Cancer treatment all finished, time for celebration right? But what about the emotional aftermath of cancer? It can be an extremely isolating and confusing time. Why aren’t I happier? How do I move forward from this? What is my “new normal?”
When I was first diagnosed with cancer my body took over. Although I was in shock and overwhelmed, for the most part my brain went in to in full “fight” mode. Yes there was panic, and yes there were a lot of tears, there were even a couple of mild panic attacks (generally at about 3am whilst lying in my bed) but overall I went into warrior princess mode. Xena on steroids!
I rallied my troops, swore that I wasn’t going to let it take over my life, that I would beat this thing and hey, I never liked my boobs much anyway. “When I get through this, I’m buying a pair of Christian Louboutins and having a huge party to celebrate” was what I promised everyone. I shaved my head two days before treatment started so that I could be in control of losing my hair and had not one but three different wigs and selection of hats so I could change my look according to my mood. Throughout chemo I continued to work, I continued to have kickboxing lessons, I took glee in how well I was coping. In short, Wonder Woman had nothing on me.
I took side effects in my stride, and whilst I would never describe chemotherapy as easy, I coped. As time went on, work got too much and so I took leave. Surgery went smoothly – no new boobs for me, just slightly wonky ones now and I got through radiotherapy (although this was the part I hated the most) And then, before I knew it, that was it. Treatment finished. Congratulations, you are cancer free. You did it. Good luck with the rest of your life. Wait, what? What the actual F!
Is that it? What now? You’ve been telling me what to do, where to go for the last 9 months and now nothing? Am I just supposed to go back to normal now? Can I even remember what the hell is normal anyway? Because after treatment is finished, with your body battered and bruised, you wake up one day and it is all over, and now you just have to get on with life as a cancer survivor. No more appointments, no security blanket of extra treatment, we’ll see you next year for your annual mammogram. We’re not fighting any more, the fight is done.
I don’t mean to sound ungrateful. I’m genuinely not. In fact, I’m thrilled to be nearly one year cancer-free and consider myself to be extremely lucky – especially as (through the various support groups I have contact with) I am painfully aware that not everyone finds themselves in this situation. I apologise to anyone that is not so lucky for what must seem to be a horrifically self-indulgent post. And it’s not like I enjoyed treatment or wanted to have to continue to go through it (again apologies to those still battling through who can’t wait for the end) it’s just that you get in a bit of a routine and there is a level of certainty and safety that comes with that routine. And then it ends and you are left thinking “So what now?”
Because going through the whole cancer diagnosis and treatment plan is a bit like someone taking the jigsaw pieces of your life and throwing them all up in the air. When they have done throwing it all about, they walk off and leave you to try to piece it all back together again. Starting your jigsaw from scratch, on your own, with no instructions, a crippling fear that they will come back and do it all over again and a million littles pieces scattered all around you.
Only some of the pieces are now a bit battered and don’t quite fit together as well as they did before, and some pieces have gone completely AWOL – it’s anyone’s guess if you will ever find them again and actually, now you come to think about it, do you really want this section anymore? Because if you are starting from scratch shouldn’t you seize the opportunity to create a whole new picture? But what should that picture look like? Shouldn’t it all mean so much more!?! What pieces stay, which pieces should go and which pieces need to be completely reinvented? It’s a mammoth task just working out where to begin. Meanwhile, the people around you just want the puzzle exactly as it was before, because it was such a pretty picture… so they are cheering you on and are like “wow, you’ve done so well, so brave, you must be so pleased to get through it and get back to normal” and you want to say “well yeah, but I wasn’t brave – I just dealt with the situation because I had no other choice, the chemo fried my brain so I can’t remember what normal is, and by the way, will you look at the state of my friggin’ jigsaw!”
Except you don’t, because that would be negative and very “un-survivor-y” of you, and because you know that it would be like taking this gift of life you have been given and pooh-poohing it. So you smile and nod, and feel like the worst, most ungrateful person in the world.
Your priorities shift. Things that used to feel like the most important things in the world can feel a bit pointless, and other things that previously didn’t cross your mind become of supreme importance. You go back to work and realise that although everything is the same, at the same time everything is different.
Sitting in meetings discussing the same things that you were talking about a year ago, and you realise that a large proportion of your job seems to have very little impact or meaning in the world around you, and no matter what you do, you will probably having the same conversations and issues in another twelve months. You care a bit less and you have less patience for the crap that drags us all down sometimes and this makes you question whether this makes you rubbish at your job now. But bills needs to be paid. You consider jacking it all in, selling up and going to live on a beach that will soothe your poor mangled mind.
