The Elephant in the Room is Cancer. Tea is the Relief Conversation Provides.

Meeting Myself for the First Time

by Chelsey GomezSurvivor, Hodgkin's LymphomaDecember 19, 2023View more posts from Chelsey Gomez

Boundaries—such a scary term and concept for someone like me who was raised without a solid understanding of healthy boundaries. I grew up being the perpetual “go-to” person in my family and in so many other areas of my life. I was always there for everyone else, regardless of my own needs. This was my way of life for 28 years, until cancer intervened, forcing me to reevaluate everything in my life.

The focus of this article is on how cancer changed my life, but sometimes, it seems easier to list the ways it didn’t. As I approach the five-year anniversary of my original diagnosis of Hodgkin’s lymphoma, there are days when I can scarcely recognize the life I once knew. Like many cancer patients, I have spent countless hours looking at old pictures of myself before cancer. I used to feel a great deal of sadness when I looked at that girl. That girl had no idea of the storm that lay ahead. I feel the urge to scream at her, to warn her somehow . . . but the reality is there’s no going back. There’s only forward.

Prior to starting this article, I revisited those same photos. The sadness for that girl still lingered within me, albeit for different reasons today. As previously mentioned, boundaries have never been my strong suit. My upbringing, marred by an emotionally abusive parent, ingrained in me the role of everyone’s therapist from the moment I could speak. My own emotions always took a back seat, I endured a relentless cycle of downplaying, dismissal, and minimization. In response, I learned to fragment myself as a means of survival. I concealed my authentic self, even from my own understanding. Looking at those photos I see that reality in those eyes. My eyes. I don’t recognize myself anymore, and I am glad I don’t.

After my stem cell transplant in 2020, I found myself grappling with the agonizing decision to resign from my pre-cancer job. The unvarnished truth was that I didn’t derive any joy from my job, nor did I hold any affection for the industry I had been a part of. Nonetheless, much of my life prior to cancer had been dedicated to that career, driven by the weighty expectations imposed upon me—or at least, that’s how it often felt.

Unsurprisingly, for those familiar with “Corporate America”—the company I worked for had made it crystal clear how little they valued me once I became sick and useless (to them). Despite being aware of their disregard, this decision weighed heavily on my conscience. Who was I without a career? More importantly, who was I disappointing by making this choice? My family? My co-workers? Myself? I was uncertain. What I did know, however, was that in order to begin reassembling the fragments of my life, I needed freedom. Freedom to find space to breathe, to truly live, to just be—so, I quit.

One thing I learned in the comfort of this freedom is that I’ve never been complete. Cancer didn’t cause me to break, it simply intensified the fractured pieces. For a long time, I pointed the finger at cancer for everything—it’s an easy adversary to rally against. Yet, looking squarely in the mirror and confronting your flaws isn’t as simple as it seems. I was prepared to face my reflection and discover myself for the first time. This self-discovery was for ME and ME alone. I needed to discern what I wanted in life. I needed to uncover who I was before the world told me who I should be. And indeed, it has been a roller coaster ride of experiences, encompassing the good, the bad, and the ugly, but also moments of profound beauty.

The work I engage in as an artist and advocate for the cancer community feels like my genuine soul’s calling. It’s not a burden; I never tally the hours spent on it throughout my day. The time I invest comes back to me in the form of profound meaning. For the first time, I have a purpose that isn’t dictated by external forces but rather by my inner self, the inner child within me who never had a voice. I am healing in my soul’s true purpose. I am healing in community. I am finding myself and I am helping others do the same. To me, that is profound beauty.

If you know anything about me, you know I’m not one to sugarcoat the tough stuff either. This so-called healing “journey” is anything but a walk in the park. I’ve had my fair share of moments where I’ve grieved for my old life and my old self. Sure, she wasn’t living authentically, but sometimes, ignorance has its comforts. Well, maybe not bliss, but living in the looming shadow of cancer gets incredibly exhausting. My entire existence is now painted with the hues of this experience, for better or worse—it’s just the reality of my life these days.

One of the peculiar things I’ve noticed is when I meet someone new. It’s like a mental slot machine spinning in my head. Which version of myself will I land on this time? Wouldn’t it be fun if, for once, I didn’t hit those darn cancer reels? We all know I probably will, but I cherish those fleeting moments, those mere fractions of a second when I might become someone else. I used to adapt so easily, like a chameleon morphing into the version of myself that person needed. Cancer, for better or worse, has stripped away my chameleon powers. I am who I am. I can refine my foundation, but I can’t relocate somewhere new. Actually, I don’t think anyone can, really. We’re born with a set of traits that when nurtured or neglected, can either fade or flourish over time. The unhappiest people are the ones perpetually running from their true selves. Pretending to be someone else. Living life for others. It saddens me to think I spent so much of my life that way.

Even though I’m living a more authentic existence now, it doesn’t mean I adore every aspect of it. My mind often wanders to “what-ifs,” and conflicting realities coexist within me. When things get tough, the urge to escape is strong. I feel guilty for not seizing every opportunity that comes my way. I feel guilty for not being grateful some days. I wish I didn’t have such a crystal-clear vision of my alternate reality—a hushed stillness where I’m a somber reminder of mortality or this fractured human desperately grasping for a semblance of normalcy.

Messy or not, I’m grateful to be here, even on those days when it doesn’t quite feel like it. I get to witness my daughter growing up. I get to hear her laughter and feel her tiny arms around my waist. I’d endure a billion hard days if it meant I could stay here with her for as long as possible. Please, let me stay here as long as I can.

I don’t believe it should take a brush with death to shake us to our core. To illuminate what truly matters in life. Yet, we often hear stories, like my own, of just that. It’s a startling fact when you pause to think about it. Why are so many of us out there living our lives in make-believe? The only person we’re fooling is ourselves. There are often people around us who see our true beauty and potential, even when we can’t. They know it, and sometimes, they exploit it for their own gain. But the moment you catch a glimpse of yourself in the clear light of day, they know you’ll never allow them to wield power over you again. You will rise, step into your authentic self, and that day is on the horizon my friend . . . and I couldn’t be prouder of us.

This article was featured in the December 2023 Rediscovering Yourself After Cancer issue of Elephants and Tea Magazine! Click here to read our magazine issues.

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