Author Rosamund Dean’s hair grew back promptly after treatment but reconstructing her identity was far harder. She shares what helps any time you need to reinvent yourself

Any products in this article have been selected editorially however if you buy something we mention, we may earn commission

With one in seven British women receiving a breast cancer diagnosis in their lifetime (the Duchess of York Sarah Ferguson and Sarah Beeny are among recent high-profile patients), Rosamund Dean’s new book Reconstruction: How to Rebuild Your Body, Mind and Life After a Breast Cancer Diagnosis £13.41 – is likely to help an awful lot of people.

Rosamund, a journalist and mother of two young children, was diagnosed aged just 40 in 2021 and has channeled her experience and what she’s learned along the way into a new guide. The handbook is crammed with up-to-the-minute info and guidance from a host of experts in oncology, surgery, nutrition and psychology; as well as her personal testimony and hard-won advice.

In this exclusive extract for Get The Gloss, Rosamund writes eloquently about the difficulties in rebuilding your sense of self when you’ve had breast cancer. There is a huge difference between the physical and the psychological impact, she explains. While her hair and lashes sprung back without issue, post chemo, her identity took far longer to reassemble.

Over to you, Rosamund…

“Cancer decimated my physical identity: from losing my hair and eyebrows during chemo, to feeling too weak to run alongside my son’s bike, to a post-mastectomy body that is a daily reminder of what I’ve been through. But the destruction of my psychological identity has been even more difficult to deal with, partly because it’s less visible. One day, I was a healthy, energetic 40-year-old. Within 18 months - after chemotherapy, surgery, radiotherapy and further adjuvant chemo - I was broken.

A year on from that, you might assume I was getting back to my old self. My lashes and brows were back, and my hair had regrown sufficiently to have a short bob. On the outside, I looked normal. On the inside, however, I was struggling enormously with all-consuming fear of recurrence, as well as a litany of symptoms related to a chemo-induced early menopause, including skin that seems to be ageing in dog years. All I wanted was to be my old self again.

Three things I found helpful

It took time to learn that I have to let go of the old version of myself and, to be honest, it’s an ongoing process. But here are three strategies that can help:

  1. Acknowledge and process difficult emotions, which means talking them through rather than ignoring them.
  2. Look for a story that you can tell about why the change turned out to be positive. For example, you might have a new appreciation of the small things in life, or you have instigated a healthy habit such as embracing exercise or drinking less alcohol.
  3. Find something that symbolically marks the end of one identity and the birth of another. It can be a randomly chosen milestone, such as a birthday or new year, or a physical symbol or ritual. I got a tattoo to mark the end of treatment: a triangle on my wedding ring finger representing the mathematical symbol for change.

The new you

The good news is that, once you’ve made a conscious decision to let go of your old identity, and grieve for the person you were, you now get to decide: what do you want the new version of you to be like?

Identity change is never easy but acknowledging that it is necessary and inevitable is the first step towards using this transition to design your new identity. Why is this so important? Well, the kind of person that you believe yourself to be subconsciously influences every decision that you make. Think of all the times that you have decided not to do something because of what kind of person you are:

I’m no good with money.’
‘I’m just not a sporty type.’
‘I can’t cook.’
‘I’m not a morning person.’
You’re more likely to be capable of giving up smoking if, rather than saying, ‘I’m trying not to smoke,’ you say, ‘I’m a non-smoker.’ If you’re trying to instigate a habit of running, don’t say, ‘I’m trying to find time to run three times a week.' Just say, ‘I’m a runner.’

Say it to yourself, and out loud to anyone who’s interested. It’s one thing to say, ‘I’m the type of person who wants this,’ but quite another to say, ‘I’m the type of person who is this.’

We reconstruct ourselves several times over the course of our lives. It doesn’t necessarily take a cancer diagnosis – it could be losing a job that was part of your identity, or going through a break-up, becoming a parent, losing someone you love, dealing with the menopause... the list goes on. These moments cause self-reflection and personal reevaluation. They change the shape of us, and force us to address what our values are, what gives our life purpose or meaning, and how we can use that information to rewrite the story of our life. That all sounds lovely, but the reality of it is hard. Like grief, it’s something you have to push through. It’s a cliché, but time is healing. Unfortunately, that also means it can’t be rushed.

Rewrite the narrative

Identifying these moments that threaten your sense of self gives you a chance to seize control and rewrite the narrative, steering your identity towards who you want to be. I don’t mean forcing yourself to be someone you’re not, but rather working out what is important to you and living a more deliberate life. Your identity is not made of cement, it can be changed. Think of it as a sandcastle. You might spend years constructing it, but you can’t control the tides and, inevitably, one day it’ll get swept away. Rather than clinging to a castle that can’t possibly last for ever, you can choose to enjoy the view of the beach, and the challenge of starting over with a totally new build.

Reconstruction: How to Rebuild Your Body, Mind and Life After a Breast Cancer Diagnosis(HarperCollins, £13.41) by Rosamund Dean is out now