Cancer treatments create a massive physical struggle and a daily fight for survival. Constant medical scrutiny leads to insecurity. Treatments take away strength, both physical and mental. Then one day, my last treatment is done and it hits me: What comes next? Is the cancer gone? How will I know? Isn’t there anything else that can be done? Where do I go from here? The season after treatment is very difficult, filled with emotional instability, questions, fear, and uncertainty. Unfortunately, for many of us, once treatments are complete, we enter a season of feeling stuck in a post-treatment anxiety. There are many fears and unanswered questions. These thoughts fill us with a new type of need, but they are needs that cannot be easily revealed nor clearly communicated. How do I start again? Has everyone already forgotten that I had cancer? How will I pay for these past two years? How long before this all begins again? What is this pain in my side? On and on the questions roll, controlling our emotions and crushing our ability to thrive. In this emotional process of beginning again, the question “Who am I?” emerges. This question might seem trite, but in this season of significant change, it deserves proper attention before we are able to heal emotionally.
Before cancer, I would have described myself as a confident, centered person on the best path for my life. Then my life stopped. I was stripped of my confidence and my path. I was left with nothing but the question, “Who am I?”. All of the adjectives I would have used to answer the question before cancer, no longer apply. At the same time, I came face-to-face with new truths about myself. Before cancer I would have stated with confidence, “I am more than my circumstances,” yet when terrible circumstances came my way, I was left changed and shaken. Before cancer, I would never have thought, “I am defined by my physical appearance,” yet when my hair fell out and my eyebrows and eyelashes were gone, I truly struggled to find myself, in the mirror or otherwise. Cancer’s impact on my self-image showed me that I have a lot of room for growth. The truth is that I am more complex than I will ever know.
There are pieces of myself that I put on and bring forward daily for all to see. There are parts I do not even want to show myself. Upon honest examination, there are an unknown number of layers that make up who I am. Each significant story in my life created a layer. Some layers happen to fall on the surface and receive the spotlight while others lay hidden despite their significant value. One exercise for escaping a post-treatment anxiety, is to take time to find an honest answer to the question, “Who was I?” and the follow up question “Who do I want to be?”. These are not easy questions to resolve. I am fractured. I am different at work than I am at home. My ideal “me” is different than who I am every day. There are many versions and many visions of myself. Fortunately, this complexity provides opportunity for who I can become.
Cancer took at least one version of me. It disappeared and was left in my past. As treatments end, it is important for me to take time to mourn for that version of me. I have spoken to survivors who wrestle with picking up the pieces in order to put that old “self” back together, with minimal success. I feel we must be reminded that whatever picture of self that was lost during cancer is not the only version of you. Perhaps it is not even the best version of you. Cancer stripped me of both good and bad, but I have the ability to rebuild. I have the power to recreate myself not as who I was, but who I want to be. I have the opportunity to minimize the negative aspects in my life and replace it with what I want to define my future. Post-treatment is a unique moment of time to become whomever I want to be. It is a moment of vulnerability and rawness, and a moment when I am not healed, but I have moved beyond the sickness. There is stillness, as the routines of life have not swept in, but there is also churning within my thoughts. My old expectations are gone, along with many of my fears. So what do I want for myself now? Post-treatment is a season of freedom. Freedom is a gift that is both liberating and terrifying, and beginning again requires significant courage.
So let us fortify ourselves as we consider who we are. As cancer survivors, we have accomplished an impossible task. There was something in our life, in our body, trying to kill us. You made difficult decisions, that only you could make. Perhaps when you received the diagnosis, there was no question that you would proceed with treatment or perhaps you struggled with where to begin. Either way, it requires significant courage to willingly submit yourself to chemo, radiation, and surgery. Once treatment begins, it requires more and more courage to continue through the process. The night before a scheduled chemo is filled with choices: Can I handle another treatment? Do I want what tomorrow will bring? Then despite the knowledge of what is to come, you moved forward, pushing through treatments and in the end accomplishing impossible things. You pushed back a disease that wanted to kill you. You beat the odds. You are triumphant. You are fierce. You are strong. You may not feel it today, but it is there inside of you. If you choose to own this piece of your new self it can monumentally change how you answer, “Who do I want to be?”.
I am choosing to embrace the strengths cancer revealed and I have placed this strength on the surface of my new identity. I consider this a gift of cancer. Before cancer, I would never have described myself as fierce, but now, if I am honest, I know that inside of me is a strength that will rise against any challenge in my life. I can face any impossibility with confidence. I have done impossible things; I can do it again. I have pushed through crippling fear; I can do it again. I have submitted all that I am in order to accomplish a goal; I can do it again. I am driven by a deep unshakable confidence and courage that I never experienced before cancer. As I learn to walk in this new strength, I become more and more thankful for my cancer experience.
