What happens when the hustle, bustle, attention and care of active treatment end? Survivor shares what helped.
What do you do when your troops withdraw without you? Do you feel left alone on the battlefield after surgeries, radiation and chemotherapy is completed? I hope you celebrate when each treatment or surgery was completed.
Each one is a milestone in the process of getting through and then beyond cancer. My loved ones deserved a celebration, too. If I remember right, my family and I went out to dinner after my last chemotherapy and last radiation treatments.
If you are like me, were you a little frightened to be done? I felt tossed out onto the other side of all the procedures and attention. Who was out there scouting the front line? What happened to all the help to fight cancer and to keep cancer from returning? Wait! I am here and grateful and I am scared. How do I sort this out now? Am I standing guard alone?
It can be lonely. It can feel like being in limbo. It was great that I no longer had to hang out in the waiting rooms regularly, but I was in no way “back to normal,” “new normal” or otherwise. I felt shell-shocked, weary and worried. Fear of recurrence was my new buddy. Here is what helped and continues to help me.
Be articulate. Let people know when you need to talk and when you just want to forget. I remember feeling like people expected me to be normal—especially once my hair grew back. Even though real hair helped provide the normalcy that I craved, I couldn’t jump completely back into my old life. I couldn’t. My life wasn’t and never would never be the same. Be articulate with those who care for you, not lonely.
Work on your sleep. I remember struggling with sleep. I had a lack of energy. I was struggling with worry. Sometimes I woke up in tears in the morning before my brain even fully formed thoughts to be sad or worried about. My symptoms were those of PTSD—post-traumatic stress disorder from cancer. PTSD is not uncommon for cancer survivors. They talk about that now more than they did seven years ago. Talk therapy, bedtime routines, bedtime hygiene and melatonin helped me, but it took time to figure out what worked for me. Be gentle with yourself.
Have realistic expectations. I didn’t know what to expect after active treatment. It took me a longer time than wanted to recover. I wasn’t sure who I could talk to about my cancer. People didn’t stop asking because they didn’t care. I think they were just happy Barb was Barb again. I learned I had to take the initiative to tell my loved ones what was still happening and to seek out my oncology talk therapist and to see my breast cancer support group.
Give it time. The world doesn’t give cancer survivors enough time, but do give it to yourself. The more time out, measured in months and years not days and weeks, the better I began to feel. I am still learning patience. I remember that like many things in life, improvement was gradual and spikey and, frankly, certain things can and do still upset me, especially a medical worry to resolve.
Moving through and onward from cancer is a process. I wish I had learned that sooner. I feel more recovered the further out I get and I still feel impacted by my cancer experiences at times. I continue to have regular oncology appointments and full skin checks and I move forward with my life. You can do this, too.