Life after Cancer
I imagined post cancer life would be similar to a Broadway musical. Basically full-time tap dancing and confetti bombs exploding in every room I entered. A celebration that would last for months where I’d wear an obnoxious Jim Carey style grin 24/7.
However, when the treatment ended and my oncologist gave me the golden ‘all clear,’ the jolly vibes just weren’t a-happenin’. In actual fact, I was left feeling flat and lost - like I had been spat out of a fast spinning carnival ride and I didn’t’ have the energy to figure out which direction I should be walking in.
And what’s even weirder is that no one gives you the heads up about this part. I honestly thought there was something wrong with me. Where was the 'old' Emily and why the hell wasn’t I partying like it is 1999!?
Through my trio of cancers I have had many ‘end of treatment’ stages (for which I’m so grateful). But each time I've felt flat, and I’ve learnt now this is pretty bloody normal. And here’s why.
When you’re first diagnosed with cancer, you gain membership into a world dictated by doctors and nurses. You have a fixed schedule and a uniform of pyjamas and blue hospital gowns. Your body and your life schedule becomes the property of a whole team of medical experts. Against your will, you fall into the rhythm of this strange existence and before you know it – this is the norm. Eat, sleep, chemo, repeat. Eat, sleep, chemo, repeat.
And then suddenly you’re ‘better’. ‘Cured’ they say. ‘Healthy’ they say. ‘You can go back to normal’ they say. But what the fuck does that even mean anymore?
Normal life feels super overwhelming and trying to slot back in seems like an impossible task. Once you realise everything is not ok, everyone has given you the pat on the back and stepped away. My friends and family had given me so much support already that asking for more seemed like I was being an absolute drama queen. I just needed to get on with it!
The fact is, this is often the first time we’ve had a chance to process what’s just happened. Between diagnosis, tests, operations, hair loss, treatment, terrifying appointments, and the general day-to-day shit show, you’re basically stuck in fight mode. Essentially it’s considered trauma. Now things have quietened, the heaviness of what you’ve just experience has a chance to settle in. In some cases the amount of trauma experienced can cause PTSD. How can you possible just ‘go back to normal life’ when you’re trying to deal with all that!?
I think every cancer warrior should be warned that life after cancer is a bloody minefield! When treatment ends, that’s when another world of healing begins. Recovery is not easy and you will require patience, love and support.
Here are a few things that I’ve been reminded of over the past 6 months while living life after cancer.
Lower your expectations of yourself
Recovery is 1 step forward and 10 steps back. Some days will be dandy and others are going to be big balls of poo. I also think us ‘younger’ cancer warriors have another layer of frustration to deal with because we’ve never been slowed down by our body before. I get it. But breathe baby girl. Let it heal once and there’s less chance of having to do this again.
Be super transparent with your family and mates.
Don’t put on a brave face and pretend everything is ok. If you haven’t yet reached remission, bring up the potential realities of life after cancer. Maybe even send them this blog! Let them know you may need their help on an emotional level after all the medical stuff is done.
Take a break from the cancer world.
Take breaks from social media and cancer chat groups because sometimes other people’s stories will be too much to handle and this is ok. You can’t be there for everyone and some days you need to put yourself first.
And lastly, see this as a gift.
I know it sounds stupid to say but we’re so lucky to have had our lives turned upside down! So many people live life like groundhog day, doing the things they ‘should’, that actually make them quite miserable. We’ve been granted a break from the rat race and maybe you’ve realised that some parts of your old life don’t suit the new, evolved you. We’ve learnt that life’s short and these second chances are rare. Use this new piece of wisdom to change your life into the best version it can be. That might feel overwhelming and it’s hard to know where to start but it also doesn’t need to happen all at once. Be kind to yourself. Start by changing little things and brainstorming where you want to go. Who knows where this new life will lead you!