Barbara Tako is a breast cancer survivor (2010), melanoma survivor (2014) and author of Cancer Survivorship Coping Tools–We'll Get You Through This. She is a cancer coping advocate, speaker and published writer for television, radio and other venues across the country. She lives, survives, and thrives in Minnesota with her husband, children and dog. See more at www.cancersurvivorshipcopingtools.com,or www.clutterclearingchoices.com.
What happens after the surgeries, chemotherapy and radiation are done?
I celebrated when surgeries, chemotherapy and radiation were done. Then, well, what? What was the rest of my life going to look like? How long would it even be? Would either cancer return?
I felt scared and a bit alone when active cancer treatment ended. I had popped out on the other side of all the treatments and attention, and now what? Who would watch now to make sure cancer wouldn’t come back? As if that were even possible! Who would help with my very really lingering fears and worries?
Do you feel alone? Do you feel like you are in limbo when you don’t have to go and hang out in waiting rooms regularly with other cancer patients, but you don’t really feel “back to normal”? I felt shell shocked, worn down and worried. As time passes – and that truly does help, so hang in there – it does get better.
Did people around you expect you to “be normal” right after active treatment? I felt like people assumed that I was normal—especially once my hair grew back. As much as I had felt that being in active treatment and wearing a wig and hats separated me from the normalcy I craved, I just couldn’t jump completely back into my old life. My life would never be the same. I now had the task of creating a “new normal” ahead of me; I don’t like that term. I felt shell shocked and worn down.
Have people stopped asking how you are doing? After my hair grew back, people quit asking about how I was doing. I had trouble sleeping. I had low energy. I worried. Sometimes I would wake up in tears in the morning before my brain even fully formed thoughts. These symptoms are PTSD—post-traumatic stress disorder. PTSD symptoms are not uncommon for cancer survivors. I wish I had known that. There is medication and therapy for this and I used both, and fortunately they helped.
After active treatment, I didn’t know what to expect. I felt fears, changes and grief. It took me longer to recover than I thought it would. I don’t think anyone ever completely recovers from a cancer experience. People stopped asking how I was doing, so it felt like there was a shortage of people I could talk to about my cancer. They didn’t stop asking because they didn’t care. I think they were just happy that I looked like me again. It felt a little lonely. I had to take the initiative and let my loved ones know what was still happening and to seek the help I needed to process my cancer recoveries and ongoing fears.
Above all, it takes a lot of time. The world doesn’t give cancer survivors enough time, and I don’t think cancer survivors give themselves enough time, either. The more time I have between myself and my active cancer treatments, the better I feel.
Unfortunately, the window for cancer recovery isn’t measured in days and weeks, but more like months and years. I am still learning more of that patience skill. Improvements in the form of truly feeling come slowly and sporadically. Some things can and do still upset me—especially when checkups, labs or a medical concern popup and need to be addressed.
Even six years out from breast cancer and almost three years out from a melanoma, I still feel like a work in progress. I feel more recovered the further out I get and I still feel worried and changed by my cancers. I continue to have regular oncology appointments, mammograms, and full skin checks every few months. All I can really say is, be gentle with yourself and give yourself time. I send you hugs and prayers and patience.