways in your brain. Another tool is to begin cultivating gratitude.”
So it seems my work lies in self compassion and gratitude. Gratitude for this second chance at life, gratitude for the compassion shown around me, and self compassion and acceptance for this new person I am becoming. Maybe this terrifying and life altering experience will lead me to amazing opportunities, strength and self-love. Maybe these changes and my new perspective on life will help me strengthen my relationships with my husband and friends and form new relationships based on love and giving. It all depends on what I condition my brain to believe is possible. What new pathways will you work on in order to find more happiness?
Vanessa Loder and Lisa Abramson have a website I found useful called Mindfulness Based Achievement. I signed up for their free Self Compassion Toolkit and you can too. The first step in this toolkit is the act of writing letters of self-compassion to yourself each day for seven days. Research shows that writing this type of letter for seven days can decrease anxiety and depression and increase happiness for up to six months. I figured why not give it a try at a time when I need self-compassion the most. I am excited to see how this path of self-compassion and gratitude leads to less anxiety and fear about my life after cancer. Maybe I’ll even share some of the letters I write with you.
I hope you can join this journey with me on the path to self acceptance.
Photo Credit: Robin Lin Photography
Makeup: Makeup By Alexis Ripley