When Cancer Dominates Your Life

For the second time over the last 16 years, I recently had the sensation as I was going about my daily life: “I feel like I have my life back.”

The first time was a few years after finishing active treatment for stage 3 breast cancer.  It had taken me several years to feel that I could return to what felt like normalcy, where I had choices on how to focus my attention and could trust in the future.

Again, things have shifted a lot for me personally and it feels like all of a sudden!

Many of you know that my husband of almost 30 years was diagnosed with Stage 4 colon cancer 5 years ago.  After grueling treatments which included months in the hospital during the pandemic (for cancer reasons, not covid), he has reached a place of relative stability.

By stability, I mean we are still living between 3 month scans but he’s on a break from treatment for 9 months now. Gotta love these breaks from treatment where you start to feel your energy come back! And then he surprised me by going back to work after being retired for almost 2 years.

It happened after I had spent a month away over the summer.

My daughter Alima, who is 16 now, and I spent a month in Spain this summer visiting relatives. She attended a 10 day camp and I spent 7 blissful days by myself on the island off Menorca.  Read about how free I felt in Menorca: http://www.kellyinselmann.com/blog/what-makes-you-feel-free/

This fall, my daughter is in 10th grade at Westlake High School and works part time, while my husband was recruited back to his field and is enjoying himself.

And here I am asking myself a question I have asked before: “How do you connect with your identity after cancer has dominated your life for years?”

I feel a bit distracted as I turn back towards the work I love, with people who seek to make meaning of their lives, increase their vitality, and heal emotional wounds.

I’m grateful to the JoyBoots Inner Circle Group for keeping me devoted to our work together. They have continued meeting for 4 years through hell and high water, since initially meeting in yoga classes and my online course, Healing Well: Reconnect with Your Life after Cancer.

Together we have celebrated the life milestone of one member selling her house and building her dream cottage out in the country with her best friends. We have celebrated times of stability in treatment and good family news.

We have supported each other through recurrences and even through the heartbreaking passing of a beloved member, Jane.  In group, we ask each other: “What do you think Jane would say to that?” And the answer is always something irreverent, brutally honest, and empowering. Her spirit and wisdom live on in us.

In the past few months, I have grieved the losses of a dear friend and a of a dear client, both age 41, both irreplaceable and  leaving behind 2 children and heartbroken families.

I continue to grieve the losses of all these friends.

Sometimes people wonder how I work with people who are facing cancer. I admit, I have to pay attention to my own self care and make sure I’m exercising, and socializing and now…traveling!

But for me, it’s not a burden to meet with JoyBooters, it’s an honor and it’s often super fun.  Being with people who recognize the fragility of life, who love deeply and care so much for their loved ones, makes my life more vivid. I am reminded that time is shorter than we think, and each moment more beautiful.  For me, it’s an honor to have this deep level of connection.  It helps me make meaning of my own life.

Quite frankly, JoyBooters always end up inspiring me.

So, this fall, I have turned much more determinedly towards revamping my signature program which shares my 6 Steps for Emotional Recovery from the Trauma of Cancer. You can listen to this podcast interview I gave about my ideas. https://therapistuncensored.com/episodes/tu63-living-with-cancer-the-six-principles-of-emotional-healing-with-guest-kelly-inselmann/

In early 2024, the course will open for people who are newly diagnosed and for cancer survivors who have finished active treatment.  A version for people living with metastatic cancer and a caregiver version will come soon after.

As I work on the course, this question continues to guide me: “How do I connect to my identity after cancer has dominated my life?”  Does this resonate for you?



Survey on Emotional Impact of Cancer


As I shared last week, I learn so much from you and your experiences.  Whether you are also a cancer survivor, a loved one, or an oncology professional, could you do me a quick favor?

I’m about to offer my Healing Well: Reconnect with Your Life After Cancer course again and could use some feedback before I finish it up.

Would you be able to help me by answering a few quick questions based on your own hard earned experience? It should take 1-2 minutes):


What is Sanctuary?

I think of a safe place, where I am welcome exactly as I am. No need for performance. I can set down my burdens and extend my legs and catch my breath.

I notice what’s happening around me because for just a moment, I can let down my guard. No need to scan for danger.

I think of entering an ancient space, with cool walls and floor and with a cozy place to lie down. I think of a community sanctioned spot, a chapel, a temple, a park, or a safe house, a friend who is always home and has something cooking.

I know the people in the sanctuary are holding a space for me and devoted to a higher consciousness than we what I live in during much of life. I know the space is one that was created for safety and for aligning with a Higher purpose that includes compassion for the human experience and reverence for the sacredness in each of us.

I have the image of grandmothers taking me in, washing my brow and comforting me, caring for my wounds. Protecting me. A place to go when no one else understands. Here, they hold space for me to love myself again. Here, I surrender the need to know what the future holds and the notion that I must be in control.

Instead, I rest in a space of openness- to learn, rest, heal, care, and be.


Emotions are Part of Being Alive

People are so afraid of their anger.  They don’t want to feel it, aren’t sure how to express it and in my experience working with cancer survivors, they sure as hell don’t want others to know they have it.  

Someone else might feel uncomfortable. Or start lecturing them that having anger is the reason they got diagnosed with cancer.  As though anger were not a normal part of the human experience.

Let me tell you a little secret about anger, once you learn to feel it and express it in ways that are safe and healthy, you can clear out so much space inside. You get access to energy you didn’t know you had.