So, who am I? I was changed by cancer, that is true, but how I was changed plays an important role in my future. The presence of cancer in my life did not change me, there were months or possibly years when I had cancer in my body and I was unaware. My life began to change because of what I chose to believe about myself and others after I heard the words, “You have breast cancer.” Through treatments, did I believe I was all alone in my fight or that I was surrounded by a community? As a survivor, do I believe that I have overcome cancer or that I only have a few years before the fight begins again? It is what I choose to believe that changes me, not the cancer itself.
Cancer provides a platform for deep reflection. It showed me what was already inside of me. It revealed my insecurities and fears. I cannot blame cancer for the baggage that was already present in my life, just as I cannot blame cancer for who I am. Cancer taught me many things and helped me take an honest look into the layers of who I am. Now, what I choose to place on the surface, for all to see, is different than before. Now, the characteristics I simply did not acknowledge before, I choose to embrace. Who I am after cancer is not a puzzle needing to be put together in the correct way, but rather is one layer upon the next. Like the layers of the Earth, each layer tells a story. Each story cannot stand alone for they are all interconnected and require each other for a true understanding of all that I am. My cancer experience has become a layer in my life. A layer that tells a new story of who I am. Cancer is only one layer though, what I do with that part of my story, is up to me.
Lauren Huffmaster, aka Eden, was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2015 at the age of 35. Months after completing all recommended treatments, she was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer in 2017. Lauren is a wife, and mother of three young girls. Since diagnosis, she has worked as a freelance writer and photographer. To read more of Lauren’s work, visit PursuitOfKindness.com.
When I was first diagnosed with breast cancer, I had already returned to knitting several years earlier after a break of many years. Knitting projects were great to bring along on business trips and I spent many hours knitting in hospital rooms as my father’s health declined. There was an exciting new social media platform for knitters and the recent resurgence in the craft meant that wonderful fibers and tools were easily available, both in brick and mortar shops and online. Socks were my main project of choice, although scarves, hats, cowls, baby blankets, and sweaters had also made their way onto my needles.
But suddenly I was faced with a scary diagnosis. Now, my little projects were worked on in waiting rooms—waiting for doctors, scans, blood work, and consultations. I couldn’t always fully concentrate on my project, but having one to pull out and knit a few stitches on moved my thoughts away from the fear and worry I was feeling.
So, I began a year of treatment. Surgery, chemo, more chemo, more surgery, and finally, radiation. Through it all, I kept knitting. There were difficulties, of course—restlessness during chemo sessions, post-surgical pain and recovery, and losing most of my fingernails—but I did my best to power through and pick up my needles as each issue resolved. I joined an amazing support group, Knitters with Breast Cancer, on Ravelry (an online community of knitters) and found my hand virtually held through every step of the way by the wonderful women there. Knitting is relaxing and can almost be meditative when I knit at home, listening to music. And once my treatment was over, I joined a few local knitting groups and connected with yet more wonderful women.
I also began to volunteer at Bay Area Cancer Connections, where I’ve worked on their Helpline for two years now. When discussions came up about starting a knitting group there, I was more than happy to help get it started and gather together some easy patterns people can work on. Now I lead this group and we meet twice monthly: the second Tuesday of the month from 2:00–4:00 p.m. and on the fourth Thursday from 6:00–8:00 p.m. Everyone is welcome to join! I can get beginners started on a washcloth or shawl, or you are welcome to bring your own project. There is little structure—just a group of women sitting in the BCC living room, knitting and chatting away. Our topics range from our own experiences with breast cancer to travel to how to tell the difference between a knit and a purl stitch.
I hope that you can join us!
This knitting circle, “Knit One, Purl Two”, is not a support group or group therapy.
Catherine first learned to knit during the six months she attended school in Ireland. Starting with a sock and using white wool was probably not the best introduction to knitting. She took it up again in earnest when she traveled for her job as an engineering director. She freely admits that she is a yarn addict, and her husband and three sons are well supplied with hand-knit socks. Catherine is a two-time breast cancer survivor and volunteers weekly for BCC’s Helpline.
There’s not much that can rock one’s world like a cancer diagnosis; diagnosed with breast cancer a few months after the birth of my daughter, what was the most joyful time in my life suddenly became the scariest. Instead of worrying about what type of dye-free, biodegradable diapers I should purchase, I was consumed with the fear that I would not live to see my beautiful baby girl, Penelope, whom I’d only just started to know, grow up.
Jessica is a breast cancer survivor, the author of Cancer Hates Kisses, and the National Field Leader for Literacy at Open Up Resources, an education not-for-profit. She was formerly an elementary school teacher, district literacy coach, and Chief Academic Officer at an award-winning literacy company.