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.
A breast cancer and melanoma survivor reflects on the emotions and experiences after surgeries, chemotherapy and radiation are completed.
What happens after active cancer treatment? Did you celebrate when surgery(s), chemotherapy and/or radiation were done? For me, completing each type of active treatment was a moment to celebrate. It was a milestone. It was worthy of celebrating with my loved ones. I think my family and I went out to dinner after my last chemotherapy and after my last radiation treatment.
Were you scared to be done with active cancer treatment? I was. It was scary to be plopped out on the other side of all the treatments and attention. Who was watching me now to make sure cancer wouldn’t come back? Who was there now to promptly answer questions and address my fears and worries?
Did you feel alone? The time after active treatment is a little like being in limbo. I no longer have to go and hang out in the waiting rooms regularly with other active treatment cancer patients, but I was and I am in no way back to 'normal.' Initially, I was shell-shocked, worn down, and worried. Now I am doing better but I'm still worried.
Were you expected to 'be normal' right after active treatment? I felt like people expected me to be normal and assumed that I was normal — especially once my hair had returned. As much as I had felt that being in active treatment and wearing a wig and hats separated me from the normalcy that I craved, I wasn’t ready to jump completely back into my old life. I just couldn’t. Life wasn’t and never would be the same. I now had the task of creating a new 'normal' ahead of me, and I felt shell-shocked and worn down.
Did people stop asking how you were doing? After my hair grew back, people stopped asking about how I was doing. I was struggling with sleep. I was struggling with a lack of energy. I was struggling with worry. I was struggling with sorting out my priorities. Sometimes I would wake up in tears in the morning before my brain even fully formed thoughts. My symptoms were a lot like PTSD — post-traumatic stress disorder. PTSD symptoms are not uncommon for cancer survivors. I wish I had known that. There was medication and therapy for this and I did both, and fortunately, they helped.
After active treatment, I didn’t know what expectations to have. There were fears, changes and grief. It took me a longer time to recover than I would have thought it would. On top of that, people stopped asking, so it felt like there was a shortage of people I could talk to about my cancer. I don’t think they stopped asking because they didn’t care. I think they were simply happy that I looked like me again. That felt a little lonely. I realized 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 experience.
Above all, it took time. I don’t think the world gives cancer survivors enough time, and I don’t think cancer survivors give themselves enough time either. The more time I put between myself and active cancer treatment, the better I felt.
Unfortunately, the window for cancer recovery wasn’t measured in days and weeks, but rather in months and years. I got to work on learning more of that patience skill I am still developing. Improvement was and is gradual and spikey — certain things can and do still upset me, especially when a medical concern that needs to be addressed pops up.
Even five years out from breast cancer and one year out from a melanoma, I still feel like a work in process. Yes, I mean to say process because it is an ongoing process. I feel more recovered the further out I get and I still feel impacted by my cancer experiences. I continue to have regular oncology appointments and I have full skin checks every three months. How far out are you? How is it going for you? I will gratefully answer all comments.