You may even end up making changes, setting limits or asserting yourself in important ways.

And…the space that’s created may end up being filled with a feeling of aliveness, connection to others, and even the joy and gratitude we are always hoping for.


Wounded Amazon

Hundreds of blood red spikes poke out of the white marble head and chest of a statue of a woman. This replica of a Roman statue, a “wounded amazon,” sits in a public art space on the street in NYC.

The placement of the spikes is no accident. They are arranged precisely where women who have had breast cancer surgery are cut and feel residual sensation, discomfort, and pain.

Even as I sit in the cool library and type these words, I can feel sensation a few inches to the right of my left shoulder blade, old discomfort from the left breast mastectomy I had 10 years ago.

The sculpture of the woman is enormous. The pain I see in her eyes is haunting. And so familiar, from looking into the faces of women I work with and from looking in the mirror at myself.

People are walking around the statue, many without a second look. Some glance her way, recognizing something unusual, but it’s hot outside and they are busy. Couples hold hands and laugh. The taxi driver has pulled his van over and parked right in front of her, waiting impatiently for the group he is collecting to come outside.

Her pain is enormous and she is in plain sight, yet the world swirls and moves forward without her. Her agony is her own.

This piece of art was created by artist Prune Nourry, age 33, who recently underwent treatment for breast cancer. It is called The Amazon and is modeled after the life sized marble statue of a wounded amazon at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Nourry referred to it as a “catharsis sculpture.” She decided to extend the timeline of the project recognizing that “healing is a long process.”


The definition of catharsis is “the process of releasing, and thereby providing relief from, strong or repressed emotions.”

Identifying and then expressing the thoughts, emotions and sensations you feel are also the first steps in emotional recovery from the trauma of having cancer.

So why is it so hard to acknowledge the impact that cancer has had on you?

There’s pain, both physical and emotional that you are trying to avoid by pretending it doesn’t exist. And then there’s shame at having pain, at not bouncing back more quickly, at needing time to recover, instead of being an invincible warrior.

But even the Amazon warrior, as this piece demonstrates, can be wounded. And even she needs to be seen, understood, and given time to heal.

Kelly’s Podcast On Emotional Healing

Emotional suffering and mental health challenges are side effects of the cancer experience that often go unaddressed.

Your life is turned upside down by the shock of the diagnosis, and grueling treatments affect your nervous system, hormones, sleep, range of movement and body function. Relationships are tested and financial worries take center stage. Sometimes there is lingering pain. Always there is some fear of recurrence or spreading.

Your medical team is rightly focused on eliminating or holding the cancer at bay. And many cancer patients and survivors are fortunate to be supported and cared for by loving communities.

Yet survivors sometimes feel a pressure to minimize how deeply they are emotionally impacted, in an attempt to “stay positive” or “spiritual” and to avoid making others uncomfortable by sharing their physical and/or emotional pain.

I’m on a mission to address emotional recovery in the cancer experience so that people can move past the “new normal” with vitality. I was recently delighted to be interviewed by the Therapist Uncensored Podcast about my 6 Principles for Emotional Recovery after Cancer. Check it out:


Deep Quiet

Yesterday I was at a day long meditation, enjoying spaciousness and the stillness.  During one of the breaks, I sat next to a friend, both of us quiet and content.  Finally I turned to her and said, “I have nothing to say and nothing to do.  I NEVER have nothing to say and nothing to do these days!”  It felt so good to sit in that space of deep quiet and peace.

The effect of the meditation is more important than the experience of the meditation itself.  You may feel bored, distracted, blissful, or any other emotion during the meditation.  Regardless of the details of the meditation, your brain and nervous system still benefit. It’s important to remember that the main purpose of meditation is to have access to a calm, stable and neutral mind when you are not in actual meditation.






My Favorite Thing After Cancer Part 1

I change in the locker room, slip into my flipflops, grab my towel and walk expectantly over to the dressing room door. Opening my way into the lap pool area, I am hit with the smell of chlorine and then a moment of delight. The pool is empty! This is one of my favorite things, especially after cancer.

I remember the moment 9 years ago when I was finally released by my doctor to swim. Submerged in the empty pool, my body released its constriction and stretched, weightless and pushing against the water. It was bliss, and also deeply emotional as I cried under water feeling relief, gratitude, and joy, releasing some of the great sorrow from my recent mastectomy and lymph node removal. To feel pleasure in my body, to move freely and know I had survived thus far, this moment was mine to revel in.

I jumped and curled into a somersault like the thousands I did as a child in Houston, Texas during the summer.

These days, I swim at least once a week at my neighborhood Gold’s Gym. Sometimes the pool is crowded and I have to avoid classes and aggressive men with flippers and paddles who, without awareness, could injure my arm or chest.

My speed is steady, not fast. Swimming (especially backstroke) has been the most effective therapy for my lymphedema. Afterwards, my arm no longer aches, the swelling is barely visible, and my mood is considerably improved.

I wish everyone with lymphedema had access to a pool. The lymphatic massage of the water is healing. You don’t even have to know how to swim – just moving the arms back and forth against the water is enough.

This week I read a comment on a cancer survivor support group from a young woman, a yogi, sharing her delight with people who understood. After months of recovering from a double mastectomy, she was able to do the downward facing dog yoga pose for the first time. She described the bliss of the deep stretch and her joy at being able to finally support her own weight again.

She felt strong, she felt relief, and she felt joy.