They’ll tell you how to cope during treatment, but life after cancer has it’s own battles. Because treatment ends, but cancer never truly leaves you…At 17, I fought an advanced form of cancer at a world renowned hospital. I was given every form of support and educational resource possible, from counselors to peer mentors. What they didn’t tell me is that after cancer, new battles will arise. And I’m sure some survivors won’t resonate with a few of these, but for me, I wish someone had warned me…
It will be hard to go ‘back to normal’
It’s not as if chemo ends and you just walk right back into the real world. It takes time for everything to fall into place: the hair to grow back, the strength to live normally and exercise regularly, the body to return to it’s familiar shape and routines. And there are bigger things that sometimes never fall into place, like talking to people who haven’t had cancer about what it’s like to face the possibility of death. For me, that meant I lost a few friends when I came back. It was hard to relate to people my age when, at 18, I had just seen the other side of our mortality. Then again, my new normal is much more rewarding than the normal I knew before cancer. My ‘normal’ now has a sense of precious urgency, a feeling that life is fleeting and so should be treasured, enjoyed, not taken to seriously and yet so daringly explored.
Most importantly, time will never move the same again. In your life after cancer, when it feels like time is flying by, it will scare you. When it feels like time is crawling and you’re dying to get past a difficult phase, you’ll feel guilty for not appreciating the time you have, and being grateful for any battle that isn’t cancer. It will simply never be the same again.
Some people will not like seeing pictures of you
I’m not sure why people feel it’s appropriate to tell me that they “don’t like” seeing pictures of me during treatment, when I was bald and overweight from the steroids. I personally think I look great, because I’m doing something incredible. They often tell me that pictures of me during treatment make them sad, which is strange because they don’t make me sad and I’m the one who went through it! So as far as this survivor is concerned, if I can take the experience itself as well as the photographic proof, so can you. Don’t tell me it makes you sad, in fact don’t feel bad for me at all. Be proud of it, be in awe of it, and see that this is the story of triumph, not tragedy.
I can’t speak for everyone, but I will say I find it mildly offensive when you tell me you don’t want to see pictures of me during cancer treatment. It’s the single hardest, most rewarding thing I’ve ever done. Why not rather than pity me, you feel empowered by me. I’ve been through some tough shit. There’s nothing sad about that, at least I don’t derive sadness from it… in fact, from where I’m standing, there’s only POWER in that.
There will be a new sense of fear in every part of your life
It just doesn’t look the same once you know how fragile your life is. That fear, of the past and of it coming back, can haunt you for the rest of your life after cancer. But what I like to tell others in my public speeches and online articles (even the ones not about cancer) is that even though there will always be fear, you don’t have to let that fear decide what you do and how you feel. You don’t have to let that fear run your life or even ruin your mood. You can feel it, acknowledge it, and still choose to love and to be joyous and even to take risks in your life after cancer (whether you’ve experienced it or someone you love). You don’t have to be ruled by it; you just have to choose to live from and for something greater than that fear.
There will be some awkward conversations…
In life after cancer and treatment, even the physical parts of your being are different. Especially when it comes to dating. There are scars. There is skin that is very tender to the touch because of the radiation. There are hangups and insecurities that are caused by the way my body is different now. So yes, there will be a level of communication absolutely necessary to make sure both partners are comfortable.
And there will be even worse conversations about it. There will have to be talks about what the future looks like with someone who has been through treatment, and who can never guarantee that it won’t come back. There will have to be talks about what life would look like if it did come back. There will have to be a shared courage around it. There will have to be openness and honesty to a degree that most couples don’t have to offer. But trust me, it will make your love so much richer and more incredible.
People will be scared to ask you questions, even though they’ll have a lot of questions
I’m not sure why people are scared to talk to me about it. I know they are just trying to be gracious, and I can’t speak for all survivors, but as far as this one goes: ask away. If you have a question, let me answer it. If you wonder something – from what it’s like to be on steroids to whether I lost my eyelashes and eyebrows too – go ahead! Sure there are days in my regular, healthy life after cancer that I’m not giddy to talk about it. But when it really comes down to facts, I’d rather help you understand so that if ever you know someone who has to go through this battle. That way, you’ll know more of what to expect and what that person might need. Additionally, if you’re my friend, I’d like you to know me. So don’t be afraid of me or afraid to talk to me, it only makes me feel ‘othered’ as Janet Mock says.
The truth is, every cancer fighter’s experience will be incredible different. The fact that we need to talk more about the struggles after cancer is a very good sign to me, because it shows that we are at a point where survival is up, and people are looking to thrive and live well after cancer. So don’t be afraid to talk about it, don’t be afraid to reach out.
If you are in need of help or support in life after cancer or during treatment, check out my friends at I Had Cancer. They offer a network of fellow cancer fighters and survivors to connect with, plus great articles on life during and after treatment.