Thursday, May 14, 2015

Post-Cancer Life

It's been a while since I posted anything about cancer. That's a good thing. I guess I am finally fully recovered. Now that I am working on 4 years cancer free, I can honestly say that I have accepted my post cancer body and all that goes along with it. I have made peace with my mind's irrational fears of recurrence. I have come to grips with things that will never be what they were before cancer. I have accepted and become somewhat comfortable with my new, post-cancer, "normal".
But it wasn't always this way.
Looking back on it, I realize more than ever that the first 2 years post cancer were really, really difficult. Until now, I thought that I was just a bit crazy during that time. I didn't reach out to other cancer survivors to see if what I was experiencing was normal. I wish I had looked for help and advice to help me deal with it all back then. But I didn't. Recently, a friend reached out to me because she is struggling with her post cancer reality and I realize now that maybe I wasn't crazy after all. Maybe the things I experienced are just part of recovery.

That being said, here are some things that they don't tell you about surviving cancer.
  • Being a cancer survivor isn't the same as never having had cancer. I know that sounds silly, but it needs to be said. There is no "getting BACK to 'normal'" because "normal" is different post-cancer. For me, physically, I wanted my pre-cancer voice, my pre-cancer neck and throat. Emotionally, I wanted...gosh, I don't even know how to put this into words...I wanted my pre cancer life; I wanted to not freak out if my neck had a weird lump in it, if my voice acted funny, if I had a headache or if I had a nagging cough. I didn't want a migraine to warrant an MRI and CT to rule out a brain tumor. I didn't want to have chest x-rays every so many months to make sure that the cancer wasn't in my lungs. I didn't want my neck to be stiff and achy. I didn't want my voice to be hoarse.

  • Fear is real, constant, and overwhelming. The biggest fears I had were of the treatments not killing all the cancer and of recurrence and metastasis. I imagine that these are not unique to me and that others may have more fears depending on their emotional state and their type of cancer. It really didn't have anything to do with whether or not I trusted God to take care of me. It wasn't an issue of faith. I knew God has everything under control, I just didn't (don't) want to go through all that again. It didn't matter that my fears were irrational. Even when I knew that I was being irrational, I could not just dismiss the fears. They had to be dealt with. Thankfully, Doc understood and prescribed meds to help me cope until my brain could recover. Another thing that I learned at this point in my journey is that the emotional, physical, and spiritual support so readily available to the cancer patient is not available to the cancer survivor.

  • Well meaning people unknowingly heap on guilt and add to anxiety. For me, the worst thing I could hear was, "Well, at least you don't have cancer." Even now, I feel like this is dismissive of what I was experiencing at the time. Just because I no longer have cancer does not mean that I am not struggling. This little phrase hit my heart with "You should be more thankful. You are ungrateful for God's healing," which is so untrue. I was and am thankful to be healed, but healed is not the same as having never had cancer. Even today, I feel like this phrase and others similar to it were a dismissal of what I was going through at the time.  I felt like, since I didn't have cancer anymore, I "should" not need support and that made me feel ...well...bad...because I DID need support. To almost every person who has not walked this road themselves, the battle ends when cancer treatments ends. They do not realize the need for emotional support, encouragement, and understanding post cancer.
I spent 2-3 years suffering and miserable because I wanted things to go back to the way they were before I had cancer, and so did the people around me. I had to accept that "healed" is not "good as new". "Healed" is simply "healed". Cancer and cancer treatment leave physical scars you can see, and physical damage you can feel. They also leave emotional scars and damage. Post-cancer me is very different from pre-cancer me. That's just the way it is. NOW, I realize that accepting my post cancer voice, my post cancer neck and throat, and my post cancer life with all the scars, aches, pains, and fears was the turning point in getting "back to normal". I had to accept that my new "normal" is quite different from the old normal... and that's okay. After time passed, I was able to get off the anti-anxiety meds and was able to deal with all the fears and what not pretty well, but it took a few years to get to that place.
I've realized over time that post-cancer life is not so different from post-divorce life, maybe even post-military deployment life. Just because I don't have cancer now does not mean that I am the same as I was before I had cancer. Similarly, my friend who is divorced is not the same woman she was before she married, even though, technically, she is single again. I have heard it said that those who fight for our country bring the war back with them. In all these cases, though each is very different, the thing we want most is the one thing we cannot have...for things to go back to the way they were before.
As I've said many times about traumatic events, it is bad enough that it happened; it is a complete tragedy to let Satan use it to keep you in bondage.  I believe that this is one way that Satan keeps us in bondage after a traumatic event. He creates in our heart a longing for the one thing we cannot have...the life we had before the trauma. In longing for what we had (and cannot have again), we miss out on what we have.
I wish I'd understood this 3 years ago....
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