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Changing The Conversation From Survivorship to Thrivership

BY ALONA SHAKED

Survivor and Previvor, Stage 2 Bilateral Breast Cancer, BRCA1+ March 21, 2024 elephantandtea.org

I was so excited on my last day of chemo. I made a big glittery sign, brought cupcakes for the staff, and posted about how I beat cancer on social media. I planned an “apres- cancer” trip to Europe to celebrate and, other than waiting for my hair to grow back and my nipples to be tattooed on, I pretty much thought I was DONE with cancer. I was a breast cancer survivor.

No one prepared me for what came next. The intense fear of recurrence and almost PTSD-like symptoms every time I had an ache or pain. The residual and permanent discomfort from my double mastectomy. The awkward conversations about my cancer history on second or third dates (which actually turned out to be a great way to weed out a-holes early on). And of course, nothing could have prepared me for the years of IVF I would have to undergo in order to fulfill my dreams of becoming a mother.

When you are in treatment, you have so much support. A medical team that is closely monitoring you, friends and family (well, some of them at least!) who show up in the most magical ways. And when you are young and bald, complete strangers will go out of their way to give up their seat on the bus, offer to let you cut the line, and give you free goodies (that was definitely a perk!).

But once you’ve finished treatment, once you’ve “beat” cancer, a lot of that support goes away. Your pain and suffering become more and more invisible. People think that you are done, you won the battle, you are healed! But the reality is that I was not healed. At just 29 years old, I was scared, lonely, deeply scarred, and transformed.

In the cancer world, people often talk about finding a “new normal” after cancer. But no one tells you how to find it. And what if you don’t want to just go back to the grind?

While cancer was one of the most challenging things I have dealt with in my life, it also opened my eyes to what was really important to me, what I really wanted out of my life.

The truth is, I didn’t want to just find a “new normal” or “survive.” I wanted to find a better normal; I wanted to thrive. It took me a long time to fully process what I had been through. To deal with those difficult questions, like, “Why me?” and begin to shift to more of a growth mindset.

What was most helpful for me in navigating the early years of survivorship was connection to others going through similar journeys. This manifested in the form of establishing an international non-profit called Thrivacious to support and connect other

women who had been touched by cancer. Through this organization, I hosted workshops and retreats and created a community of healing and thrivership. In doing this, not only did I help others, but I felt myself healing and thriving as well.

I also felt a strong need to create meaning out of the suffering I had experienced. Throughout treatment, I shared my story publicly, and I continued to do so after treatment. Sharing my story provided me with an opportunity to educate others with life- saving information, to support others and help them feel less alone, and to give hope where it is needed most.

Finally, I made some major personal changes following my diagnosis. Pre-cancer, I was a lawyer at a big law firm, working around the clock and living an unhealthy lifestyle. If cancer taught me one thing, it is that we cannot control how long we will live, but we can control how well we will live. This prompted me to alter my career path and life in order to live in better alignment with my purpose and values. I now coach other women to create balanced and fulfilling careers and lives, am a mother of one beautiful post- cancer miracle child with a second on the way, and I take precious care of my body, mind, and spirit.

11 years later, there are still challenges. Pain while sleeping on my side, an infection over my implant that prompted a series of stressful MRIs, years of struggling to become a mother, you name it. But as time has gone by, I’ve been able to gain the insight, tools, and skills to move through these moments with more grace, to let go of anger and fear, and to embrace the here and now, where I am healthy and fulfilled.