This week, I wanted to explore a complex topic, or at least one I find challenging to write about, mostly because it’s a concept I don’t fully understand yet.
For lack of a better definition, we’ll call it the paradox of healing.
What do I mean by this?
Well, I am healthy again. It’s been six whole months since my stem cell transplant. Just last week I received the glorious news that my scans are clear. Although I still suffer from a range of side effects, including premature menopause, insomnia, and fatigue, the reality is that I’m no longer buried deep in the devastating throes of this disease. I made it over the metaphorical mountain, finally.
And it’s marvelous to be healthy, don’t get me wrong. I will never take the gift of life for granted again. I literally dance through the days.
There is also a strange paradox to be found in resuming regular life after going through something so life-changing.
When you are sick with an illness like cancer, everything in your life is heightened. You are unable to plan for the future and think of anything but the present moment. The suffering you experience is extreme, yes, but so are the good days. You feel everything so intensely. Although you are often sad, isolated, in pain, and frightened, life is colored with an intense aliveness.
So, when you come out the other side of it all, you realize you can’t go back to being “normal.” Cancer changes you forever.
I remember when I was ill I got so tired of people categorizing me as the “girl with cancer.” Even if they didn’t say it out loud, I saw it in their eyes. Now, coming out the other side, people see me as normal again. But I don’t identify with “normality” either.
When I had cancer, I belonged to this group of strong, courageous, “inspirational” people who were fighting this disease. Coming out of it and being seen as healthy, I feel that I have lost my tribe. So, there is a sense of not knowing where I belong or what my identity is.
I’m not who I was before this disease, but I’m also not the girl with cancer anymore.
It’s a strange feeling that I can only describe as wanting to heal, and at the same time, never wanting to forget.
Sebastian Junger, an American journalist who writes about social belonging and tribalism, has spoken about the feeling soldiers have when coming home from war, and the nostalgia they have for the battlefield. This arises because despite the trauma and terror of their experiences in combat, they felt a sense of belonging.
“The irony about modern society is that it has removed hardship and danger from everyday life, and it is in the face of hardship and danger that people come to understand their value to their society and their sense of meaning from that,” Junger wrote.
I relate to this because when I was sick, I felt seen. I felt held by so many people. Friends messaged me nonstop to check in, and I felt my story mattered.
Now that I’m healthy, I can feel that dissipating. I feel my community of survivors getting further away from me. I feel myself returning to normal life, and that returning causes a feeling of not knowing where I belong anymore. It’s strange because I also never want to return to the days of illness again. How happy I am to have made it through everything. And yet, this strange paradox exists.
The conclusions I can draw, ultimately, are that emotions are complex. The human experience is complex. Navigating life post-cancer is complex. I must make peace with not knowing where exactly I belong right now.
The solution, I suppose, lies not in trying to fit into any box, but rather to accept that “my tribe” is not one group but many. And that it’s possible to embrace a “normal” life while continuing to keep my story alive through sharing, writing, talking, feeling, and helping others.
I can find a sense of belonging by talking to other survivors, through writing this column, and through relating to other stories of pain and adversity. Because we all have them, and that is, after all, what makes us human.
Note: Lymphoma News Today is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of Lymphoma News Today or its parent company, BioNews Services, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to lymphoma.
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