As a recent cancer survivor, I understand that from the day we are declared "cancer-free" and don’t need any further treatment, all we want is to have our old "normal" life back. But before you continue to read this blog, I need to make it clear that having our old life is not always possible and we need to adapt ... so consider this new lease on life an opportunity to recreate a new, exciting life after cancer.
Don’t think of this as a disappointment – the way I see it is that we can have a ‘better’ life, almost any life you have ever wished for. For example, in the past 19 months since I have finished chemo, I have managed to distract myself with non-cancer thoughts and actions, decrease my stress levels (to lower than my pre-cancer self) and enjoy life. Remember: what is the point in being alive but not being happy after all?!
Below I share some steps to turn this into a possibility:
1. Reduce Stress Levels
The unavoidable cancer memories make it really hard to relax and stop those terrible "what if" thoughts - especially when you add to that the stress of the regular post-cancer check-ups
! It is okay and, let’s face it, totally normal to get anxious about it, but we can’t let it control our lives and the bright future ahead.
Some cancer survivors develop post-traumatic stress disorder
(PTSD). This is a serious and real condition! If you think your anxiety is out of control, I urge you to discuss it with your medical team, as they will be able to help.
2. Develop New, Healthier Habits
Invest on yourself! What have you always wanted to do but maybe didn’t have the motivation, inspiration or time? This is the time!
Here are some examples of things you could do:
- Get Physical: join a new gym, start a cycling or walking group; do yoga; make a commitment to walk your dog twice a day… whatever you do, move your body, as it will help you recover from cancer and chemo. Walking and running are great to help with neuropathy, especially.
- Eat Healthy: instead of dieting, see this as an opportunity to change your eating habits for good! Trust me, you will feel much better.
- Meditate and Be Mindful: meditation will help you calm down and be present in the moment. This is fundamental to fully enjoy our lives right now and stop worrying about uncertainties in the future! I use an app called Headspace (you can try it for free for 10 days) but I have been told that the free app Smiling Minds is great too.
- New Hobbies: Helping people, drawing or painting, writing a blog/book, reading your favourite novels, watching movies, studying history or languages, planning trips, etc.
Here is what I have done: I bought a bike the month after I finished chemo, as I love cycling and now I go everywhere on my bike. I also wanted to go back to the gym, but my motivation initially was just not there. I was still constantly exhausted
. In August I decided to make a big commitment and join a Crossfit gym
, which I now love. If you had asked me during and immediately after my chemo I would tell you I never thought this would be possible, but it was – it helped that the coaches know my limitations but are very supportive!
It took me 15 months without chemo to finally feel my energy levels normalising! Three weeks ago we even got a mini schnauzer puppy! I feel very proud of every single one of these achievements, and how far I have come since being diagnosed with cancer.
3. Recover Pieces of Your Old Identity
Being diagnosed with cancer is much more than a health issue; it takes a lot away from parts of our body, our self-esteem, sometimes our hair, our energy, our memory and much more. In the middle of the big C hurricane, you might look in the mirror and barely recognise yourself – I know because I have been there. Recovering positive pieces of yourself that were part of your old identity will help you feel like you have a normal life again.
My priorities were:
- Having my long hair back with the help of hair extensions. I just did it and am absolutely loving it!
- Exercising frequently again, and
- Saying goodbye to chemo-brain
I am still working towards some, but I have seen significant improvements in each one, and it makes me feel I am on the right path. Also have PATIENCE! Your hair, for example, will grow back – but this might take some time, even years. Your energy or memory might also take a while to come back, but they will improve. Appreciate every single baby step on the way!
4. Set Goals and Priorities
During my chemo last year, I decided to set short-term (3 - 6 months) and long-term (1 year) goals. Why? Because I wanted to have HOPE that I was going to be not only alive but also well in the future. Having hope is fundamental for our recovery – while we have hope we can be and do anything! Goals can be as small or as big as you want them to be – they just need to be SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Time-based).
For example, one of my 3 month goals was to finish chemotherapy, while another one was to go to Europe at the end of last year. My one year goals included attending a friend’s wedding and getting back to the gym, which I have achieved now (but did take a bit longer than I had expected initially), so I have established new goals for the next 4 years (including celebrating every year that I am cancer free!).
Leave the small stuff behind – worrying if your third degree cousin won’t like the fruit salad when she comes over should not be on your list of priorities!
5. Be Grateful
Be grateful for being alive, for the recovery you will observe every day in your body and mind, for the amazing people you have in your life, for having a comfortable home and, if it all fails, for clean water running in your tap! We now have a magnetic grateful board on our fridge, where both my fiancé and I write most days – it helps us keep focused on what mattered the most in life!
The cancer and chemo aftermath is enormous and sometimes not easy to deal with. I am not saying by any means that it is going to be easy to have a normal life after cancer, but it is possible to have a new normal. I am a healthy and happy, living example. Slowly, it does GET BETTER! There are days now that I only think about cancer when I see my scars when I shower or get changed, but I feel like a normal 33 year old most of the rest of the time.
As you can see, I don’t have a secret recipe, and what has worked for me might not work for you. This doesn’t mean you should give up trying! Remember you have endless opportunities – go and enjoy it!
What are the main pillars of your cancer manifesto? Tell us below!
Read more tips from Dr. Francine at her blog, Chemo and Beauty. Photo courtesy of Rosie Waern.