It is fair to say that, in most cases, the speed and efficiency with which medical professionals cut, zap, poison and burn away our rogue cancer cells is undeniably slick. Patients glide, seemingly seamlessly, between departments attending appointment after appointment. There are diagnostic tests, consultations with surgeons, meetings with oncologists, pre-op staff, anaesthetists, specialist cancer nurses and everybody in between. It is an endless treadmill that never lets up, never slows down. Until, one day, it just stops.
When the breast is gone and so is the hair, when the chemo drip is stopped and the radiotherapy machine is switched off, we step gingerly off the treadmill. We are not the same people we were at the start and, though in some ways we are stronger than ever, we are also a little lost.
So many women, too many, report that they are prescribed anti-depressants when their treatment finishes. Every morning I reach for mine. Before cancer struck I was passionate and dynamic. I was vivacious and funny. I was also an angry sod at times with a short fuse and a quick temper. I miss all of that. I miss my human emotions. My anti-depressants keep me calm but I can’t help feeling like a pale, insipid imitation of the woman I was. I have tried a few times to stop taking my anti-depressants but the low mood and head zaps soon put paid to that. When I started taking them I naively believed that I could just as easily stop taking them as soon as I wished. I worry about the long term effects of the medication and, yet, those of us who have faced cancer know that the future isn’t promised and we focus more on the here and now. I should really speak to my doctor about a withdrawal programme but the truth is I am scared to see what the non-medicated, post cancer version of myself really looks like.
During the recovery of my recent latissimus dorsi flap reconstruction the hospital’s alternative therapy practitioner offered me a reiki session which I, somewhat skeptically, accepted. What followed was half an hour of relaxing music, darkness, comforting words and a chance to focus solely on myself. I have never been as relaxed without being asleep.
I wonder if I could incorporate reiki, or some other form of alternative healing, into my schedule in place of the little white pills. With a full time job, a disabled husband and two school age children I am concerned that "me time" is a selfish fantasy that could never work in the real world.
In this vanilla version of myself sexual urges have vanished, there are no highs and there are no lows. There is just this overwhelming feeling that it was all for nothing. I berate myself for not allowing cancer to change my life. If it doesn’t change your life then, really, what’s the point? I am cross with myself that, five years after diagnosis, I haven’t realised my dreams. I haven’t quit the job I hate to pursue my goal of running my own business. I don’t spend more time with my family. I don’t eat healthier or do more exercise. Nothing has changed and, yet, everything has changed. I know I'm probably being too hard on myself but I want to live a life that inspires me and also inspires my children to be anything they want.
I wish there was an aftercare programme that dealt with the fallout of a cancer diagnosis and subsequent treatment. A safe place to discuss feelings and emotions, to get practical help with relationships and finances. We need to tell others we’re still here and we still need help.
Physically I’ve been "dealt with" and I’ll live with the scars, but mentally I’m longing to be the woman I was before cancer came knocking.
Sadly I know I’m not the only one to feel this way after treatment ends and I hope we can all somehow manage to pick our own paths to the lives we now deserve to lead. By inspiring each other, offering practical advice and support and making sure we all keep moving forward we can, finally, close this dark chapter on our lives and march on.
What is your opinion on care after cancer? Share your experience in the comments below.
Photo courtesy of author.