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well lived

A New Beginning on the First Anniversary of My First Anniversary

Picking up the pieces after breast cancer.

Jen Rozenbaum
Photo credit: Courtesy of Jen Rozenbaum
A young woman with dark curly hair is using mobile phone. Female is smiling while holding smart phone. She is lying on sofa at home.

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The clock struck midnight and the champagne started to flow. I hugged and kissed my loved ones and thanked the universe for the gift of a new year—the year I get my life back together after cancer. It’s a self-proclaimed “Year of Jen,” and although I am painfully aware that nothing is a guarantee in life, I embrace it whole-heartedly.

Last year was by far the hardest of my life. After being diagnosed with breast cancer and undergoing a double mastectomy and chemotherapy, there was much emotional and physical debris to clean up and trauma to work through.

Post mastectomy and pre reconstruction
Post mastectomy and pre reconstruction | Photo credit: Courtesy of Jen Rozenbaum

I needed to get my mind and heart focused back on what I really care about—my children, my husband, and my work. And I needed to be there for them, though I was struggling to pick up the pieces and move on. I found myself truly taking stock of my life, who I am, and how I wanted to move forward.

A life in perspective

It’s funny what cancer did for me. It truly made me grateful and forced me to put things in perspective. I most importantly wanted to make sure I didn’t fall back into old habits. I didn’t want to wait until “tomorrow” to start working on my bucket list. I had to rearrange my priorities to make sure that I was not just alive, but living. I knew I needed to get back to exercise and drastically change my diet, which had fallen to the bottom of my list of priorities as I dealt with doctor appointments and treatments while managing my work and family. But I wanted to do it with the right balance between self-care and “you only live once.” (Do I eat the salad or have the brownie? Maybe some days I will give myself permission to enjoy both.) And I was determined to discover what else brings me joy and find ways to incorporate them into my life.

Jen Rozenbaum and her husband
Laughing and discovering joy in the stressful moments was so important | Photo credit: Courtesy of Jen Rozenbaum

I started to encounter certain emotional hurdles that I didn’t expect during my post-cancer year. Survivor’s guilt, post-traumatic stress disorder, and body dysmorphia, along with depression and anxiety, took turns trying to mess with my mind. I promised myself I would shed the victim mentality that I often found myself enveloped in. Even though my cancer was gone, it clearly still had a hold on me. I had to find peace with its existence and develop a new mindset and perspective about it. Cancer changed me—it threw me for a loop but also gave me a new lens through which I view life. As a result, I have gained insight. There is no question about it: I am determined to move forward and live the life that is right for me.

What if I don’t feel like celebrating?

This year, I’ll be hitting some of my cancer milestones for the second time. The second anniversary of the day I heard, “You have cancer.” The second anniversary of my diagnosis and surgery. I often see other survivors celebrating these milestones. And I feel confused (not to mention guilt and shame) when I realize that I don’t feel like celebrating. I am still mourning. Maybe I am mourning for my old, carefree life.

Jen Rozenbaum wearing a cold cap during a chemo treatment
Wearing a cold cap during a chemo treatment | Photo credit: Courtesy of Jen Rozenbaum

Maybe it’s for the terrible memories I am now forced to carry with me forever. I am learning that it is vital to make new memories on those milestone days. For me, new memories will give me something to look back on fondly and give me the power to remind myself that I am still living. Healing is a process. Sometimes it takes time, and it’s not always a straight line. I keep reminding myself that everyone moves along their journey at their own speed, and that’s OK.

Releasing and rebuilding

After I finished my treatment, I had a new zest for life. I spent time nurturing and building the relationships that are tremendously important to me.

“Most importantly, I had to re-establish myself as the mother I knew my kids needed, which was different from before.”

And I spent energy re-evaluating the relationships that didn’t serve me or my family. It was hard to release the negative people in my circle, but I knew it was important to be more thoughtful about the company I keep. Most importantly, I had to re-establish myself as the mother I knew my kids needed, which was different from before. I had newfound wisdom, I was more grounded, and had new things to offer them. I worked on gaps in my marriage that were swept under the rug before my diagnosis. Those little things that seemed manageable before were now intolerable for me. Cancer forced me to see my reality in a new light. It became clearer and clearer what filled me with joy and what didn’t.

My career was one of the areas of my life that has always made me very happy, but entrepreneur is a difficult title to hold while facing an illness with an unknown outcome. My business really suffered during my diagnosis year. I tried to reassure myself that it was OK. That it was to be expected. But it was frustrating. I had a hard time “showing up,” both emotionally and physically, as I needed to take days off for doctor appointments and naps when I was too exhausted to get out of bed. I was making less money because I was working less and doing the things that needed to be done was so hard. This year is about diving back in and getting my photography business back on track.

“You don’t just live through a life episode like cancer and immediately return to normal. There is no more normal. Everything had been reset.”

Moving forward

I am proud to say I survived cancer. And now I embark on a journey to reconstruct my life. Much like breast reconstruction, it’s easier said than done. You don’t just live through a life episode like cancer and immediately return to normal. There is no more normal. Everything has been reset.

Throughout this year, I’ll be sharing my post-cancer journey with the goal of providing help and perspective to those of you who have or are traveling in my shoes, and to let you know you’re not alone. I’m not going to sugarcoat it—the journey is hard, but it also can be filled with joy and growth and so much satisfaction. I truly believe that change can be beautiful and that I have become a better person because of cancer.

I also hope my words will support those who care about someone with cancer and make their journeys a little easier, too. I’ve learned that supporting a cancer patient is sometimes harder than actually being the patient. I hope that in sharing my story, you will laugh, cry, feel connected and especially feel reassured that no matter where you are in your journey, you CAN do this!

Jen Rozenbaum in a "Good Vibe Tribe" shirt.
Feeling the good vibes | Photo credit: Courtesy of Jen Rozenbaum

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Published May 21st, 2019
A young woman with dark curly hair is using mobile phone. Female is smiling while holding smart phone. She is lying on sofa at home.

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