At 17, I created a five-year plan for myself. It was a Google Doc, color-coded with defined “life categories": school, career development, side hustles, and wellness. Anytime I felt overwhelmed, my knee-jerk reaction was to bullet my anxieties and carefully outline my plan of attack in the “wellness” category.
Something that was not in the plan: blood cancer at 18.
I was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma about four years ago. When they told me the news, I opened up my laptop in my hospital bed and tried to adjust the plan. It didn’t work, of course, but at the time all I could think about was stopping this disease from spreading to other areas of my life.
Whenever there is a loss of control, it can feel like a personal failure that creates stress-induced harm to our physical and psychological well-being. One study on the matter even noted that “in young patients with chronic pain, perfectionism can have indirect effects on functional limitation and other negative consequences of pain, depending on biopsychosocial variables.”
In other words, perfectionists can actually make their chronic pain worse.
Self-care after cancer: It's complicated
During treatment, I had to find ways to keep myself busy to distract myself from the joint pain and nausea, so I made a plan. Engaging in the quintessential wellness practices — bullet journals, meditation apps, and self-help books — helped break the ice in finding myself. Self-care started to serve me better as an escape from my reality, dissociating from cancer and romanticizing a perfect self-care routine filled with poetry, yoga, and hobbies that made things feel “normal.” Naturally, nothing was ever enough.
I felt out of touch with my body
It was not until months after I finished treatment, returned to school, and attempted to “move on” that I realized my gratitude journal was not going to save me this time. For my “post-cancer period,” I turned on autopilot. Trying to cope while only “going through the motions” is like seeing yourself through a glass wall. Knocking as hard as you can against it but still choosing to ignore the noise. This was what it was like to feel out of touch with my own body.
Like any perfectionist, I attempted to learn how to listen to myself, but could not interpret what it was telling me. My instinct was to enroll in CorePower Yoga for four months (I still felt nothing). The first real step out of autopilot was admitting how I actually felt.
It was guilt — guilt for getting cancer, guilt for surviving it, and guilt I could not snap out of this three-year-long “funk.” It felt like anything I did was tainted by a layer of shame, and my body responded accordingly. It shut me out.
Acknowledging my emotions was (and still is) a process
The process of acknowledging my emotions was painful. I preferred disassociating. The problem with self-care mantras is that we expect to apply certain practices to our lives with the focus on feeling better fast.
For me, self-care is not always pleasant. It actually feels like an uncomfortable confrontation with yourself. Instead of letting the discomfort consume me, telling myself I am going backward, or creating unhelpful scenarios in my head, I can actually use my natural inclinations towards order and structure to regroup myself.
Self-care is a discipline that requires patience with myself
I am learning that self-care is a discipline for me. Every day I have to work hard to prioritize kindness and patience towards myself.
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A critical part of my self-care journey is giving compassion to my internal voice telling me I am not enough. I did not create this voice. It comes from years of societal conditioning that the value of a woman’s time and energy is measured by her gratitude.
The irony is, after experiencing “medical gaslighting” prior to my cancer diagnosis, I spent time invalidating my own health journey after cancer. I should be grateful to even have a functioning body now, so what is there to complain about? More than anything, women are taught it could’ve been worse.
So how do we cope? We internalize that our sufferings are supposed to teach us something. It is what gets us caught in a perpetual state of “productive” self-improvement. We focus on choosing between yoga or pilates, because it’s easier to digest than our internal sense of self, especially if you have a chronic illness.
There's no going back to the pre-cancer me — and that's okay
When I finished chemotherapy, I tried so hard to get back to “normal.” I have spent a lot of time grieving the “pre-cancer” version of myself. The version that believed if I did everything right, I could achieve it all. After cancer, I missed the innocence that came with believing I had control over my outcomes, and I desperately tried to hold on to my perfectionist tendencies. It took me three years until I was left depleted, to realize I never wanted to return back to my "normal" again.
I wish my learnings could fit into some sort of framework, or that I could write one of those “5 key insights” listicles. But the reality is, that I have taken my health for granted many times post-cancer. No matter how many face masks or candles I go through — I find myself at ground zero often, relearning the same lessons I thought I had already grown into. I’m no longer making plans to “fix” myself, instead, I am holding compassion for each version of myself I become.
After beating cancer in 2020, Kavita Rai has been focused on advancing health equity and solving public health challenges through various avenues: tech-enabled healthcare, policy & law, and patient-led solutions. She currently leads Operations at the early-stage digital health company Ethos Health.