“Spending over a third of my life as a cancer survivor, I’ve learned a few lessons along the way,” said Lacey, who was diagnosed with chronic lymphocytic leukemia 13 years ago.
It has been over 13 years since I was diagnosed with chronic lymphocytic leukemia at the age of 28. Since then, I’ve undergone two rounds of treatment: six months of FCR chemotherapy and, most recently, a two-year regimen of Venclexta (venetoclax) plus Rituxan (rituximab) that I just completed earlier this year. Spending over a third of my life as a cancer survivor, I’ve learned a few lessons along the way.
1. Side effects do not magically go away when you finish treatment. Wouldn’t it be amazing if the day you rang that bell, that everything went back to “normal”? The chemo fog lifted, the steroid pounds fell off, and your eyelashes grew back. Unfortunately, that is not the case. There is no sugarcoating it, treatment is harsh, but thankfully, most side effects will lessen with time. And for those that don’t, please reach out to your medical team. Your doctors can determine if what you are experiencing is normal and offer coping strategies to help mitigate the side effects. Remember, they are there to help you throughout this journey, during AND after cancer.
2. Give yourself some grace. Cancer is a life-altering event, and post-traumatic stress disorder is a real thing among patients with cancer. No one comes out unchanged from facing your own mortality. Your emotions will range, sometimes even day to day, well after treatment is over. When it all seems overwhelming, stop, take a few deep breaths and give validity to your emotions. Take a walk, pray, get some sunlight, find someone to talk to, skip the dishes, order take-out, listen to your favorite song, journal, watch your favorite movie, dance, light a candle, or find what works for you to process the emotions. But most of all, give yourself grace.
3. Life will be different, but it can still be amazing. I was blessed to have a fantastic oncologist when I first started this journey. Perhaps it was because she wasn’t much older than I was at the time, or she saw the fear in my eyes, hidden behind my stoic face, but she told me that how I handled this journey was up to me. I had a choice to make. I could choose to accept this diagnosis with defeat or create something beautiful from it. While every day is not great (see number 2 above), I decided to seek out joy. Cancer is often referred to as a “six-letter word,” much akin to those four letters words that are frowned upon, but it can be so much more. This journey has taught me to savor the little things like sunrises over the mountains, the sound of waves crashing on the beach, and hugs from those we love. It has introduced me to the most authentic people that I would not have met otherwise and taught me the importance of experiences over things. Life after cancer can be amazing if we open our eyes to see it.
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