A free-style reflection on the cancer experience after five years of remission.
By: Jenna Lindman
WARNING: This blog has swearing and strong language
At this point I’ve probably shared my cancer journey with thousands of different people, in person or through social media. It’s amazing that after five years of being cancer-free I still discover new lessons about my journey each time I reflect on it. So, what’s the lesson this time? Overall, it’s the realization that healing takes a long time, or maybe that healing is a process that never really ends. It’s a funny thing, trauma. You can’t just shove it behind a door and hope it goes away. The moment you think you’ve come complete with it, something can bring you right back to that place— that not-so-happy, painful place. Bringing your past right here in the present.
I have gotten better at leaving the past behind me, but it’s only come by dealing with it. By opening the closet door and sorting through the skeletons one bone at a time. I spent too much time ignoring the pain, pretending it wasn’t there—and guess what? It didn’t work. It just made me live this inauthentic narrative of how okay I said I was. It’s only now that I feel strong enough to share that I still don’t have it all figured out when it comes to living my post-cancer life. I suspect it’s something that will always need healing and that I will always learn from.
There were a few years after being in remission where I felt totally fine with what happened to me. I would speak about it as if it had happened to someone else— Jenna is great. Jenna beat cancer, she’s so grateful and she’s being a good girl and doing everything she can to make sure it doesn’t happen to her again. A blessing in disguise, she appreciates every day so much more now.
I did a really good job of convincing myself and everyone else that that was true. I tried to pretend that I was 150% better, when maybe I was only 70%, and at times maybe even -70%. I think part of the reason I said that is because I thought that’s what people wanted to hear, that is was just easier that way.
When I did open up on a rare occasion about my struggle to get back to a healthy, happy place (which was hard because before cancer I wasn’t in a healthy, happy place) I was met with uncomfortable silences or phrases like, “you beat cancer, you can do anything” (Um, okay, but it’s not my pure willpower that beat cancer, it was my treatments and doctors and my support network, in combination with follow through of appointments and prescriptions) or, “you should be grateful you made it, you’re lucky” (Wow thanks, that was so helpful you should be a motivational speaker, asshole). So, pretending I was okay was the path of least resistance.
But, I do think that maybe it helped me in a way. Mainly because at least when I was around other people I had my shit together for a few hours until I would go home and totally unravel. I don’t think that “fake it til’ you make it” is necessarily good advice, but it can help get you through the day, at least for a little while.
Life felt like a slow leak that would build up, then I’d notice the leak had created a giant pool of a mess. I’d clean it up when no one was looking and try to patch the leak, but it would start leaking from somewhere else and I’d start all over again; and then there would be two leaks, then three, and I was just too exhausted after a while to keep cleaning up the mess, too proud to ask for help from someone who knew how to fix leaks, sad that the DIY instructions didn’t work for me.
What I didn’t know then was that healing can’t be rushed. It takes its own path and you may heal better in some areas than you do in others. What I also didn’t know is that healing takes work. You can’t sit back and watch yourself heal, you need to actively help yourself and take a deep look at the areas you like to hide from yourself.
A year after chemo ended I was still slowly drowning. My breath was short due to the anxiety, and my paranoia convinced me it was another tumor beneath my breast even though the doctor said I was still cancer-free. Filing for bankruptcy made me a loser, finishing up my college degree at 24 made me an idiot, and having short hair and 190 lbs. made me ugly (All meanings I made up on my own, thank you very much. I’m so creative.) The self-hatred knew no bounds. The thoughts would race and build until I’d plead with myself for it to stop. I can’t do this anymore. It’s too much, my life is never going to get better, I am nothing, I’ll never be enough, I’ll never be beautiful, I’ll never be loved- not if they knew the real me. This ugly me, this me that has given up. But Jenna, be grateful you lived. No, FUCK YOU. I wish I had died, I swear it would be easier than living with this voice that’s always telling me I’m nothing.
Easier than being stuck with myself, this person that can’t do anything right. It wasn’t worth it, I’m not worth it, I can’t do it. Wow, you are so selfish. Wow, you’ve been given this opportunity to live and you can’t even appreciate it. Think of what everyone went through for you, Jenna.
I never asked them to. I wish they hadn’t!
I don’t deserve it! Please, stop! STOP.
Oops, time to go out in public. “I’m so happy to be here, yes things are going really well. I’m really getting back on my feet.”
