You know how you have a picture of yourself in your mind’s eye? The way you imagine you look?
For four years, that self didn’t mesh with reality.
I still saw the long-haired fitness freak who’d never had a surgery in her life and definitely no serious illness. The one who was remarkably healthy at 50…the one whose co-worker assumed was age 35.
That reality changed in an instant. The unbelievable happened, the unexplicable knocked me off my feet. There was no transition time. I went from super-healthy and super-fit to being diagnosed with one of the most dangerous diseases in our experience.
As the saying goes, “If you don’t have your health, you don’t have anything.” My health was everything to me, and suddenly I felt as though I had nothing.
And in the cruelty that is cancer treatment, off went the hair. Now there was no mistaking that I was “sick”. So when I bumped into friends who hadn’t heard about my diagnosis and tried to explain what had happened, they all said the same thing: “I know.”
Every time I walked past a mirror, I would get a shock. And this went on. Through the months of chemo, through radiation, waiting for regrowth that seemed to take forever.
My oncologist told me to be patient, the hair would come back. It was different for everyone. But I was still scared. And acceptance was a new concept that I was not comfortable with.
Yes, I felt I bounced back the year after chemo – working out hard, with the most awesome new-growth hair that random people would stop and compliment. That year, I felt strong and full of promise. I dared to say that cancer MIGHT have been the best thing to happen to me…
But as time went on, reality moved in again and I realized that there really was no going back. And that “lift” that I had gotten after my hair started growing back and I was hitting the gym hard, well, I crashed again.
Endocrine therapy pushed me through menopause. My hair thinned. And most devastatingly, I lost two friends who had been diagnosed with breast cancer around the same time that I had been.
I couldn’t celebrate that. And I fought it for months and months.
Four years later, I’m comfortable with calling myself a cancer survivor. But you know what? I still get a little jolt when I walk past the mirror. It’s still not the “me” that I expect to see. After several years of endocrine therapy, I do not look like I used to. My body doesn’t feel like it used to.
So I stopped beating myself up about it. I need more rest time between workouts. I get tired earlier in the evening. Yeah, I forget things. A lot. So I write more notes and declare my intentions out loud (“I’m going to have to take the next exit…”) so I remember what I’m doing.
I still don’t recognize “myself” in the mirror, but that is a previous “self” who was the right “self” for that time. The current “self” is wiser and more gentle with her body and her spirit.
And I do recognize her.