Health and wellness touch everyone’s life differently. This is one person’s story.
With a new year comes the traditional opportunity to make changes in ourselves that bring both us and those around us more joy, peace, and love. This new year, I have a personal invitation to both cancer patients and survivors everywhere.
I invite us to let go of trying to return to who we once were before our treatments, and instead to embrace and love who we are now. I invite all supporters of cancer patients to become more aware of the cancer journey, a journey that’s merely beginning after the celebratory proclamation of the words “remission” or “cancer-free”.
But first, let me tell you my story.
I spent the majority of my childhood days in a dance studio. I trained in my pointed shoes with blistered and bleeding toes. The pain was overshadowed by my love for the art and my desire to become a better and stronger dancer.
Not once in my aspirations did I believe that the one thing I had grown to cherish most in the world could be taken away.
At 16, I was told I had osteosarcoma, or bone cancer, in my upper tibia. Somewhere in the whirlwind of information and feelings that come with the diagnosis, I learned that — along with extensive chemo — would come a surgery that would permanently alter the structure and function of my once strong and healthy leg.
They referred to it as a “limb salvage surgery.”
Learning to let go of my outlet
At 17, my doctors officially declared me to be in remission. Being escorted out of the hospital by the team that saved my life was one of the happiest moments I can remember. My friends, family, and community were so relieved that I was better.
Then came my reentry into the real world.
I remember walking into the first day of my senior year of high school — hesitant and without a wig to mask the very short layer of peach fuzz that had replaced my once long, blond, wavy hair. When the bell rang, I lagged behind my peers. My leg no longer allowed me to keep up with the brisk pace of the rest of the world.
After school, I headed to the ballet studio with all of my closest friends. Watching them perform, it didn’t take long for me to come to terms with the fact that dance could no longer be that outlet which provided me with the mental and physical wellness I needed. So, I let it go.
Struggling to connect
The grief I felt for how cancer had changed me was something I had no idea how to handle. I struggled to connect with my friends. I cried when they’d go to ballet without me. I did miserably on the SAT and ACT tests, which I took just months after finishing chemo treatment.
On top of everything, I had developed an incessant sense of anxiety that just lingered all the time.
Nobody knew, or even anticipated to understand, what was happening to me. Because remission meant “better.” We all thought I was supposed to be “better.” I was supposed to be “me” again.
However, through a lot of hard work and unpaved navigation, I learned that this wouldn’t be the case.
Nobody knew enough to be able to tell me what I may experience, or offer any advice as to how to reenter my old world as someone I could barely even recognize.
The biggest quandaries I came up against were these three questions.
The first: How do I just let go of who I was before?
The second: How do I learn to love this “new normal” I am now faced with?
And the third: Where do I start?
Of course, there’s no one-size-fits-all answer to these questions. All of our experiences are unique. But after talking to countless cancer survivors, several important themes emerged that I wish I could’ve understood sooner.
The first is to understand that a lot of people won’t likely know about or understand the trials you’ll continue to face after cancer. Know that you’re not alone. And that you’re not crazy. More people than you could count have felt the same things. It’s normal.
Articulate, as best as you can, what you’re dealing with to your cancer support team. And if verbalizing is hard, draw on other people’s experiences which resonate with you to help them understand. You are your biggest advocate.
The second is to utilize your resources. It’s amazing how much people want to help when they understand that you’re struggling. I found therapists, personal trainers, college academic advisors, and so many others who took me seriously and opened up doors that I could’ve never opened on my own. Don’t be afraid to speak your truth.
The third is to experiment with the capabilities of your body. Our bodies are often altered throughout the cancer treatment process. Push yourself to understand what your limitations and mental barriers really are.
For instance, the first time I jumped off a cliff into water, I was positive that my leg would somehow obliterate once it hit the water. When I finally got the courage to jump (and we’re talking maybe 10 feet here), I found that it was no different than before. Accept what your true limitations are, but don’t project false limitations onto yourself.
Take what serves you, and leave the rest
The most beautiful thing that I want to share is that, despite the inevitable and ongoing challenges that come with cancer, life can be — and will be — not just as beautiful, but more beautiful and fulfilling than it ever was. With low lows come high highs.
The community, support, and empowerment I’ve received by sharing my story have reignited my passion for the beautiful life I live — scars, limitations, and all. I’m now a certified yoga instructor and find more fulfillment in that practice than anything else I’ve experienced in my life. It not only accommodates my leg, but it fills my life with strength, power, and confidence.
Take what serves you, and leave the rest. Your possibilities are endless, and you have ample amounts of time, resources, and support to discover how this “new normal” is so beautifully unique to you. It takes physical work, emotional work, exploration, serenity, and just as many laughs as there may be cries. But this journey is what makes us beautiful. It makes us powerful. It challenges us, and we, as a cancer tribe, challenge it back.
Individually and collectively, we are a force to be reckoned with.
Sofia Holub is an osteosarcoma (bone cancer) survivor and a cancer survivorship expert. She’s the founder of SofiaHolubWellness.com, an online platform that leads a large group of cancer survivors to find health, life, and happiness through yoga, community, and self-acceptance. You can find her at her website or on Instagram