The first time I did inner child work in therapy was, shockingly, last summer. I have been in therapy on and off for the last ten years, with more regular visits the last three years spurred by the pandemic and my diagnosis of breast cancer. One of the exercises we conducted was finding where my inner child lived and where I saw her. She was in an empty room with four gray walls. The light was low. There was a chair that reminded me of a wooden rocking chair, but it didn’t move. I saw her through the walls as if I had X-ray vision. I couldn’t go in, but she knew I was there, and I knew she knew.
I had a moment of reflection the other day and tapped into that part of me once more. It was less my inner child and more a version of myself that was much older in a field of knee-high, bright green stemmed plants with tiny yellow flowers. The wind was breezy, and the sun was insanely bright, almost making the yellow flowers reflect light. That version of me is standing there in a pale blue dress with shoulder length brown hair. My arms are wrapped around myself like you would if you were hugging yourself. My eyes are wet. It feels like I am frozen in time. I do the same movements over and over, like a VHS glitching. It is a version of me that used to exist. I am not sure if it is a projection, or a ghost, or something else. I knew I couldn’t stay there long, but it is a vision that still haunts me and replays over and over in my brain.
If you have never done inner child work, this description may feel silly or really strange. It is a powerful exercise that can be incredibly impactful when guided by a therapist, and by posing really simple questions, like how you are feeling when you see them, or giving yourself a moment to see what they want you to know. I’ve been trying to have more moments for myself to process complex feelings in my daily routine because I have this worry that I use my daily routine as a way to ignore processing the last year as I’ve been undergoing cancer treatment. If I am too busy, then I don’t have time to think about how I really feel. Ironic, given that I am always the first to focus on how others feel. It caught me off guard that my moment of reflection and introspection led me there. I haven’t really experienced that outside of therapy, but I leaned into it.
So, what does it all mean? I don’t have a full answer yet, but I am onto something.
Being NED (no evidence of disease) — or in remission, or whatever you want to call it — is a complex experience, especially while on maintenance drugs with a stage IV cancer diagnosis. It challenges the stereotype I had in my mind of what stage IV is: an immediate death sentence. I currently have no proposed expiration date according to my oncologist. I am expected to live for a long time, and my paperwork is still reflecting treatments as ‘curative’ in nature. Largely, this can be attributed to my aggressive treatment plan and the maintenance drugs I take every day.
So why is this so fucking hard? I’m alive. I am starting to live again. Ultimately, the answer is wrapped up in the ever evolving journey of survivorship. Survivorship is learning to let go of who you were so you can learn more about who you are now and who you need to be. And that is hard. You didn’t ask to change. You maybe didn’t want to change. You had to change in order to survive. That comes with mounds of grief and facing your fears head on all while coming to
terms with the fact that you are not in control — all at once. You can do it all right, and it still may not be enough. Your cancer can still come back and kill you anyways. That is fucking scary.
And it is scary. Survivorship is free falling in a nightmare only to wake up in a pool of sweat. It is every ache inducing paranoia of rogue cells growing once more. It is the painful stretch of scar tissue in your arm as you reach for the mug in your cabinet. It is the neverending pill bottles on your dinner table. It is a purple text reminder of your neverending upcoming appointments. It is fears of dying by your next birthday. It is every tear that races the water down your cheeks in the shower. And it is pure rage at every medical bill that sits unopened on your table.
But survivorship is also lemon raspberry cake in honor of your cancerversary and dinner with your friends. It is laughing more when you watch your favorite TV show for the tenth time, and it’s letting the rain drench you instead of trying to run for cover. It is the thump thump of your heart racing when you exercise and feeling the soil in between your fingers when you re-pot your plants. It is a five-second hug and celebrating every milestone no matter how small. It is touching new hair on your head multiple times a day to make sure it is still there. It is making plans for tomorrow.
That last one... making plans for tomorrow. I sat here for a few minutes and cried after I wrote that. Because even without cancer, tomorrow is not a promise. And yet, we make plans anyway.
So I now make plans in survivorship in ways I couldn’t make plans when I was in treatment. I don’t know where this is going, but I am hopeful I’ll get to see where I am headed. Hope is now a prerequisite for my survival in ways it never was before cancer.
I have carried feelings of anger toward my vessel for over a year. I have been mad that my genes have mutations that harm me (I tested positive for a BRCA1 mutation). I have been mad that I didn’t ‘love’ myself enough to do breast exams more frequently. I have been mad I didn’t ask enough questions about the history of cancer in my family. I have been mad that my body did not respond to chemotherapy fully. I’ve hated the cells and scars on my body that have only done what they were asked to do: to heal.
I am beginning to learn exercises in forgiveness for the things I can control — and the things I cannot control — in survivorship. There is no guidebook for surviving and living with cancer much like there isn’t one for life. You just hope you live long enough to figure it the fuck out, and I am grateful that medical advances and the healing of my cells have given me more time to do just that.
There is a lot of work to be done, but I think I am on the right path.