Donna is a former Hospice Social Worker, a former Elder Law Attorney, and an ovarian cancer survivor. Check out her website: www.survivingtoflourishing.net. This picture is from Donna's garden, one of her newly discovered passions!
During treatments, my sole focus was to continue living
Cancer, its treatment, and survivorship bring along with it many surprises. It is not unexpected that an initial cancer diagnosis is shocking to most of us. Then along comes treatment which unless you have been through it before or have been intimately associated with someone who has been, also brings along many surprises. For me, once treatment ended and I started on maintenance medications, I was left bewildered and with a feeling of, “Now what?” I had no idea what my life would look like going forward, and more importantly, I was looking at my future feeling like I didn’t know who I was anymore. How could I figure out what I wanted my life to look like if I didn’t even know who I was or what I liked anymore.
I spent most of my time in treatment focusing on one thing, doing what I had to do to continue living. In some ways this was quite a treat and blessing, because I was present in every moment, mindful of what was happening right now, and purposefully not thinking of the future. And while mindfulness can be a good thing, by only being present in the moment and by not thinking about the future, I also stopped paying attention to simple things about how I wanted to spend my time or what I liked. See, during treatment it didn’t matter that I didn’t like taking my medicine, or that I wanted to be outside when I had to spend the day in the infusion center. My wants didn’t matter because I needed to do certain things to live.
Cancer diagnosis and treatment change you
After treatment, I was left with a wide-open vista with which to view my life. As you know, a cancer diagnosis and treatment change you in a fundamental way. You now understand on a much deeper level about the limited time you have. Certain things that you valued before are no longer as important, and other things begin to take center stage. There is a newfound depth to living now as you are acutely aware of the limited time that this thing called life is. You want to make the most of every moment and increase moments of joy. So where do you find these moments of delight when you feel like you don’t know who you are anymore.
After feeling completely lost, I started to think about what I valued the most. Keeping up my most important connections, something that I know I let lag in the hustle and bustle of pre-cancer life, was vitally important. That was and is the thing that brings me the most joy. Seeing the people I love, especially since I had not seen many loved ones for quite a while because my surgery and treatment was during COVID, meant more to me than I could ever express. I wasn’t sure I was going to see anyone again, so every face-to-face reconnection was and is profound and deeply moving. I captured a piece of delight.
But what else brought me joy?
I wasn’t sure, but here is how I started to find out. I had no idea what I liked to do anymore, what hobbies I liked, what, if anything, was on my bucket list. With small baby steps I started by thinking of the things I liked to do as a child. For me, I was an avid reader. This primarily went by the wayside due to the obligations of my pre-cancer professional life. I tried reading again. I was transformed back into a world of imagination, sparking memories of things long forgotten about, and spurred into thinking about old things with a new perspective. I regained another little bit of delight.
Then I started thinking about what I always wanted to do if I had time. Well for me, gardening was close to the top of the list. I’m not sure if it’s in my DNA as my ancestors were farmers or if it’s just the joy of caring for or watching something grow, digging in the dirt and feeling connected to the soil and to the earth. Whatever it is, I started gardening, growing both vegetables and flowers. As silly as this sounds, I was truly joyful when I saw a little green sprout pop up out of the dirt. Being outside in the healing sunshine, hearing and watching the birds was a bonus. Another little slice of delight was found.
During this trial-and-error period I discovered that there were some things that I used to love that no longer brought me joy. While I still love cooking and a comfy home, I no longer enjoy watching the cooking or home design shows. Some hobbies I loved when I was younger, like needlework, felt more like a chore to me now so I no longer do them. I also quickly realized that I can’t do everything that I’ve always wanted to try. While I am expanding and trying new things, some of which I enjoy, I try and stick with the things where I feel the most joy and delight.
Rediscovering yourself and finding delight
So here are my takeaways in rediscovering yourself and finding delight in the after cancer. If you feel like you don’t know who you are after cancer, figure out what you value. It will help you determine how you want to spend your time and who you want to spend it with. If you can’t figure out what you like to do anymore, start by looking at what you liked to do as a child and see if rediscovering those things still resonates with you. If you don’t know what to do, try something that you’ve always wanted to do and see what happens. It may bring you delight and joy or it may seem like more of a chore. Either way, you will know. The thing is to set out to intentionally rediscover yourself and you will find your delight after cancer.