Profound physical and mental reinvention of self is one of the seldom discussed changes that often accompanies a breast cancer diagnoses, writes Joanna Hall.
In 2004, at the age of just 43, Melissa Etheridge discovered a lump in her left breast while on a tour which turned out to be cancer. During treatment, the singer and songwriter had time to consider the impact of breast cancer on her life; she underwent a spiritual transformation and made some big life changes as a result.
After treatment ended, she said: “I can look at cancer as a disease that picks me out and says ‘why me,’ or I can look at it through love and say, ‘This is a wake-up call. This is my body telling me: ‘Hey you’re out of balance here. It’s time to get in line with yourself. Breast cancer has created a change in life. I have a different way of looking at the food I put into my body, the stress I take on, the choices that I make – it changed all of that.”
I have known many women who’ve gone through breast cancer, and over the years I’ve written the stories of countless others to mark Breast Cancer Awareness Month each October. For some, the disease was an inconvenience that didn’t change much except for giving them a nasty scare. For others, however, the impact of a diagnosis and treatment was much more profound, causing them to question everything in life from their values to their goals, with some walking away from a job or a marriage.
My own experience lies somewhere between, and when I read about Etheridge’s transformation a few years ago it resonated strongly with me. Before my first cancer diagnosis in December 2014, I thought I had it all, but after my second in March 2019, I quickly realised that having things like a successful career, youth and money don’t count for much if you don’t have good health to go with it. After the 2014 diagnosis, I made changes, which included shaking life up with a move from Sydney to the Gold Coast and fulfilling a long-held dream to adopt a cat, in fact, two cats. After my second experience in 2019, however, I realised that breast cancer had profoundly changed me this time. And this time I felt a strong need to completely reimagine myself physically and mentally.
It’s not easy to hear your voice among the many others occupying space in your head after a cancer diagnosis. But as my hair started to grow back and I was looking less like a cancer patient and more like my old self, I was ready to begin the clean-up work that follows diagnosis and treatment; a traumatic, emotional hurricane. For me healing and moving on required not only accepting big changes to my body after a bilateral mastectomy, but also working through a lineup of other issues including what I wanted out of life and what I needed to work on, or change, for me to achieve that and be truly happy. It was here that I discovered the creative power of reinventing myself.
These days I have a greater appreciation of the ordinariness of life. Every day I can find little ways to be grateful and mindful. I’ve put yoga and meditation back onto my priority list because they make me feel good. I’ve tweaked my diet. I prioritise managing stress, and if I face a stressful situation, I believe I react to it a lot better than I used to. I don’t tolerate fools, toxic individuals, or anyone who wants to waste my time. Time is also precious, along with friends and family. Time spent alone is also important. Continually building resilience is essential.
One of my favourite motivational speakers is US bestselling author, Mel Robbins, who says: “Your life doesn’t end at thirty, or forty, or fifty, or sixty, so stop acting like it does. You can reinvent yourself whenever you want.” Having any type of cancer puts you on a highway that only you can navigate, and how you spend the years post-diagnosis is up to you. Some people change because of it, and some do not, but if, like me you feel that you need “reworking” just go for it! Creating and accepting a “new normal” is an essential part of moving on, just remember that it doesn’t come without grief and pain which is both normal and okay. And your “new normal” won’t necessarily be the same as anyone else’s so stop comparing.
Reinvention is a self-inflicted change that can be daunting, take time, experimentation, and patience. Start with baby steps while being prepared for more significant change and upheaval down the track, which for some people might include moving home, changing jobs, walking away from a relationship, ditching bad habits, or learning a new skill. It might also mean revamping your style, changing your hairstyle and colour, and trying new things.
Just remember that reinvention isn’t a process that comes with a guidebook or a roadmap, but as Melissa Etheridge and I have discovered, personal growth can be truly empowering. It’s a wonderful opportunity to let go of the past, get rid of the clutter, step out of your comfort zone, and move on as a new and improved you. And all it takes is that first small step.
Disclaimer: This article provides general information only, and does not constitute health or medical advice. If you have any concerns regarding your physical or mental health, seek immediate medical attention.