A brain with butterfly wings

Reinventing Yourself After Cancer

When you are in the throes of chemo, the real heart of cancer and its treatment, it consumes you. Mentally, physically and spiritually, all your energy is focused upon besting the beast inside and make no mistake that’s what it takes to beat cancer – all of you. The problem is that once you reach the other side suddenly cancer is gone and it’s time to rebuild. Now what? There’s nothing of the old you left! How do you put back something that looks like the person you were?

The short answer: you don’t. The time has come to reinvent yourself. I know it seems impossible, but it’s not as difficult as you think. Granted, I’ve also suffered from rheumatoid arthritis since I was nine years old so I have some experience in the area, but changing isn’t what you think it is. Reinventing yourself actually means you get a chance to modify or add some of the things you never got to do before. Also, to take away some admittedly lesser awesome parts that you don’t want back. Like putting ketchup on chicken fingers. Pork rind milkshakes. Those neon orange boots. Yikes. You get the picture.

The decision to reinvent yourself post-cancer

Reinventing yourself. Oooooo. Ahhhh. It sounds so grandiose, so high-level – like an aging musician who starts putting out terrible music that no one has the guts to say stinks. In reality, though, reinventing yourself is much less Madonna and much more David Bowie – a healthy transformation without 100% knowledge of what the final product will look like but still confident enough to try. God I miss Bowie. Anyhoo, it’s not that difficult to get started especially when cancer so thoughtfully provides you with a blank slate. Let’s talk about the how.

The first step is always going to be deciding to do it. Look, it won’t be easy, and it’s going to take a bit of work but it’s not all downside. It will give you a goal to reach and that process will help you recover mentally and physically both. I know it can be scary, changing, but seeing as how cancer forced you to do that anyway, why not make the best of it?

What's your goal in survivorship?

After you get past that first hurdle then comes the fun part. You get to decide what it is about you that you want to improve. Want to get rid of those love handles? Done. Want to throw away that awful out-of-date wardrobe? Fabulous. Want to stop eating cheeseburgers? God knows why you’d ever want to you communist, but fine, consider yourself de-burgered! For me, it was getting into good shape again like I was in my 20s, and finding a way to grow my hair back. Of course, I knew I wasn’t going to be able to completely remove the ravages of age and illness but I was going to make a serious exercise plan and stick to it, and I have. Growing the hair back on the top of my head, well, that was a bit more difficult. I had to do a ton of research and experimentation with some not-medically-approved treatments I found on the Internet. There were some close calls and a ton of hat wearing days, but I eventually found something that I think might actually work. Time will tell. Time and hats. The point is to find an achievable goal and give yourself a year. Notice I said “achievable goal.” If you are 70 years old and your goal is to become the next Alec Baldwin, well, then you probably need to aim lower. Maybe Daniel Baldwin or even Stephen. In other words, pick something doable or you’ll set yourself up for failure.

Ok, now that you’ve identified something you want to improve and maybe a few things that you want to leave behind, you have to actually start doing it. It’s going to be a little bit like bungee jumping backwards off the Empire State building, but you can do it. The first step to your goal that is, not the bungee jumping. For the love of God, don’t do the bungee jumping. Unless that’s your goal, in which case, have at it, just don’t mention my name when they are prying you off the pavement with a human-shaped spatula.

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Sticking with your post-cancer goals

You got it started and you are raring to go, and that’s great, but now you have to stick to it! This is the most difficult part because as humans we all love to participate in something new but once the novelty wears off we tend to lose interest. It’s normal, and that’s when you really have to put your nose to the grindstone. There are going to be days when you feel like crap and you just don’t want to do it but I submit that those are the most important times to carry on. Of course, don’t be stupid – if your goals include exercising but you woke up with a huge swollen leg then don’t do your walk around the block brainiac. Hurting yourself will only make your reinvention take longer. I’m talking about those days when it’s your brain stopping you not your body. The days when the Law & Order marathon playing on TNT, which is apparently every day, somehow makes your butt seem permanently attached to the chair in front of the television. On those days you have to take control of your brain and force yourself to get up, trust me your psyche will thank you. Your glutes too.

Moving forward

Finally, you’ll have to deal with the naysayers. The can’t/won’t/shouldn’t-ers. You’ll hear the “You’re too old,” “you’re too sick,” “you’re too sexy and handsome” (I heard that last one a lot) refrain all the time. Sometimes it’ll come in the form of “you should be careful,” or “you had/have cancer!” but it’s all a distraction. You know your body better than anyone else, and sometimes people around you need you to be that person who has cancer for a multitude of reasons we wil save for another post. Remember, you don’t have to be or not be anything and you certainly don’t have to go back to the way things were before you got sick. Cancer is horrible and a nightmare and smells but it also has the amazing benefit of being completely freeing. Freeing from expectations, freeing from rules, and freeing from answering to anyone. Use that to your advantage and reinvent yourself into someone that makes you happy post-cancer. Talk soon.

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