Life after cancer is more confusing than anyone told me it would be. Honestly, they didn’t tell me much of what to anticipate when the disease was gone and the dust settled. Possibly because most didn’t even expect me to survive the first year, let alone the second, third, fourth, and least likely the fifth.
From the moment I was diagnosed and through the subsequent years during treatment, the focus for all of us was to simply get through it. To survive. To make it out somewhat intact. Yet, there was never any conversation beyond survival. Merely congratulatory well wishes upon my last treatment and the classic line, “We hope to never see you in here again!”, as if I were a prisoner released from a lengthy stint behind bars.
No one told me what life would be like back in the “real world.” No one told me that I’d experience post-traumatic stress disorder triggered by sights, smells, experiences, relationships, and even food. I wasn’t aware that I’d feel like I didn’t belong in this seemingly regular, normal, everyday life. I never imagined being more comfortable in a hospital than in a grocery store. I didn’t think I’d be shy about regaining my independence. I had no clue what life was supposed to look like or what I was even supposed to do when I arrived at my destination, when I reached my goal, and when I survived the statistics that labeled me. I didn’t know what to expect because I wasn’t expecting this… Life.
We had conversations about notarizing wills, what items would go to who, if my husband would remarry, and that eventually, grief would settle and everyone left behind would learn to cope with my death. We clung to the hope that maybe, just maybe, this period in time would fade away into the history of my life’s story. That, as a grandmother decades from now, I’d share tales of a battle won with my grandchildren. I never thought I would die from cancer, but as oxymoronic as it may sound, I wasn’t sure if I would live through it either.
I wasn’t prepared for the difficulties that a life almost lost has brought me. It’s been a recurrent struggle, a back and forth tug of war between then and now. Cancer isn’t just a moment in time. It’s not just something that happens and eventually goes away. It doesn’t sit on a timeline nor does it have a beginning or an end. From the moment it physically rooted itself into my anatomy, it also marked my very DNA and soul. Though free of disease, I will forever be marked by it. Though I walk without cancer, I will forever carry it with me. It has changed who I am, and the biggest conflict I now face is rediscovering who that really is.
Today marks five years since I heard those life-altering, fateful words, “I’m sorry, you have cancer.” And Friday marks two years free of this disease. I always thought that time healed all wounds, and though I still believe there is some truth in that, I think that healing requires more than days gone by. If only I could go back to that very moment when life as I knew it was forever changed. If only I could look that Stephanie in the eyes and say, “There is no right way to heal. There is no correct way to grieve. There is no road map nor compass. You will learn as you go, and you must trust that God has given you the grace for each obstacle you will face. Cry when grief falls upon you. Dance when joy is overwhelming. Laugh from the very pit of your soul. And love like your heart knows no bounds. There is no destination to be reached but rather a life to be well-lived. Keep looking forward and never let what happens today steal your joy for tomorrow.”
This new year has been full of incredible abundance and freedom. It’s the beginning of regaining my life. For the first time since diagnosis, I finally feel free. Free to feel. Free to release. Free to let my guard down. Free to really live this life that I’ve been gifted. I feel like I’ve finally awoken to the life that I so longed for after cancer. I think it’s due in part to the fact that I’ve ultimately given myself permission to.
As a cancer survivor, there’s a balance between recognizing and honoring the journey itself and also accepting survival with open arms. Though survival is the one thing I vehemently fought for all of these years, it’s also the one thing I must face head on. I’m alive, now what? It’s easier to live with a victim mindset always focused on what once was and what should have been; It’s more difficult to move forward with victory on my side, accepting that though cancer has forever changed me, it will not define me.
I expected that on this day, my five year anniversary, I would be in jubilant celebration, reflecting in awe of the miraculous road I’ve walked. Without a care, concern, or any hint of grief or sadness. After all, it’s been five years. FIVE. My doctors said I probably wouldn’t even make it to ONE, so this moment in time truly is a milestone. But here I am, and though I absolutely feel elated to be free of the shackles that bound me for years, I’m still coping with the grief that lingers after trauma. And you know what? I’m okay with that.
Though no one told me what life after would feel like, I’m learning that there is no “right” way. I’m learning to embrace what was was, what is, and what will be.
Isaiah 43:18-20 (ESV)
“Remember not the former things, nor consider the things of old. Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?”