Donna is a former Hospice Social Worker, a former Elder Law Attorney, and an ovarian cancer survivor. Her website www.survivingtoflourishing.net is coming soon.
After cancer expectations
It’s easy to think that you get your No Evidence of Disease and that life is good. It is good. It is what we went through treatment for, it was what we wanted, and now we have it. Cause for celebration, or at least a big exhale? Sure is. But then those bad days creep in. Our minds wander with the “what if’s.” We get scanxiety, anxiety about our upcoming scans. We mourn the loss of who we were while struggling to adjust to our new normal and who we are now.
If you were like me, and probably like most people who have not had a cancer diagnosis or have intimately dealt with someone who did, you thought that you complete your cancer treatment and you physically get back to your old self. Except that you don’t. It’s not too much of a surprise that you are mentally and emotionally changed because of the emotional toll and the reality of the cancer diagnosis. However your body has changed now too. It may be the scars from radiation or surgery or the port that you had to have. Or it’s the long term effects of chemo. The fatigue, the brain fog, the feeling that you just can’t do what you used to do in the same way you used to do it. It’s frustrating. It’s sad. It can easily lead to the black hole of the “why me?” thinking. So what do you do on those days, when you feel like there’s no hope and when you desperately want your old life back?
Learn how to acknowledge your emotions
First and foremost, always acknowledge your feelings. It is normal to feel sad, angry, hurt, and frustrated. We have been through a lot so feeling the whole gamut of feelings is valid and necessary. The old adage is true. To get through it, you must GO through it. So feel all the feelings, acknowledge them, express them so they don’t stay bottled up. Write it out. Journal. Talk to someone, be it a trusted friend or a therapist. Especially a therapist if you are depressed. But in order to move through it, you can’t stay there. The key is to acknowledge those feelings and then shift. You can do both of those things while “going” through it.
In case nobody ever told you this, we CAN have multiple feelings at the same time. Feelings that may initially seem diametrically opposed but really aren’t. We can feel sad or embarrassed about our physical scars but also look at them as a reminder of our bravery and our courage. They remind us that we did what we needed to do to live. Celebrate that huge victory and smile each time you see the scar for what it represents. Wear it proudly as it does not represent cancer, but victory!
Celebrate the small victories
While frustration with fatigue is inevitable at least some of the time, try looking back not on where you were physically before treatment, but where you were during treatment and at how far you have come. Perspective. When I was going through treatment I could not hike, something I love to do. Heck, for a long time after my surgery I couldn’t even walk 100 steps. Today I can hike 3 miles. Victory! Celebrate! The fact that I may need to rest for the remainder of the day or maybe even for several days after if it was a difficult hike is a small price to pay for being able to still do something that I love to do. Something that, after surgery and during treatment, I was not sure I would ever be able to do again.
As for the brain fog, well during treatment I was too exhausted to even talk to my friends and family. I communicated mostly through text. Now, even though I may sometimes need time to find the right word, I have the strength and stamina to verbally communicate with those I love. Victory! Celebrate!
The key for me in getting through the bad days was and is to feel and acknowledge the negative feelings and then shift and focus on the progress and celebrate. Even if it is just a tiny bit of progress. Maybe I walked 50 more steps today than yesterday. Maybe I didn’t need a nap today. Or I only napped for 20 minutes instead of an hour. Those small things represent progress and they are reasons to celebrate. While I won’t tell you that it will erase your bad day, what it will do is elevate your mood even if it is just a little. And sometimes that little glimmer of hope is all you need to get through that bad day. Above all else, always, always, always remember that we fought to be alive. Here we are. Breathing. Living. A cause for celebration.