If it’s one thing I have learned is that a cancer diagnosis is life-long. The person you were when you first stepped onto this path is not the same one that emerges on the other side.
Sure the hard part is over. The surgeries are done, chemo and radiation are becoming a distant memory and you are now celebrating one year cancer free milestones, instead of marking an X on the calendar after yet another daily radiation.
I often found that the joy that others had toward me being “done” was misplaced at best and honestly felt like a punch in the gut. Sure, active treatment is over but now comes the hard part, living with the emotional and physical tolls that cancer has left. Most expect us to quickly go back to “normal”, regain our energy, and love for life. However, quite the opposite often happens and the months after finishing treatment are shockingly and unexpectedly difficult. I remember everyone being so excited that I was ‘finished”, I rung that damn bell! But all I could do was cry. Finished? I was beyond exhausted, burnt and blistered, still bald, and getting ready to start my next phase of treatments which includes 10 years on Tamoxifen and Zoledex injections to shut down my ovaries –hello menopause!! I certainly didn’t feel “done” or much like celebrating. This left me severely depressed and angry. Sure I had a whole new appreciation for life, as often a cancer diagnosis will do, but fuck I was done. The expectation that life would go back to normal and struggling to live up to that was too hard. I cried, a lot. Slowly my wounds healed and I was able to get back to working full time, running and the things I needed to heal my soul. Then I started my new regime of Tamoxifen and Zoladex injections. I was thrown into menopause immediately and the side effects of hot flashes, loss of libido, weight gain, constipation, nausea, insomnia, and brain fog all came instantly. And here I am – supposed to be loving life and this shit is literally my new norm. My insomnia got so bad due to night sweats that I was barely functioning, crying hysterically at night begging to sleep. I was prescribed Effexor, an antidepressant to help with the hot flashes and night sweats. Thankfully it did, and within a week was finally getting a few hours of uninterrupted sleep a night, enough to function. Unfortunately all of these medications, starting with the steroids during chemo, the thrust into menopause, has lead to weight gain! Since surgery I have put on over 15 pounds. Like seriously, are you fucking kidding me! There was literally one week, recently, that I gained 5 pounds! I have done nothing different. I try to be active, I run, I eat well but yet the weight keeps coming. So what am I left with? A new struggle with my self-image. I know I shouldn’t be so hard on myself, but sometimes I look at my naked self in the mirror and instead of seeing a warrior, I see the scars, still feel the pain, see wrinkles and bags on my face that I never had before, extra weight, and sometimes I cry. I cry for the “me” that didn’t have these struggles. I cry for the ”me” that used to feel sexy and feminine. I cry for the “me” that wasn’t worried if my husband still finds me attractive. I cry for the “me” that wasn’t worried about the statistics of recurrence. I cry for a “me” that can overcome this.
And this is where I am at right now in my journey. I struggle every day with my self-image, with fear, with depression, with resentment. Don’t get me wrong – I am so grateful to be ALIVE and I know how close I came to not being here today. In so many ways cancer has helped me raise my awareness of what it means to truly LIVE, right now, today, to seek the beauty that each day brings. And I am determined to come out on the other side a better, happier person than I was going in. But this shit is hard, there is no easy button for cancer and the feelings and emotions we go through daily are real and are now a part of our lives. So what do you do? How do you cope?
Well, if you are one of those people that can shake this off like a bad dream and pick up where you left off, shit I want whatever you have!! But for the 95% of the rest of us, we need to find way to cope. We need to know that all this is not even just ok, it’s normal. For me, I have found meaning and joy in helping others living with cancer through The Hummingbird Project. I have found peace within my support group, an amazing bunch of survivors who all get this and listen without judgement. I have made a conscious decision to not allow negative energy back into my life. I have also began weekly meditation/life coaching sessions with Jill Hart. Jill is a friend, a beautiful soul who helps heal through meditation and mindfulness. Jill is also a breast cancer survivor so she gets everything I am saying to her. We talk of my struggles and challenges and she helps me align my thoughts and we focus on what I need to live my best life. She has been a life saver.
My message today, although a long one, is to allow yourself to feel whatever you are feeling. There is no script for this and there is certainly no right or wrong. Just like a snowflake, no two cancer experiences will be identical, but we all have gained insight and wisdom that only a cancer patient and warrior has. If you need help, please go get it, do not suffer alone. Don’t let feelings go ignored, go talk to someone, a therapist, a friend, a support group, a life coach, or talk to me – I am here if you need.
This shit is hard. Do me a favor, stand up, hold out your hands and grab hold. We fight this shit together!
Love you all.
“Seek the beauty in each day”