This topic of feeling like you have lost yourself after being diagnosed and treated for cancer is a big one.  It’s one of the top reasons why people seek my services.  It deserves to be fully explored, today we are going to unpack how it impacts the connection to the activities we love.

When you think about where you are today, how does it compare to life “B.C” (ie before cancer)? Taking stock of the ways in which we have grown is valuable, as it helps to keep us feeling empowered… yet we must also allow ourselves to acknowledge the various struggles and losses in order to heal emotionally.

Prior to having cancer, I was a Zumba fanatic. I used to go multiple days a week, and my body craved the workout that it gave me. I felt strong and alive with the workout.

What I found interesting was 6 months prior to my diagnosis, my love of Zumba began to wane. Initially I chalked it up to wanting something new in my workout, which was probably a part of it. Mostly I think this began to happen because I was starting to get sick, because the Triple Negative tumor was rapidly growing.

I still attend Zumba, but it is not quite the same. I find that even though I continue to exercise on a regular basis, I can’t quite seem to reach the oomph that I once had. Perhaps it is because my focus is shifting to newer needs post cancer, but somehow it feels deeper than that.

This reminds me of a conversation that I had with a male cancer patient, who had been a full time artist until his diagnosis. His eyes were teary as he described how he can no longer go into his studio. This shift happened in part because he associated his studio with hearing that he had cancer, but I think that it also may have been related to how cancer impacts our identity and our ability to do things as we once did them.

Why is it that cancer survivors find it hard to reclaim the activities we have loved? When we love something it is often a part of what brings meaning into our lives.  We experience joy, triumph, connection, accomplishment, purpose.  Doing something that we love creates a connection to feeling alive.

Facing cancer means that on some level, conscious or not, we are facing the four universal fears: the fear of dying, the fear of being alone, the fear that life is meaningless, and the fear of losing our freedom. Engaging in activities that we love would seem to be the antidote to facing these fears,  yet for most of us we need to process what has happened in order to re-engage with life again.

We need to process it, because confronting the universal fears are not something that just turns off.  These fears ask us to confront the deepest vulnerabilities that life has to offer.  In this regard, the activities and people that we love can paradoxically remind us of the universal fears because they represent that which we stand to lose.

If you want to be able to reconnect with what you love, then you need to find a way to accept and process what you have been through.  We cannot fully have one without the other.  This is one of the reasons why the emotional healing process from cancer is so tricky.  To learn more about PTSD post cancer diagnosis, read this blog I wrote: PTSD and the cancer warrior.

As Pema Chodron reminds us:

The next time you lose heart and you can’t bear to experience what you’re feeling, you might recall this instruction: change the way you see it and lean in…we can choose to stay present and awake to our experience, not rejecting it, not grasping it, not buying the stories that we relentlessly tell ourselves.

I realize that this is much easier said than done. No one is fully equipped to face the universal fears. It is why this resides at the heart of my work, together we can find a way to walk through the broken shards, to allow them to be witnessed and released, to find our way back to authentic joy, contentment, and to reclaim, adjust, release and discover activities that bring fulfillment.

– Stephanie McLeod-Estevez, LCPC, is an art therapist and breast cancer survivor, and a former oncology counselor at the Dempsey Center. I began Creative Transformations to help others who are healing from a life threatening illness or injury. Through Creative Transformations, I work with people in person and online to offer cancer coaching, an Art as Therapy program, workshops, and this weekly blog. Check out the individual packages I offer. Sign up today so you never miss a blog and find us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.