But what happens to the kids, the dogs, the partner in this scenario? What happens to the life that you have spent the last 40 odd years carefully constructing? All the relationships around you have shifted and changed. Your partner is as traumatised by the whole experience as you are, and you wonder if they will ever look at you and not see a patient who requires caring for, how they feel about your new body and the extra stone or two that you are carrying around these days, or the fact that you now see your boobs as the enemy and rather than viewing them as something that can turn you on they seem like something that can turn on you instead.
In fact your whole body is generally considered to be quite untrustworthy post-cancer. Never mind the fact that nothing seems to quite work quite so well in the aftermath of chemo and surgery, you are always on the lookout for a recurrence… “Is that a winter cough or a sign of metastatic lung cancer?” “Did I twinge my back at the gym or is it in my bones now?”
The fear whispers in your ear in the wee hours of the morning and when you least expect it to, and whilst your logical mind knows you are being neurotic, it is like a scab that you can’t help picking at and the voice in your head won’t go away.
My sister likes to remind me “Emma is not an island” and she is right – I have a phenomenal bunch of friends and family who will bend over backwards to help and support me with whatever I need. If only I could work out what that is. And in the meantime, I hate to worry them.
We’ve all been through enough, and not only do I not want to bother them with my existential crisis, I’m not really sure what I would say anyway… and really, I’m “fine” and I’m “okay” I just need to find my “new normal” and work out what my new picture will be.
So how am I going about that? Anti-depressants have been floated as an idea (and certainly not uncommon with survivors) and I know that all I need to do is ask but somehow that feels like giving in and accepting defeat, plus I feel my body has had enough medication for a lifetime and really doesn’t need anymore.
Likewise, counselling is probably something I should consider more deeply, but at this moment in time doesn’t feel right – as the fiercely independent person that I am, I don’t know that I’m ready to accept professional help just yet, and want to try to process this all by myself first. So instead, I’m doing what all experienced puzzlers do and starting with the corners.
Friends and Family – I try very hard to not be an emotional tortoise, and to take my sisters advice about not being an island, or at least not a remote, inaccessible one. I try to make plans, do fun things, and spend time with the people that I love – because ultimately, that was what all the fighting was for, that was the reason that I put on my big girl pants and slogged my way through 9 months of relentless, gruelling treatment.
My husband and I are working on our relationship and slowly, gently trying to recover from the impact of the last eighteen months. I don’t need those Christian Louboutins anymore (although if you want to give me a pair I wont refuse) but the party? Time to have fun and be with my favourite people in the world? Hell yeah! Just say when!
Health and fitness – Having piled on the pounds during treatment (I SO was not expecting that!) I’m taking back control of my diet and fitness. I’ve joined a gym, partly because regular exercise has been clinically proven to reduce the rates of recurrence, partly because it will help me lose weight but mostly because I am mentally stronger and happier when I workout regularly, and so I am trying to re-establish a routine of regular exercise. I’ve also re-committed to my slimming world membership, changed the way I eat and cook far more from scratch with less meat and dairy, more fresh fruit and veg, trying to avoid processed food as much as possible. Even if I have an unhealthy addiction to chocolate and cake (which I’m trying very hard to kick!) I at least know that the rest of my diet would give even Gillian McKeith a run for her money… And I’m feeling the benefits already.
Balance – In life, with work, with nature, all around basically. Maybe these are my Libra tendencies coming to the fore, maybe I’m turning into a hippy, but I’ve realised that prior to diagnosis, my life was out of kilter. Too much work, too much stress, not enough self-care, not enough consideration for the world around me or for anything much at all. I careered from one day to the next too busy to think. So I’m trying to be kinder, more conscious, more mindful – to myself, to those around me and for the greater good. Oh, and I took up yoga – because everyone who has a brush with cancer knows the restorative power of a Shavasana (and kale!) LOL
Joy – Whilst I’m at risk of sounding like a self-help manual, I am learning to prioritise and seek out the things that make me happy. Whether that is a good book, the new album from my favourite band/singer, making holiday plans, snuggling with my husband, kids and dogs on the sofa, drinking Prosecco with friends, an amazing view, meeting an adorable little puppy when out and about or simply taking 5 minutes in peace to feel the sun on my face.
I’m redefining my values, and have new long-term goals. I don’t feel like I need to caveat every single one of those long term goals with “if I’m still here” or at least not every single time I think about them. I am slowly rediscovering my path and finding my way to the hallowed new normal.
My first annual mammogram is in a couple of weeks… of course I have the expected scan-xiety and yet I also have hope. The sun is starting to peek through the clouds. I have good days and I have bad days. I am asking for new challenges at work – something fresh to get my teeth into. I’m setting up my own business. I’m starting to find out who Emma 2.0 is. Some days it is simply a case of continuing to put one foot in front of the other and all of this is helping to bring the new plan together.
The jigsaw is starting to look less like a jumble of scattered pieces and more like the beginning of a recognisable picture. I’m not there yet, but with support from the so many amazing people around me, I’m starting to rediscover my roar.