After Cancer Treatment, How Do I Get Back to Being Me?

by Lisa Vento

Last year, this very weekend, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. It seems so long ago because so much happened when I heard the words, “You have cancer.” to now a year later. As we all know, there are decisions and surgeries and treatment and within all of that is a loss of self.

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Lisa and her family

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I thought I knew who I was. I thought I was an uber-focused MOM (caps and emphasis, mine). I thought I was meant to be a local teacher so I could still do my number one which was to care for everyone else. I never thought about what I needed beyond just the bare minimum to be able to do all of the things I needed to do for other people. I am not knocking it; I just realized the hard way that if I did not care enough about me that I would not be able to do the things I did for others.

I had some wise people in my life who kept telling me to slow down, to take care of me but I kept pushing myself to the limits. Activities, working, entrepreneurship, family obligations, full-time work...everything on ME without giving myself any slack. This is the story of all moms, all caretakers, all people who put other people before themselves. I used to side-eye people who put their obligations on hold to do things for themselves. I side-eyed them hard. I get it now.

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Lisa's first chemo treatment

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Wish I could say that I would have gotten it without having gotten cancer, but I do not think I would have. I am nothing if not hard-headed, after all, I am half Sicilian. Now that I am standing here, post-cancer plot twist, I am taking the lessons that mattered and trying to forget the rest. I am trying to forget what fear I felt upon being diagnosed. I am learning to forget the way I worried pre-cancer compared to post-cancer diagnosis. I am trying to incorporate all of this “experience” into who I want to be NOW.

During cancer treatment, I was working full time as that local teacher. I almost did not choose to go to the world-renowned cancer center in the metropolis of my city so I could still be nearby for kids and work. I no longer have said job, and I no longer have said pre-cancer mentalities so it is a time of reinvention for me.

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Lisa at New York City 

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I am still me, of course, but I want to think I am the better, more improved version of me. And no I will NOT thank cancer for that or anything - I still wish I never got the damn thing, but I did so I have to deal with it. For the bulk of my life, I have been an “expert” at resumes and even ran a semi-successful small business centered around careers and college.  (see www.thenextstep1234.com to see the remnants of that small business) - I even wrote books on how to be “career-ready” and to be “entrepreneur-ING” for your own career. Now I am sitting here, unemployed and not by choice for the first time in my life as an “employee”.

Sadly, I am not alone. Many people have reached out to me who also lost their jobs during treatment. It stinks, but it can be looked at as an opportunity or at least that is how I am trying to re-frame it. The fact is that it sucks to have spent time working alongside people who have never dealt with their body breaking down and being told you are not working hard enough or being told your position is no longer available to you. It really is a kick in the proverbial nuts when you are barely holding your life together as you are looking in the mirror at a bald, one boobed woman and now no longer have that thing that was getting you to put your wig on straight and your lipstick on and go to work every damn day during chemotherapy (except treatment days) to do the best you could. To lose the chance to go back to be the real you, to kick ass after cancer and to show everyone what you can really do. This all sucks, and everyone has something similar in their hearts when they lose their job during or after treatment.

We are, as humans, defined by our “work” - it is one of the first things we ask when meeting new people, the age-old “what do you do?” question. To lose that part of our identities in addition to losing our hair, our health, breasts or whatever is something that is truly another layer of nastiness to deal with in our plot twist. My heart breaks for everyone who had this happen to them.

I know I cannot ruminate in that and I hope that you will not, either, if you had this other layer of nastiness added to the mix of your cancer plot twist. I have to see it as part of this new path, this new plot twist I am on and as someone who used to excel in resumes and interviews. I now am forging ahead on this NEW way of being professional - this new way of interviewing where my fake boob might not be situated right, my hair is in a style I would never have chosen for myself (but it really is rockin’, if I do say so myself). It is also about being so damn vulnerable and having people still be able to look at me and say, “She was sick.” because it is correct and I am no longer ashamed of it.

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Lisa growing new hair

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I am not saying that every interview is going to talk about my illness and what I have been through but I almost do not have to talk about it. It is me, this new me and as I forge ahead and try to make myself “career ready” again I am thinking and hoping that I can help others do the same for themselves after illness, such as cancer, takes away their “before” and leaves them with their “after”. We are still us but we are better.

These are the top 5 things I “learned” from this plot twist:


1- How to not care about the little stuff. I was the type of person who worried about everything who could catalog every little thing that DID go wrong and calculate what COULD go wrong and worry about it in advance, too, regardless of whether or not it could really happen. would lay awake at night after work thinking about all of the things I could have done better or what I said and why I said it and how others would be surely thinking about it right that moment, too, because I had done something so stupid. 

2-Trying to figure out my Work/Life Balance. This is a true thing - it is something I want to find that ability to kick ass and be ME but also with the ability to still be around with family AND friends. I no longer want to just be the “mom” anymore; I want to be LISA, too.

3-Being very protective of my health. I am totally all about listening to my body now when before I just ran, ran, ran without thinking - now I am staying clear on what my body needs and giving myself time to rest, when and if I can.

4-Learning to help others. I am focused on sharing my story and trying to use my ‘talents” to help others in whatever way I can.

5-Learning to let go and let God.I understand this will not work for everyone, if you do not believe in God, substitute whatever you need to give you peace in this world whether it be meditation, exercise, hypnosis, etc. I also do those things, too, though.

Lisa Vento (Nielsen)
Breast Cancer Blogger & Advocate
http://www.thetimebetweenis.weebly.com
Instagram: @thetimebetweenis
Twitter: @timebetweenis

Do you have a story about getting back to being you after cancer? How have you been able to do it? Contact us about sharing your story to help others. 

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