The Essence of Womanhood: Navigating Identity Through Cancer’s Lens

A woman with glasses and a vibrant necklace enjoys the fragrance of colorful flowers in a sunny garden, symbolizing resilience and the essence of womanhood.

By Hayley Nelson, PhD

Sitting across from me, a friend with the journey of cancer etched into the lines of her face, asked a question that pierced the quiet of my living room: “After all this, am I still the woman I once was?” Her words weren’t just about the aftermath of her surgeries—a hysterectomy and double mastectomy—they went deeper, touching on the essence of womanhood and identity after cancer treatment. Her question, profound and heartfelt, resonated deeply, highlighting a universal concern shared by many women walking similar paths. It served as a striking reminder of the complexities woven into our hormonal health and how it shapes our sense of self.


Understanding Womanhood Beyond the Physical

The dance of hormones within our bodies does more than just regulate our physical functions; they play a pivotal role in the rich tapestry of our womanhood. When cancer threatens this delicate balance, it challenges more than our health—it calls into question our very identity. But through a lens of resilience and understanding, we come to realize that our essence transcends physical and hormonal configurations. Womanhood, with its layers of experiences, emotions, and inner strength, remains intact, untouched by the trials of disease and treatment.


The Science Behind the Healing

In the realm of hormone-related cancers, where surgeries like mastectomies and hysterectomies become pivotal moments in treatment, the interplay of neuroscience, mental health, and personal identity takes center stage in the journey to healing and self-discovery. At this intersection lies the body’s intricate response to stress—choreographed by the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis and the sympathetic nervous system. 

When activated by stress or emotional turmoil, these systems release a torrent of hormones. Cortisol, known as the “stress hormone,” takes a lead role, influencing not only our mental state but also the very environment that cancer cells inhabit. Chronic stress can subtly alter this hormonal landscape, potentially swaying the course of cancer. Yet, the story doesn’t end there. Mental health conditions, such as depression and anxiety—frequent travelers on the cancer journey—can further dysregulate the HPA axis, underscoring a complex relationship between our emotional well-being and our physical health.


Hormonal Therapies: A Double-Edged Sword

For many on the path of hormone-related cancers, hormonal therapies are a necessary part of treatment, brandished with the power to disrupt cancer’s progression. Yet, these therapies often come with their own set of challenges, including effects on mood and mental health that can cloud our sense of self and identity.

Peering through a neuroscientific lens offers a glimmer of hope. In the complexities of neurotransmitter systems and mood regulation, we find strategies to mitigate these side effects, ensuring our journey through treatment is not solely about survival but also about thriving, emotionally and physically.


The Role of Neuroscience and Neuroplasticity in Healing

Delving into neuroscience provides profound insights into our capacity to navigate the psychological impacts of cancer treatment. The concept of neuroplasticity—the brain’s ability to rewire and adapt—is a beacon of hope. It demonstrates that through targeted practices and therapies, we can cultivate resilience, reduce stress, and enhance mental well-being, even amidst adversity.

As mentioned before, chronic stress can disrupt our hormonal equilibrium via the HPA axis, amplifying the challenges of hormone-related cancers. However, armed with this knowledge, we possess strategies to counteract these effects. Techniques like mindfulness meditation, cognitive-behavioral therapy, and regular physical exercise serve as not only buffers against stress but also activators of the brain’s neuroplastic capabilities, enriching our mental health and hormonal balance.


Practical Strategies for Embracing Wholeness and Wellness

In response to my friend’s profound inquiry, we ventured into actionable steps to reclaim her sense of self and support her journey of healing:

  1. Engage in Mindfulness and Meditation: These sanctuaries from turmoil diminish stress and nurture a hormonal environment conducive to healing. By cultivating mindfulness, we tap into the brain’s neuroplastic potential, fostering resilience and peace.
  2. Incorporate Regular Physical Exercise: Movement and exercise transcend physical health; they are pivotal in managing stress, elevating mood, and stimulating neuroplasticity. Yoga and walking offer gentle reconnections with the body, promoting hormonal balance.
  3. Adopt a Hormone-Healthy Diet: Nutritional choices play a crucial role in hormonal health. A balanced diet, rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and healthy fats, supports your body’s natural harmony and contributes to overall well-being.
  4. Seek Community and Connection: Immersing yourself in a supportive community provides emotional solace and a sense of belonging. Sharing your journey reinforces your identity and resilience.
  5. Prioritize Restorative Sleep: Foundational sleep is crucial for hormonal health and mental well-being. A soothing nighttime routine can enhance sleep quality, underpinning your body’s healing processes and the potential for neuroplasticity.


Reflections on Resilience and Identity

As our dialogue unfolded, clarity blossomed. My friend started to see that her womanhood—her identity—wasn’t anchored to physical attributes or the presence of specific hormones. It was deeply rooted in her life’s experiences, her bravery, and the profound depth of her emotional landscape.

The journey through hormone-related cancer, with its myriad of challenges and uncertainties, also paves the way for deep personal growth and understanding. Grounding our approach in neuroscience, embracing the promise of neuroplasticity, and adopting strategies to bolster mental and hormonal health enables us to traverse this path with dignity and grace. It’s a journey that reconfirms our essence, reminding us that indeed, we remain every bit the women we always were—and so much more.

In sharing these insights and strategies, I aim to illuminate a path for others to navigate their journey. Our womanhood is unyielding, a symbol of strength and resilience guiding us through the darkest times toward a future where we not only survive but thrive, embracing our complete selves with every step we take forward.


Dr. Hayley Nelson

Dr. Hayley Nelson, PhD is a neuroscientist, tenured psychology professor, international speaker and founder of The Academy of Cognitive and Behavioral Neuroscience where she is passionate about making neuroscience approachable.

For more information about Dr. Hayley Nelson and the Certification Programs in Cognitive and Behavioral Neuroscience, visit: and