Have you ever felt like your life wasn’t real – but that it was instead a movie playing out in front of you? I’ve had that happen to me a few times during my life. If you haven’t ever felt that way, let me tell you it’s an incredibly jarring feeling. I felt this way at the time I was diagnosed with breast cancer. It lasted for the first few weeks after my diagnosis. Luckily it went away soon thereafter because I went into fight mode and absolutely had to focus on living. But after treatment, this weird feeling came roaring back. I didn’t expect that – although I probably should have.
You see, everyone rallies around you when you are being treated for cancer. They take care of you – your family, your friends, your doctors and your nurses are all there for you constantly. You have an absolutely amazing support system that helps you keep your eye on the game – you fight (and your focus is wholly on treatment and fighting).
But one day your treatment ends. Life moves on for everyone who is part of that support system. They cannot be there for you for the rest of your life in that way (nor should they be expected to). They did their job beautifully, and it is time for them to move on. It’s also time for the patient to move on. So the support system is gone – almost overnight. And you’re left to yourself to figure out who you are and what is next. But you’re exhausted (both mentally and physically) and are tired of the draining inner reflection that goes along with being sick and fighting for your life. So you don’t really go there yet – you don’t want to figure out who the “new” you is just yet.
I think it’s pretty typical for cancer patients to try to go back to where they were before their cancer diagnosis – to go back to what should be “normal” for them. I certainly did this. I struggled mightily to try to get back to my old life. And in doing this, I felt as though I wasn’t really living – but was watching some strange movie play out in front of me with all of these people I knew in it. They seemed the same, but I was alien.
For the first year after treatment I told myself it was because my treatment had ravaged my body. I was in terrible physical shape and became exhausted so very easily. But as I slowly got my energy back, I still had this strange feeling gnawing at me. Yet I ignored it. I tried to do the same things I used to do. I tried to think the same way about everything. Yet I felt more and more alien in my own skin. I struggled with this for close to 3 years. Now, don’t get me wrong – I didn’t feel completely lost and I wasn’t depressed. What I was doing was trying desperately to go back and be who I was before the cancer.
But I couldn’t. I wasn’t that person any longer and I had to accept that in order to move forward. One day I realized that, although I talked like I knew that my life had changed and that cancer had changed me (everyone I talked to during this time knows that I played the game of pretend pretty darn well), I hadn’t really believed it. I was fighting to get back to some old version of me that didn’t exist anymore. And I had no idea who the new me was. That was a huge “aha” moment for me. It not only opened my eyes, but allowed me to start thinking about who I was right then and there. How cancer had changed my viewpoint on life. How it changed my fears, my reactions to things, my relationships.
I then went into a deep inner dive. I got to know the new me and figured out where I really wanted and needed to go from there. And when I came out on the other side, I knew who I was. My life no longer felt alien to me. If only I had figured it out sooner!
Although this is pretty common for cancer patients to go through, I suspect that many people go through this weird feeling after major events occur in their lives. I don’t know whether everyone feels as alien as I did, but certainly major events that happen in our lives change us in huge ways. These changes are so big that we must review and reevaluate how we have been affected and who we are as a result – because we cannot go back to who we were before. Death of a loved one. Divorce. Even the birth of a child. Remember when I said that this feeling has happened to me upon several occasions? The first time it happened was after I gave birth to my first son, Zachary. My life changed so drastically and so very quickly in a way that I wasn’t totally prepared. Again, I watched my life play out in front of me and felt alien in my own skin. Luckily, I adapted pretty quickly to being a new mom. For whatever reason, the post-cancer changes took a bit longer to accept.
I’m sharing this with you in the hope that you will learn from my mistake. My life had obviously changed forever. It was a fact and I had to admit and accept it. But instead I fought it tooth and nail. I think that acceptance was what took so long. I don’t really know if it was fear or just my hard-headedness in not wanting to accept that things had clearly changed. But once I did, things got better so very quickly. Because I knew who I was and was confident in my own skin. And there’s nothing like being confident in who you are.
Until next time…