The IV was disconnected. The bell rang. Scans were clear. *Sigh* No more cancer. No more chemo, no more nausea, no more hospital stays. Appointments are moved to every 3 months instead of every 3 days. You're better now, right? Well...it's not quite that easy.
With the end of treatment comes a complex mix of emotions.
1. The relief.
This is what everyone expects. You get a break from the chaos of cancer, and it truly is relieving. You get the time with family, the opportunity to pursue hobbies, and the energy to work again. You feel grateful for life, and you find joy in "normal"
things. BUT, the relief comes with other emotions.
2. The realization.
As you exit the thick of cancer treatment, you step back and try to process what happened. Coming out of survival mode, the emotions hit HARD. You see the havoc cancer wreaked on your life. The heartache, the tragedy, and the brokenness become painfully obvious. You hurt, not from a tumor eroding bone or a surgeon cutting open your body, but from the pains of missed opportunities and post-traumatic stress. You are sick, not from chemo side effects or bacteria attacking your colon, but from recognizing that you will always fight cancer in one way or another.
3. The fear.
You expected the fear of recurrence, but you didn’t realize how paralyzing it could be. You could be thrown back into the trenches at any time, and you’ve been there enough to know it’s horrible, and the second time you have less ammunition. You can’t dismiss your fears away, because they are real and rational. Cancer might come back
and ruin your life even more. It might kill you or the one you love. You aren't letting your imagination run away, you are being realistic. You aren’t being faithless, because no religion or philosophy promises to spare you from cancer or death. Some days you feel ok, but the fear is always lurking and when it strikes, it demands your complete attention and leaves you powerless.
4. The confusion.
Cancer changed your life, and you can’t ever go back to life before cancer. You want to move forward, but you don’t always know how. Doctors stopped planning your schedule and guiding your decisions. How do you return to work, family responsibilities, hobbies, and friends while trying to reconcile the dramatic changes that you’ve experienced? If cancer is a turning point in your life, which way do you turn?
5. The insecurity.
Cancer leaves you feeling vulnerable and uncertain. You know you aren't in control. Ever aware that life may not go according to plan, you second-guess every plan you make. This seeps into many aspects of life. Can you really commit to that event or deadline? Do your friends really care about you? Can you really achieve your goals? Or will life continue throwing unexpected curve balls that destroy every ounce of security left?
6. The raised expectations.
Since cancer isn’t controlling your schedule, your friends expect you to make and keep plans. Your employer not only expects you to work again, but to work harder and faster, making up for lost time. You expect to be healthy and strong, both physically and mentally. Without cancer as an excuse, you expect to pay bills, do housework, and be a better spouse, parent, sibling, child, and friend. But the effects of cancer linger, and the heightened emotions can be as debilitating as the cancer treatment.
7. The guilt.
You don't understand why you or a loved one survived while another didn't. You feel pressure to make your life meaningful because you were spared. You want to be inspiring, positive, and a light to the world. You are supposed to appreciate every moment, because you were lucky enough to live and regain health. You are filled with guilt
when you fall short. When you lose your temper or lay in bed all day, you feel like a disappointment. Any complaining thought that leaks into your head is met with the invalidating and guilt-inducing response, “at least you are alive.” You feel guilty if you don’t fill your life with gratitude and create a legacy with the life given to you, while stolen from others.
8. The isolation.
After cancer treatment, your army of support thins and fades. People stop asking, "what can I do for you?" Even your oncologist becomes disinterested. No one fills the gaps when you feel too overwhelmed to function. Life should be better now, and everyone is happy for you. During cancer treatment, people sympathized, but now you’ve come to the happily ever after, the satisfying conclusion. You are scared to express anything but relief and joy, so people don’t see how worried, confused, guilty, and lonely you feel. You are often left to tackle these emotions on your own.
Usually I wrap up my thoughts with a positive resolution. But here, there is no resolution. I can't perpetuate the illusion of easy answers. These feelings shouldn't be written off as understandable but insignificant. Hope and faith, while indescribably helpful, will not make the emotions disappear, and presenting things in an overly positive light exacerbates the problem of assuming cancer survivors are "fine."
It would be unfair to wrap up this post with a clean-cut ending, like it’s unfair to expect a clean-cut ending for cancer survivors. Survivorship emotions are ongoing and unsettling, so this post deserves an equally unsettling ending.
This article was originally published on ContemplatingCancer.com.