How Surviving Breast Cancer Changes Your Attitude

PJ Hamel Health Guide
  • So, have you made your New Year’s resolutions yet? And no, I don’t mean those regretful vows to NEVER drink on an empty stomach ever again, even at a New Year’s Eve party where good champagne is flowing freely. I mean those promises you make to yourself each year to “be a better person”–to lose weight, stop nagging your spouse, spend quality time with the kids instead of letting them park themselves in front of the TV… you know, all those things we women like to flog ourselves with each January. “That’s it, I’m going to the gym. No excuses.” Or “I promise I’m going to call my mother three times a week.” And the ever-popular “THIS year, I’m going to start saving for retirement.” Sound familiar? Feel uncomfortable? Could it be that you’re vowing to force your round-peg self into a square-hole life?
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    Breast cancer, when you’re first diagnosed, feels like an ending–the end of your blithe confidence in living a long life. It’s as if all the days you’ve lived up to your diagnosis are on one side of a line, and you’ve stepped over that line into an unknown future.

    Thoughts of children growing up and having kids of their own, dreams of retirement, those far-off “someday” goals of traveling, and writing, and opening that little cake-decorating business you always wanted to start… all seem to have taken a giant step away from you. The big “what ifs” have taken their place: what if it comes back? What if I die? We’re all tempted to lay aside our dreams against the possibility they might not come true.

    But cancer is also a beginning. It can change your life–if you let it. That line you’ve just stepped over can be the starting line, not the finish. Look back at your life thus far. Are you happy with what you’ve done, with the person you’ve become? Or are you in New Year’s resolution mode, wishing you could go back and redo all those “shoulda/coulda/wouldas”? Who have you been... and who do you want to be?

    These past few years after breast cancer treatment, I’ve felt almost like a teenager again (sans the dating angst, thank goodness.) For awhile, I was trying on different personas: the strong-but-silent survivor; the feisty “find the cure” advocate; the serenely spiritual earth-mother. Like a kid sampling different social groups, I was slipping in and out of new skins, seeing which one felt the best. I felt that cancer had given me “permission” to become a new person, and it was exciting.

    But eventually, I realized that long-term–yes, I DO plan on a future, cancer be damned–I have to be myself. That self has changed, for sure. I discovered that there’s not much in life I can control, but I CAN choose my own attitude.

    The quiet woman, whose intense shyness was often perceived as coldness, has opened up and reached out. I’ve mellowed, big time. I made a conscious decision to let go of “the details,” and instead focus on the big picture: making the world a better place for those around me. And I’ve slipped very comfortably into this new skin.

  • I’ve also learned to accept that physically, there’s no going back. My reconstructed breast will always be numb and tingly; my shoulder, stiff and achy; my body, persistently itchy, testifying to chemo’s long-term effects. But you know what? I don’t fight it. It’s me, the after-cancer me. The me on the other side of the line.
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    As this new year begins, I don’t look back with regret. Neither do I look forward with unrealistic resolutions. I just see another 12 months to live; to enjoy every day. And that’s good enough for me.

Published On: January 03, 2007