(As seen in Cancer Knowledge Network’s #YARally)
Treatment ends. Your hair begins to sprout anew. Your skin slowly smooths. Your energy levels rise. You can look in the mirror and see remnants of the person you once were. You’ve trudged through the hardest journey of your life and bear the scars that tell the story. Your doctors share the latest results from your scans and there is no evidence of disease. You’re cancer-free.
It’s time to move on with your life and dream again. You’ve gained perspective and see life in a new way. You’re ready to forge new relationships and deepen the bonds you already have. You’re excited to travel and see the world in a new light. You’re ready to pursue the dreams you were reluctant to before. You’re not afraid to fail, because you’d rather try than not try at all. Your character has flourished and you are stronger and braver than ever before. Because you’ve faced your own mortality, you are now fearless.
While many survivors experience a sense of relief and celebratory whimsy upon receiving cancer-free results, those feelings don’t always last as long as we expect them to.
At diagnosis, my number one goal was to be cancer-free. I wanted to defeat this disease and move forward in my life. I accepted the fact that I would lose my fertility through a radical hysterectomy. I knew it was the only way to reach survival. I faithfully attended every chemotherapy and radiation session. I grieved the loss of my hair, the changes in my skin, weight gain, and even my nails peeling off. I could no longer recognize the woman staring back at me in the mirror, but I reminded myself that this would only be temporary. Cancer would be only but a chapter in my novel of life.
I received my first clear scan seven months after diagnosis. My doctor was elated as she shared the news. No matter that I was given a less than 20% chance to survive the first year, I beat the odds. I was cancer-free! I danced around the house, smiling genuinely for the first time in months. My husband and I celebrated. The burden of cancer began to slough off our shoulders and we were able to see the future we so desperately hoped we could share together.
But that’s not how the story ended.
Because of the type of cancer I had, I would need routine scans every three months to ensure that the disease did not return. It was time for my first follow-up scan and I felt anxious. Only three months prior, a scan showed no evidence of disease (NED), but I was aware that cancer is hardly predictable. We followed protocol and I received the most potent and effective cocktails of chemo and radiation and it had worked. But just as our celebration began, the party was over. A softball-sized malignant tumor had grown within ninety days, and I was facing my first recurrence.
That moment changed everything. The knowledge that cancer had returned with a vengeance sent chills racing through me. To the depths of my soul, I was shaken. My fear of cancer rose exponentially from the trepidation I had experienced at diagnosis. I was facing my own mortality through realistic lenses as I knew my already small statistics would shrink even more. More surgery. More chemo. More pain, grief, fear, exhaustion, and nausea.
Diagnosis pales in comparison to recurrence. At diagnosis, the majority of people feel strong and able to defeat the giant. Bright eyes and bushy tails, we are ready for the fight. Determination and perseverance with a sprinkling of naivety propelled my first battle against cancer. Recurrence comes at a bigger price. The price that we know exactly what we are facing. There are fewer unknowns because we’ve traveled the road before, and can foresee the afflictions that are to come.
It’s been four years since diagnosis, and I’ve had three recurrences after first hearing the words, “You have cancer.” Some came swiftly like the first, only three months later. Other recurrences arrived further down the road. No matter the time that we are able to live without cancer invading our bodies, it never really goes away. Though it may not be a physical presence, cancer often lingers in our emotional well-being. A ghost that haunts us, never wanting to leave. We are constantly reminded that cancer can return at any moment. It’s normal for survivors to feel anxious, depressed, and fearful once treatment ends and NED is achieved.
Some survivors feel more scared after fighting cancer than they did in the throes of the disease. Once treatment ends, we are simply left to pray and hope with every remaining healthy cell within us that cancer will no longer choose our bodies as its residency. Life after cancer isn’t always what we dream it will be, therefore we should be prepared for what may come after this chapter has closed.
In order to look forward, we must avoid looking back. Not denying the journey we trekked or ignoring the fight, but by deciding that cancer can no longer have a vice grip on our lives, we can begin to truly live free of cancer. Fear of recurrence gives power to the disease. Our anxieties can fuel cancer, giving it control over us. When fear creeps in, we must stand against it, knowing who we have become in spite of the struggles we have faced. We are much stronger than we think we are.
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 put to the ultimate test and has grown in the fire. Hope has emerged from the ashes. Though we have lost much, we’ve gained more. We are different. We have changed, developed, and flourished. We must acknowledge that though cancer affected every area of our life, we have come out on top. Living every day is a choice. Choosing joy is vital to the continued success of a healthy and happy existence.
Matthew 6:34 (MSG)
“Give your entire attention to what God is doing right now, and don’t get worked up about what may or may not happen tomorrow. God will help you deal with whatever hard things come up when the time comes.”