One and a Half
A dozen mental breakdowns and a self-help class later, I found something new, something different, very suddenly. A light went on, a door blew open. All these things I made up about myself were not truths. That I could authentically be the warrior I was pretending to be in front of other people and things didn’t have to be perfect, and I didn’t have to have it all figured out. And if I did just a little bit every day to get back on my feet, I could maybe rebuild an identity and a life. And maybe I could ask for help, and maybe it was okay I wasn’t okay all the time.
At two years out I had cleaned up the mess and the leaks have stopped. Deep breath. Wow, I can breathe. Now I can create something new. Blank pages ahead. Tabula Rasa.
Three years out was a blur. I had finished college (I refused to walk across stage at graduation out of embarrassment for how long it took me, a decision I regret). Bankruptcy had discharged (woohoo, now my credit was a 640!!). I was working in managerial position I had been promoted into. Not thrilled with the work, but glad I was building a structure.
I was living with my best friend, my now-husband. Still struggling with weight. Still struggling with self-love. Still not fully accepting that there is a place for me in this world. Still trying to balance my life and dreams and desires with what I think everyone else expects of me, but doing considerably better. Struggling with human relationships—my relationship with the family cat, Charles, was going great.
Still using cancer as a crutch rather than a source of empowerment, especially when it came to my diet and activity. But I worked on myself every day, letting pride get less in the way of things. Learned how to be empathetic towards others again because for a brief time I believed my struggles were worse. Realized a new purpose: I can build a career out of helping other people, I’ll call it IgniteHope. But still not feeling capable.
I saw myself in a dream with a hot air balloon ready to float away, but it’s tethered to the ground and I’m not sure if I’m strong enough to lift the stakes.
Four years out I felt like I’m on fire most days, a brilliant fire. A don’t-stop-me-now fireball flashing across the sky. Until I have days I don’t feel like that. And I feel like what I’m doing doesn’t matter. That I’m not really helping anyone. This is a stupid idea, stupid girl. Then someone says, “thank you,” and I’m a blaze of glory all over again. Until I’m not. And then I send out a care package or give someone a gift or tell a friend I love them. I try anything to reignite myself.
My relationship with alcohol is something I struggle with post-chemo. I’m not binge drinking, but not necessarily doing light drinking. I feel like I’m playing catch-up from what I may have missed in my early twenties from being sick. I fully understand this is silly. I indulge anyways. And then the morning comes. What have you done. You were doing so great, idiot. Now you’re hungover and the world is ending.
It takes me two full days to recover from a hangover. It takes me 28 years to realize that any amount of alcohol (a sip or a half bottle of wine) makes me miserably depressed. It takes me one more year to actively avoid it.
Five years out, I realize I need to take better care of my body. I’ve had this realization and pep talk with myself a million times, probably, literally. The cycle would usually go like this: Today’s the day, Jen-Jono! You’re going to the gym and you’re going to eat well and feel awesome. Two hours later I’m eating a peanut butter cup that I totally deserve for walking up two flights of stairs and being slightly out of breath.
But for some reason, this realization is different. I’ve decided that planning it and thinking about it just aren’t good enough anymore and find a trainer and dietician. I decide there is no better investment that I can make than in myself. It’s hard at first mentally: fighting the I don’t wanna, and It’s just gonna end up the same as every other time. But it’s different this time, I swear. I see progress. I crave healthy things, and the thought of Flaming Hot Cheetos makes my joints hurt.
I look good, I deserve to party. Wine, beer, my head chanting Pizza Puffs! Pizza Puffs! Pizza Puffs! Wooo! Oops set-back, it takes two more weeks to get back where I was before my pizza reward. Damn, looking good, look at that quad definition. Let’s celebrate. IPA! Spinach dip! Woo! Sorry Pat, I’m too hungover to go to the gym.
My trainer knows I’ve been drinking and explains to me how half of all alcohol consumed turns into fat that is stored in my body. I act horrified, like this is new information that alcohol does bad things to your body.
Work out and diet for two straight weeks. And then it happens- I finally surrender to the voice that says, “You look good, let’s celebrate by reading that book you started six months ago.” And I finish the fucking book. And I join a book club and read that book. And I stick to the diet plan. And I go to the gym on a Saturday night. And I finally accept that this company I founded is doing amazing things. And I feel good about the path I’m on.
And then I feel insecure about the money I make, and then I tell myself it’s okay because you don’t have to have it all figured out just yet. And then I get intimidated by my brother and my cousin’s income, and then I re-remind myself I don’t have to have it figured out just yet. It’s coming. Just like everything else has. And then I sleep so soundly next to my husband and my two cats that like to jump on the kitchen counter, even though I have been yelling at them for their whole lives to “get down” from that god damned counter. And I dream about hot air balloons floating freely over a big beautiful mess.