“What doesn’t kill you will only make you stronger.” You’d think being a nearly 30-year cancer survivor, that I’d love this adage. But I don’t. Why not? Because it doesn’t offer any advice about how I get from here—to there. It doesn’t offer me any wisdom as to what strength really is, let alone how to achieve it. But now after so many years of survivorship, I actually think I finally understand.
At age 24, I was diagnosed with an aggressive malignant brain tumor and told that no one had lived more than six months with this tumor type. We didn’t talk about dying in my family. “We don’t have to think about things that may not happen. We can’t get depressed,” my mom would say. But couldn’t we admit we were scared to death and had no idea what to do? No, we thought we had to “stay strong” if I was going to survive.
So I did everything I could to “stay strong.” I read every self-help book I could find. I took notes. I absorbed all those positive messages so much so that I began to think their ideas were actually my ideas.
I took charge, I managed all the aspects of my healing I could, I had a positive attitude, and made all the right changes in my life—eating better, exercising, choosing to do what I was passionate about. I joined a patient empowerment program and started visualizing, doing yoga, exploring holistic medicine, setting life goals. All these were in my tool kit of coping strategies to help me “feel strong” and “stay strong.”
I considered myself the perfect “Power Coper,” but I hadn’t even begun what I would later learn would be the critical step in moving on from my illness—to heal emotionally—by acknowledging and feeling through the trauma of having had cancer.
But in order for me to heal emotionally, I had to stop all this doing—and just start feeling.
Sure I had been told so many times the importance of expressing my feelings, but I simply could not do it. It wasn’t natural for me and, honestly, not feeling was a way of protecting myself.
It wasn’t until five years after my diagnosis, when I was out of the danger zone, and then faced with another unrelated medical problem, that all the feelings that I had stuffed for so long came pouring out.
The floodgates opened when a near stranger simply asked me, “Why are you so different?” Without his knowing it, he put words to exactly what I had been feeling for a very long time. I did feel different, misunderstood, and alone.
My cancer had taken my carefree young adult years and added a level of maturity to me I did not want. It seemed I couldn’t relate to anyone anymore, and in realizing this came incredible sadness. Once I started to feel, it lasted a long time.
Why was I so different? And who am I now? If I re-engage in life, will it all be taken away again?
In order to heal emotionally, I had to allow myself to feel that pain before I could move forward. I had to say goodbye to who I had been, before I could discover who I was becoming.
It was this emotional healing—the pain of confronting the difficult feelings—where I found my true strength. And in discovering this strength, I quit acting strong and started being strong.
“Being strong” to me meant being real, being vulnerable. It takes great strength to be authentic. Being authentic was pretty uncomfortable for me at first, but it is what has made my life after cancer so incredibly rich.