The Aftermath

Rethink is honoured to be the guest editor for Wildfire Magazine’s Identity and Aftermath August issue, which is dedicated to highlighting the struggles of life after cancer diagnosis.

Here is Cristina’s story.

By definition, an aftermath is the consequences of a catastrophe or disaster, and is often associated with having a negative connotation. My aftermath, on the other hand, was the beginning of me creating and finding happiness and my true authentic self.  Of course, a cancer diagnosis at the age of 36 with two small children, and a marriage that was falling apart was catastrophic, but the aftermath of it all was beautiful.  The aftermath of my cancer diagnosis was somewhat of a rebirth, a cleaning house if you will.  It forced me to take inventory, re-evaluate and make changes.  Changes that had been so apparent but that my pre-cancer self had swept under the rug for far too long.

When faced with potentially losing your life, it forces you to be honest with yourself, and it highlights what truly matters.  It gave me clarity and strength to shed what no longer served me.  I slowly started to make small changes. I began by seeking therapy for severe anxiety and post-traumatic stress brought on by my diagnosis and numerous complications and surgeries.  What started off as an attempt to heal my cancer wounds resulted in me healing many other facets of my life.

Step by step, obstacle after obstacle, my true self started to emerge. My anxiety diminished, and joy started to come back into my life.  I began to let go of things, people, and relationships. I began to shift and seek out things that brought me peace, joy, harmony, and which created alignment in my life.  I left my 12-year marriage, while on sick leave and had no idea what was to come next but knew and believed that I deserved happiness and was on a mission to create it.

With the encouragement of my therapist, who would say, “Do things that are out of your comfort zone,” I decided to become an accredited spinning instructor. What started as a personal challenge, set in motion a domino effect.  There on after, I took a leap of faith and left a secure, steady job with a major Canadian bank after almost two decades of service.  Purge.   Cut.   It was time to let go of my false security nets and make room for the new.  Giving fitness classes and teaching spinning brought me so much joy and a sense of fulfillment in being able to motivate others while feeding off each other’s energy.  I began to explore other interests as well, and when ready for another challenge, I went back to school to become a Residential and Commercial Real Estate Broker.  Real estate was something that I had always been passionate about.  As the daughter of a real estate developer, it was my dream to follow in his footsteps, something I am currently putting my energy and drive towards.

You see, when you are given a second chance at life, there is no room for pettiness. Having been given that chance, I inherited the ability to shift my perspective. Things that once seemed so significant were now small in comparison.  Life became lighter! I started to become more aware of my energy and the importance of carefully selecting where I chose to give my focus and energy to.

With a lot of work, self-development, and a change of mindset, what I once viewed as the worst thing to ever happen to me became what I have described to many as one of my biggest blessings.  How did I get so lucky, to now be able to navigate this life with a fresh pair of eyes? Eyes that were now able to see the beauty in things most take for granted.  Somewhere along the way, I realized that this person, this loving, warm, appreciative person was always within me, but sadly life had hardened her and built up walls.  Cancer stripped those walls down and exposed me, the real me. I no longer had anywhere to hide.

Of my entire cancer journey, losing my breasts was by far the most difficult part.  To date, I still struggle with this. Looking in the mirror and seeing my reflection is a constant reminder that I no longer look as I once did.  Especially now, being on the dating scene, it is a conversation that brings up a lot of mixed emotions and one that I often find myself trying to avoid.  Perhaps because I have yet to mourn losing part of me.  How do you tell someone that in order to save your life you made the paramount decision to lose part of yourself, femininity and sexual identity?  How can this be explained in words and what does one say exactly?  And more importantly, how will others react?  In an already seemingly complex dating world, I have had to deal with this added obstacle.  But, instead of letting it discourage me and lose hope in ever finding love again, I remind myself that if a man can’t accept me, the real me, then he is not worthy of being part of my life.

I consider myself to be a confident person, but this is one area where I lack that confidence and ability to be transparent.  Is society to blame? Society puts so much pressure on people to look a certain way, shaming those who don’t fit the mold.  Until I became a cancer survivor, I was oblivious to the reality that sadly, there are many women and men bearing the wounds of their illnesses, being ashamed of their bodies, and felling like they don’t fit in.

It is time we remove the stigma and take steps towards opening the dialogue for those of us who have been taught to be ashamed to speak about and or expose the wounds we bare.  Today, I pledge to change that narrative in my mind and hopefully in yours from shame to acceptance.  It is time we celebrate and embrace our bad ass bodies as it is thanks to them that we stand strong here today.  

So, who am I?  What is my identity and who has emerged from this aftermath? I am a strong, resilient woman.  A woman who knows her worth and will never again settle. A woman who knows that happiness is found from within. A woman who can appreciate and not take things and people for granted. But above all, I am woman who will forever embrace her newfound body and use it as a reminder of the best thing to ever happen to her. – Cristina Gallagher

Click here to read more stories from Wildfire Magazine’s Identity and Aftermath August issue.

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