The vast majority of what I've written over the years about surviving cancer as a young adult has been about empowering survivors to make the changes that they've needed to make in their lives after cancer. Cancer is not just a disease of our bodies, but a disease of our minds as well, which can be the most difficult challenge of all. I read commonly of others who are still afraid, or experiencing depression or anxiety about cancer 10 or even 20 years after it had entered their lives, which just goes to show how challenging cancer can be. This isn't a race. We all have individual journeys, but I'm not afraid of cancer anymore, I no longer experience cancer-related anxiety, depression, or posttraumatic stress, and that's an achievement to be proud of when it's only taken me 5 years to get there. Personal behavioral change after cancer has been the key to that.
1) START BY ACCEPTING THE FACTS
Whether seen as a disease of body or mind, cancer is relentless, and you have to be relentless right back at it. When I've realized that a way of thinking, a behavior, a philosophy, or that something or someone in my life was causing me harm, I've never been shy about tearing that down and starting over again, even if I had no idea what was next, or what I should be doing instead. It was so terrifying the first time I let go like this, but I've done so so many times now. As it turned out, one of my own worst enemies after cancer was me.
For years after my cancer fight, I had trouble accepting that "I Had Cancer." Cancer was never in my life plan, and young adults just don't get cancer. It's a terrible thing to have to deal with and have hanging over your head, all while managing careers and families. I never stopped living my life, but there was this part of me that could never accept cancer in my life, and with it came periods of depression. I'm the type that's always needed the cold hard truth about things. Deep inside, I knew the answer to my questions - I was resisting, but had to let it go and accept the truth.
The cancer ‘red pill’: The truth is, the lifetime risk of cancer is 1 in 2 for men, and 1 in 3 for women. It's inevitable that at some point in your life, either you or someone you love is going to have cancer, and there's nothing we can do about that yet today. Cancer is just a part of our humanity. Cancer can happen to anyone, including to young adults and children. We have little control over if we get cancer or not, but we can control if we accept it or not, and how we feel about it. I relented and accepted, but only after I could hurt no more trying to deny it. I came to accept that there were never any guarantees for anyone, that cancer and so many other diseases can happen to anyone at any time, that there's nothing I could do to protect anyone that I loved or cared about from such things, and evolved my thinking and my way of life around these undeniable truths.
"Accepting cancer" was the hardest and most painful pill I've had to swallow in life, but once I did, it couldn't hurt me anymore, and my depression about it went away as I evolved my life around this new reality. Be present in every day, never waste a moment, enjoy life today, go places that you've wanted to go, and do meaningful things with your life. Tell the people that really mean something to you how much you love and appreciate them, because they might not be around tomorrow to hear it. Live your life without regrets.
2) REMEMBER THAT THERE'S NOTHING WRONG WITH YOU
As if having cancer as a young adult doesn't make you feel broken enough, try experiencing posttraumatic stress after cancer, and get back to me. Scratch that. I would not wish PTSD on my worst sworn enemy, it's that bad and inhumane. PTSD was so bad for the one six week period where I actually had the full blown disorder and couldn't get it shut down, that if cancer wasn't going to kill me, I almost wanted to do it myself. I'd never felt more broken in my life than when I experienced posttraumatic stress, but in most cases this is very normal to experience, and is NOT something that's wrong with you, it's what's right!
We have incredibly powerful instincts that are designed to protect us from harm. If your house burned to the ground and you narrowly escaped with your life, you can't tell me that it wouldn't be "normal" to go running outside for your life whenever you smelled smoke or heard a fire engine. In the case of cancer, it's our own bodies that figuratively tried to burn themselves to the ground, yet we lack the ability to run away from and escape our own bodies when something reminds us of that danger. Maybe you see now just how difficult life after cancer can be. Our instincts tell us to run the hell away from the one thing we can't - our own bodies.
I was hurting because of posttraumatic stress, and then hurting more on top of that for feeling as though it was "wrong" to feel at all, but once again, you have a choice. I finally chosoe to accept what I was feeling, and embraced it and worked with it, rather than fighting against it. My posttraumatic stress after cancer told me to run away, and so I did.
Almost every day for three years I went running over lunch, just to burn off this energy. I embraced it and gave myself an out, and learned to accept just how useful these instincts really are. Human beings haven't come to our position of dominance on our planet because we have poor instincts. We have extremely powerful instincts that shouldn't be told they're "wrong" or not listened to. You're only doing yourself more harm when you don't listen to what your instincts are telling you. My periods of posttraumatic stress would be followed by periods of depression because I felt so defective inside, but once I learned to accept my instincts and work with them, it made the posttraumatic stress that much easier to deal with, and I no longer suffered the secondary depression that I had. You have a choice. Choose you.
3) EMBRACE EVERY BIT OF YOURSELF EXACTLY AS YOU ARE
Another thing that I used to beat myself up about was being "too emotional", and feeling things too strongly. I beat myself up for being too afraid, too sad, and too depressed about an "easy cancer", when everybody thought I should be ecstatic. There were more days than I care to admit where I was holed up in the corner in tears, because I was terrified out of my mind that my cancer was going to come back, and that I was going to be next.
Well for starters, there's no such thing as a good cancer, and on top of everything else I'm also a Scorpio, not exactly known for having mild emotions. I've always had very powerful emotions, and having cancer (not the sign!) is what finally forced me to confront my powerful emotions in order to gain control over them, and make them work for me rather than against me. All of those Scorpio memes you've seen are true for me, and my mind felt like a Category 5 hurricane of emotions in my years after cancer. I could have kept beating myself up for this, but instead I learned to harness all of that energy into writing about what I was experiencing, and today I have an award-winning cancer website
as a result of that.
Tell me again that there's something wrong with me for having powerful emotions? There isn't. It's just me, it's what I've always been, and finally allowed myself to be, and what I've done with it is something to be proud of.
Even hurricanes have a purpose.
4) LOVE YOURSELF UNCONDITIONALLY
What I'm talking about in all of this, is self-love. We're all exactly as we were meant to be, we feel exactly what we were meant to feel, and all you have to do is love and accept every bit of yourself, without judgment or criticism. Why are you a certain way? Don't even question it. Our perceived faults are not flaws, and can be our most powerful assets. I didn't change my behavior to become something or someone else, I changed it to allow myself to be exactly what I was all along. After cancer, I just needed to be that person for once in my life, because cancer had already pushed me far beyond my limits. Be your own best friend, and not your own worst enemy. You can't control cancer, but you can control how you feel about it, and how you feel about yourself. Choose to love yourself. There's nothing wrong with you. You're exactly as you were meant to be, and are perfect as is.
Do you have other tips for practicing self-love? Share them in the comments below.