When I started writing this post, I almost capitalized the first letter in "cancer." I'm not sure why; it just seemed like it was supposed to be capitalized. But then I decided that regardless of what was grammatically correct, I refused to capitalize that word. I refuse to give it any more weight than it has already had in my life. Which is the entire basis of this post — the weight of an illness that isn't there, of a word that no longer applies.
The good news is that I'm technically cancer-free now. I was diagnosed as Stage-2 Hodgkin's lymphoma in March 2015. After my last chemotherapy session in Sept 2015, a CT scan showed no signs of the disease and my doctor declared me in remission, and sent me on my way (in a manner of speaking; I still go in every 6 months for follow-up blood work and exams). I was cancer free, chemotherapy was over. All done, yay! Right?
As deeply unpleasant as the experience of chemotherapy was, at least I knew what to expect. While it's true that no two people's chemo experiences are the same, and you cannot predict just how your body will react, there is at least a list of symptoms to expect
. You have some idea of what's going to happen, and for the most part, there are drugs and remedies for those symptoms.
Treatment might be painful and exhausting and uncomfortable in ways I didn't even realize were possible…but at the very least I had the solace that I was actively doing something to work against and fight the cancer. The cancer is going away; I'm getting better.
It's the aftermath that no one talks about
or can prepare you for. The doctor told me, with a smile, that I'm considered in remission, that things look great, and to go "live my life." Although I understand his sentiment and I appreciate the well wishes, it is easier said than done. You don't just "bounce back" from chemotherapy. You can't really "live your life," at least not like you did before.
No one can tell you how long it takes to recover. No one. Everyone is different. While there is a good amount of information on the web regarding how to deal with the effects of cancer treatments, I've found much less on the topic of recovery. So that's why I am here, writing about my experience, and a few things I have learned:
1. Recovery from cancer is not linear.
It is not a matter of just "getting back to normal" As much as the survivor (I, you, someone you know) wants to go back to their old life, it's just not going to happen. Recovery, in my experience at least, is as much about healing (physically, mentally, emotionally) as it is about finding the new normal
2. You may feel some form of guilt.
But there’s this sort of…guilty feeling over that failure to get back to normal. You should get back to your old life, right? You beat cancer, maybe you beat the odds! You survived. So… why aren't you taking back your life?
It sounds silly to type it all out now, but when you're in the moment, when you're dealing with hormonal derangement, chemical imbalances, and pure exhaustion… the craziest of thoughts can seem normal.
3. Opening up can really help.
It took a friend posting about her fears and questions
on the process of recovering from cancer and chemotherapy for me to realize how important (and maybe even necessary
) it is to put my own experience out there. I thought it might be helpful not only for other survivors, but for their friends and family, as well. When something as overwhelming as cancer affects an individual, it affects the other people in that individual's life as well. In fact, a recurring theme I saw through the posts and forum discussions
about the post-cancer experience was how to get the well-meaning but oft-uniformed individuals in a survivor's life to understand what they were going through.
4. It really is a journey.
As much as I hate the phrase "journey" in regards to cancer, the recovery aspect is a journey. It is a long and winding road. And it may even be a journey that never really ends, but instead continually evolves. Because even when the disease itself is gone, cancer remains a part of life for survivors and their loved ones and that continuing experience needs more openness and discussion.
No two survivors' experiences may be the same, but perhaps, through discussing our experience and being open with your thoughts, we can help each other through the ever-winding and sometimes dark road that is post-cancer recovery. Maybe in providing support and comfort to others, we can find it for ourselves.
If you're a survivor, feel free to join the conversation now and share your post-cancer experiences and stories in the comments.
Image courtesy of Nick Karvounis