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Life After Cancer: Learning to Move Forward

Tips on learning to move from cancer survivor to thriver.
PUBLISHED June 14, 2016
Bonnie Annis is a breast cancer survivor, diagnosed in 2014 with stage 2b invasive ductal carcinoma with metastasis to the lymph nodes. She is an avid photographer, freelance writer/blogger, wife, mother and grandmother.
Three little words can change your life forever. For those of us who’ve heard them, we know the instant trepidation and fear that accompanies the words, “You have cancer.” Almost immediately after hearing them, the mailbox begins to fill with all sorts of pamphlets and information on cancer or cancer-related items. The calendar is quickly inked with one appointment after another, and life begins to revolve around a disease. That word, cancer, the one we all hate, snakes its way into almost every conversation and suddenly, there’s an internal radar that hones in on anything and everything beginning with the letter C. After processing the initial shock of the diagnosis, treatment begins. Life becomes a whirlwind aggressively attacking those cells and doing whatever is necessary to eradicate them. Everything seems to move at warp speed and then, just like an F5 tornado, the storm is over and you’re left in the wake to pick up the pieces. Life is supposed to go on but how do we do it? How do we learn to transition from living life in the midst of cancer to living life after the storm of cancer has passed? There are no guidelines. There are no rules. We’re left to figure it out on our own.  

As with each case of cancer, each individual is different. Some of us have wonderful support systems and some of us do not. Some of us operate out of fear, and some of us walk in faith. We are all wounded. We are all broken. We are all struggling. We are all different. We have been forever changed but we can’t live in the past. We have to move on. We have to decide whether we want to fight to live or live to fight. But how do we move forward? When treatment was finally over for me, I began to ask myself this question. I’d just completed my 28th round of radiation. Physically weak and feeling exhausted, I didn’t have energy to do anything other than think, so I thought and thought a lot. In my mind, I kept hearing a loud voice whispering, “Now what?”

What was next for me?

The doctors wanted me to start on medication to keep the cancer from coming back. My appointments suddenly went from every three months to every six months. I was doing well and should have been celebrating. How fantastic! I was a cancer survivor. I should have been overcome with joy, but that feeling of joy never hit me. Instead of walking out of the oncologist’s office with my hands in the air shouting, I walked out more terrified than I had been on the day I’d heard those three little words, “You have cancer.” I began to wonder what was wrong with me. I became emotionally distraught. I needed to make a huge transition in my life and I didn’t know how. So I cried. I cried and cried and cried. And after the tears had run out, I decided I had to learn to move from a stance of “I have cancer” to “I had cancer.” I would learn to put cancer in its place. Cancer is not a verb, it’s a noun. Yes, I used to “have” cancer, but I no longer “had” it and it certainly didn’t “have” me. I was going to figure out a way to move from being just a survivor to that of a thriver. Here are some things that I’ve implemented in my life to help me do just that:     

Watch your language. The first thing I did was learn to watch my language. The Bible says the power of life and death are in the power of the tongue, and I firmly believe that. Words carry an amazing strength and often, we believe what we hear about ourselves whether good or bad. I wanted to learn to speak life over myself. I started to be very careful in conversations and began to shift my words from saying, “I have cancer” to “I had cancer.” I started avoiding making negative comments about myself and started focusing on saying positive things. Just doing that simple exercise allowed me to set myself free from the grip cancer had placed on my life. I was putting cancer in the past and I planned on keeping it there.      

See yourself worthy. The next thing I did was to begin to see myself not merely as a survivor. Even though I’d experienced a very traumatic life event, I needed to see myself differently. When I looked into the mirror, I tried not to focus on my scars. They are very visible, but they don’t define me. When I see them, I try not to remember all the physical and emotional pain behind them. Instead, I try to count them as battle wounds. I see myself as a victor. I’ve fought a battle I never intended to fight and I won! I came out on the other side. I am still alive! My life mattered. 

Beauty is as beauty does. The third thing I did was to focus on always looking my best. It became important for me to wake up in the morning and greet the day boldly. After showering and dressing, I put on my makeup, even if I wasn’t planning to go anywhere. I fixed my hair and gave myself a once over. I found that if I looked good on the outside, I usually would feel good on the inside.

Get out there. I made myself attend family functions and events. Sometimes I didn’t really feel like going, but I knew that if I made myself attend, I’d usually have a good time. I didn’t want to get stuck in a rut of staying home and isolating myself like I did much of the time I was in treatment. It’s important to be in social settings.

Find a creative outlet. A creative outlet is very cathartic. Journaling is a wonderful way of recording and processing thoughts. I find writing down what’s on my mind to be very healing. I also enjoy photography and painting. Find a way to express yourself. Whatever you create becomes an extension of you. Don’t worry about what others think. Do what you enjoy.  

Move past survivor’s guilt. It’s hard to wonder why some of us survive and others don’t. We have no control over that and we shouldn’t dwell on it. Learning to take an attitude of gratitude will help shift your mind from what “could have been” to “what is.” I keep a mason jar on my kitchen counter. On small slips of paper, I jot down things for which I’m thankful. I look for not only the big things but the little things, too. You’ll be amazed, when you start looking, how many blessings we receive every day.

It’s OK to mourn. Every once in a while, I find myself missing my breasts. They were a part of me and I have a right to be sad they’re gone. I don’t dwell on it long, but I give myself permission to remember them and miss them.

Accept your fears. It’s only normal to have a fear of recurrence. Every ache, pain, lump or swelling can strike fear into the depths of our soul but in order to move forward and thrive, we have to decide if our focus is going to be on the “what if’s” or if we’re going to have faith and trust that our future is held in the hands of Almighty God. 

One day at a time, one step at a time. I’ve learned to take one day at a time. I no longer worry about tomorrow. By learning to live in the moment, I can focus on what’s going on right there and then. Life is so very precious and I don’t want to worry or wish my life away.  

All of these things have helped me move out of the cancer world into the heart of life. I hope you’ll find one or two helpful tips here and you, too, will learn to become not only a survivor, but also a thriver. We were meant to live a life filled with joy and hope and that’s exactly what I intend to do for whatever amount of time I have left on this earth. 
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