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Transition: Cancer is a Catalyst

by Sarah A.O. Isenberg

This month’s topic here at CKN is “transitions.” I have to admit, it’s been tough for me to get down on paper how I feel about life after cancer. It’s multifaceted. It’s complicated. One thing I know for sure is that cancer is a catalyst. For better or worse, no one touched by cancer is left unchanged.


After both my cancer diagnoses, I came out swinging – determined to use my cancer experience to fashion a better life for myself. I had almost ten years between rounds of breast cancer, and by the time the second diagnosis came, I’d fully assimilated the first. I’d transitioned from a hard-nosed go-getter to a soft and gentle stay-at-home mom, admittedly retaining a little bit of an edge (if you saw me working out, or dealing with contractors, you’d understand). I’d changed our eating habits and started cooking almost all our food from scratch using whole-food ingredients and as many local, in-season vegetables as I could; before this was trendy. I committed to exercising every day. I became a prevention fanatic, determined to do all in my power to avoid another cancer.

I boil my successful transition to life after cancer down to two components: physical and mental. First, the body: Nothing makes me feel more out of control of my body than cancer. There is little I want to do more, post-cancer, than reclaim my body and make it feel good again. After Cancer Round One, I decided I wanted to run further and faster than ever, so a couple of months after I finished treatment, I ran my first 10K road race and logged a new personal best while I was there. Maybe I was faster due to lack of hair, but I also told friends that I was “fueled by frustration.” It was cathartic to move my body and to feel strong again.


The mental component involves denial. Or maybe it’s hope. Or suspension of disbelief. Some combination of these . . . I need to convince myself that I might live to be an old lady, and that I have time to rejigger my life. Yes, there’s always the chance it’ll come back, that I’ll die young of breast cancer. But how can I plan for my daughter’s future, think about a happy retirement with my husband, dream up graduation parties and weddings if I let that get in the way? I can’t. So I pretend I’m a “normal person” and plan away. And yes, sometimes I go to the dark side, that’s inevitable. Yet having been through this twice now, I realize that I can either waste my time fretting or choose to get on with enjoying the life I have. I’ve chosen the latter.


So here I sit, six months out from being amputated and rebuilt. What’s it going to be this time? How will I transition to “two-time cancer survivor Sarah?” What are my physical and mental changes going to be this time?


First off, I’m going to take my fitness to the next level. I’ve always wanted to see if I could do more and go further with my training. My running days are over (remember, my joints are ten years older too), so this time I’m going old school and doing boot-camp-style workouts that would’ve scared the old me. Yep, I’m putting my newly re-fashioned pectorals to the test, and it already feels incredible to be stronger and more powerful than I’ve ever been. Take that, stupid cancer!


Secondly, I’m again re-tooling my professional self and taking my message to the streets. I’ve long counseled friends and family on ways to live healthier lives; sharing easy, healthful recipes, cleaning up diets, getting toxins out of homes, helping folks fit exercise into their busy schedules. Now I want to extend my passion and help anyone who’ll listen. Whether it’s someone touched by cancer or just a regular Joe who understands that she or he could feel heartier and better with the right diet and a bit of exercise, I want to get back to that great feeling of service I felt when I was a lawyer – of getting someone over a hurdle that seemed too big to jump on her own. I want to be a coach, a Sherpa, a guide on someone’s path to wellness.


Listen. The point isn’t what you choose to do, it’s that you choose to do something that makes you feel good after cancer. If you get the opportunity to survive cancer, it comes with a bonus gift of time to reformulate your life into something that feels richer and more meaningful than ever before. Whether small tweaks or whole-scale revisions, I hope your transition will leave you feeling (on most days) whole and fulfilled.

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Sarah Isenberg is a recovering lawyer, two-time breast cancer survivor and accomplished home cook with a penchant for whole foods, healthy living, green tea and black shoes. She lives just outside Boston, Massachusetts with her 8-year-old daughter, husband, and a fancy hamster named Ruby. Get the latest on what she’s cooking at Semi-Sweet: A Practical Guide to Healthy Living, or on the joys and trials of her dance with cancer at Be The Weeble. 

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