(As appeared in Everyday Health on April 10, 2015)
Treatment is over. The poisonous toxins are no longer coursing through my every cell. My body is recovering and my energy is being refueled. My hair is growing. I’m seeing hints of familiarity in the mirror — what I was before this wretched disease took over.
I’m beginning to feel like myself again. My scans are clear and there is no evidence of disease.
A burden has been lifted.
But another one has taken its place.
Those outside the gates of Cancerland believe that life goes back to normal once treatment ends. It’s as if we get to press some universal play button and then proceed on our merry little way.
Life is never the same after cancer. The disease does not pause our lives, it redefines them.
Cancer is like a tornado ripping through a town in middle America. It tears through lives and leaves destruction in its wake. Like trees violently uprooted and thrown aside, so too are dreams and goals. Life doesn’t go back to normal after the dust settles. The survivors are left to survey the rubble and pick up what remains.
Discussing the realities of life after cancer can cause pain, grief, and discomfort. Some struggle to move forward because they are stuck living in fear. The “what- ifs” can be paralyzing. It’s easy to be consumed by thoughts of your own mortality even after you are deemed “cancer-free.” This disease doesn’t just affect your body, it also affects your mind. The battle against debilitating fear and anxiety is real. And can be more difficult to bear than treatment itself.
The slightest presence of pain can deliver thoughts of a recurrence. “I have a headache… Has the cancer spread to my brain?” “My stomach hurts; I wonder if a new tumor is growing there.” This mindset is ingrained. Throughout treatment you are constantly asked if you notice any new pain or experience symptoms. Therefore, like Pavlov’s dogs, you are intuitively trained. Even the smallest change is cause for alarm.
Being cancer-free is bittersweet. On one hand, finishing the treatments that have been wreaking havoc on your body is emancipating. But, on the other, the thought of no longer actively fighting the disease is terrifying. Many people have a love-hate relationship with these life-saving treatments. After saying goodbye to our chemo cocktails, radiation, or other therapies, we are left to pray and hope that cancer will no longer choose our bodies for its residency.
How do we live after cancer? Do we try and fill the shoes we wore prior to our diagnoses? Do we begin a new journey?
Many use their experiences with cancer to help others going through the same battle. Others say that cancer makes them better people and redirects their focus. For those who leave Cancerland, life is much more fragile.
Cancer gives you a new lease on life. As if the multitude of decisions we have made since diagnosis aren’t enough, we now must decide what to do with the rest of our lives. Often, life before cancer seems meaningless compared to the vast experiences and enlightenment we gain afterward.
We have looked straight into the eyes of death, and have come out on the other side. We have been beaten down, knocked around — and yet we have survived. Our faith has been tested and reborn. Hope has emerged from the ashes. Though we have lost much, we have also gained strength we never knew existed.
We are different. We have evolved, developed, and grown. We must acknowledge that even though cancer has affected every area of our lives, we have come out on top. Living every day is a choice. And choosing joy is vital to a healthy and happy existence.