Finding My Way After Breast Cancer

I kept my head down for four and a half years just trying to get through the horror show of treatments, six surgeries, and not die. And as a single mom, keep my family afloat. Life after cancer wasn’t really on my mind. Sometimes I would envision my son and me off on a Hawaiian vacation when this was all over. But the Big Picture? I couldn’t focus on that.

When I first heard my diagnosis, I mumbled to my doctor in a shell-shocked stupor, “Do I go back to work?” “Work!?” He exclaimed, “Your whole life is about to change.” That was the truest thing a doctor has said to me. Most of the rest is speculation – How much time I have left to live, the severity of the side effects, recurrence (which I did have); that’s all individual. But what would take me longer to learn that so is everyone’s healing process.

I flailed inside as I tried to get my life back on track when treatment ended. I pushed myself to work too much, too soon, out of fear. I couldn’t come to terms with this new normal. I wanted to pretend like this nightmare never happened and get back to my life plan before I got sick — getting in perfect shape, remarrying, having another baby, and finding a dream career. Why wasn’t it happening faster!? Why wasn’t I living up to all those shiny sexy cancer survivors on the cover of books and magazines who were climbing exotic mountains, running marathons, or inventing delicious lifesaving eating habits? Why wasn’t I living up to that? With my steroid weight gain, one breast, melasma, and short hair, I didn’t feel sexy. Where was my reinvention?

Pushing myself was only making me sicker. I had excruciating neuropathy, migraines, digestive issues, constant fatigue, PTSD, nightmares, grief, depression and soon, I couldn’t work at all. The reality was I had a lot to process and learn. I had to fall apart first before I could be put back together.

One weekend an inner voice said, “if you don’t save yourself right now, when?”  With the support of my team of doctors, I took time away from job. My precious body and life needed me. I turned from forcing solutions to surrendering to them. Trusting life after a devastating Stage 3 diagnosis is a hard one. But I used my strength to get quiet and listen for what was next. 

I asked myself questions like: What am I supposed to learn from all this? What does my body need? What stories does she carry that I need to acknowledge? What is this experience trying to tell me? Answers flowed in. 

I found the right therapist, addressed childhood trauma, felt so many feelings, found my voice, and let people go who didn’t fit into my life. I worked the hardest at developing a partnership with my body. She is now my new best friend. I took a new responsibility for my life and ownership of myself.

Some days it was all just too hard, so I numbed out with games or binge-watching shows. Other days, the physical pain was so bad coupled with the pressures of being the main provider for a child, I wanted to give up on the life I fought so hard to save. I allowed myself these days without judgement knowing my resiliency was gearing up in the background and would move me forward again.

I discovered joy on the dancefloor during a trip I won to the Caribbean with 200 other breast cancer survivors. I developed deeper friendships, fell in love, and heard myself laugh like I hadn’t in years. My son and I did make it on that Hawaiian vacation too! 

There is no one size fits all template to life after a cancer diagnosis. This is where I had gotten stuck. Having ideas in my head of what my healing should look like. I can look back now and have deep compassion for myself. Of course, I wanted it to look a certain way. This was scary! Now I know my breast cancer reinvention is a different kind of reinvention. It is a quiet one, a powerful one, a flowing one. The rewards are a rich experience profoundly fulfilling me. My path forward will light up as if the yellow brick road was unfurling in front of me, one golden brick lighting up at a time showing the way for me to go. — Shelley Moreno

Read more from the community on life after a cancer diagnosis, here.

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