People often think that you stop thinking about cancer the day you are in remission. Quite the contrary, cancer can impact your life for many years to come. From the check-ups at the doctor’s office to holding your breath until you hear some variation of ‘all clear’, cancer can live in your head far long after an initial diagnosis.
Except one day, I did not hear those two reassuring words. Last year, after being diagnosed fifteen years prior, I was facing breast cancer again. After giving myself the luxury to live my life freely and not let cancer take center stage, I was back to feeling like cancer came first. After the initial shock and surprise wore off, I started to ask myself, “ok, what now?”. What is different about cancer a second time around is not only did I know what to expect but my family did too. Whether you chose to or not, you hold space for your loved ones who are also, indirectly, facing cancer. As all mothers and caretakers do, I was worried about my daughter, husband, and my family, how they handle the stress, and if they were worried about me. I was trying my best to keep life as normal as possible for them, even amid cancer.
While that was sustainable in the beginning, it became increasingly harder to juggle a career, family life, cancer, and my mental and emotional well-being. Once the appearance-related effects of cancer—most notably the hair loss and dark circles—reared its head, it became harder to not have cancer be a major focal point in my day-to-day life. Whether we want to admit it or not, the way we look impacts us a lot. It was hard to acknowledge cancer as just one aspect of my life; I felt as if it took over and became all that people could see of me. There were even times I would look at myself in the mirror and not even recognize the person staring back at me. This moment can be one of the hardest in the cancer journey.. This is a huge part of the cancer journey that we do not talk enough about, because it was more than just how I looked. It impacted my mental health as well.
Thankfully, I remembered of the Look Good Feel Better workshops from my first diagnosis fifteen years ago when a nurse told me about the program. Admittedly, attending a workshop was not top of mind because I was so overwhelmed with cancer the first time around. But, after a few months, I decided to put myself and wellbeing first and attend a workshop. I had such a great time focusing on something other than the medical aspects of cancer. I even brought my sister along, and she had a great time too.
In an age of social distancing, when women facing cancer might not have the same supports as pre-COVID, I believe attending an online workshop can be a positive force. From my own experience, just being able to see and hear other people who are dealing with similar issues reaffirms that I was not alone in my experiences. I learned, among many things, that something as simple as a colourful lipstick can be enough to brighten your mood—because you get to see beyond the cancer again. It brings you back to yourself.
For anyone trying to hold it all together for their loved ones while facing cancer, I encourage you to make time for yourself and attend an online workshop. Sometimes the best way to be there for others is to first be there for yourself.