Cancer Astronaut: Adjusting to the "Gravity Shift" in Life After Cancer

July 24, 2019

An online ad prompted one survivor to reflect upon the question, "Do you have what it takes to be an astronaut?" At least one aspect of being an astronaut would be better than adapting to life after cancer: a debriefing is provided at the conclusion of the voyage.

"Do you have what it takes to be an astronaut?" queried an ad on my computer screen. Normally, I ignore ads, but this one caused me to reflect.

Well, I've survived rounds of poisonous chemicals, been tethered to lifelines, had a port inserted in my chest and was strapped down as a linear accelerator on a robotic arm beamed intense doses of radiation into me. So, floating inside a craft coasting across deep space couldn't prove more difficult. For me, a spacewalk would be a cakewalk!

In fact, at least one aspect of being an astronaut would be better: a debriefing is provided at the conclusion of the voyage. Everyone recognizes an astronaut has been launched into the frightening unknown and needs time to adjust, but unfortunately this is not so for a patient with cancer. Nobody offered me a decompression chamber after my last PET scan was pronounced clear. I was told it was over. I should celebrate. But I felt strangely adrift. There was a void both on my little calendar squares and in my life.

Of course, I did not want to go back to endless treatments, surgery, medical appointments and fighting for my life. Yet I didn't seem to know how to go forward to a post-cancer world either. I felt like I had forgotten how to be "me" apart from being "the patient with cancer." I honestly don't know what I expected life would be like after cancer.

I imagined any differences would be insignificant because I would be so happy to be alive! Of course I was thrilled, but since I had both physical and emotional scars, I needed a debriefing to help me reintegrate, not only into society but back into routine living. My husband once exclaimed, "Now you can get back to normal!" (I secretly wondered at his enthusiasm; was he thinking of me making dinner for him again?)

I read in an article by an oncologist that the most common time for anxiety to surface is after cancer treatment concludes. One constant worry is that of recurrence. I didn't want to think "what-if" all the time, but it was challenging. I appreciated a close friend who told me, "It is okay to give yourself permission to express your anxiety about recurrence." I needed someone to tell me the obvious because I only like to share positive feelings.

Also, though after a mastectomy I was technically cancer-free, I would get fatigued very quickly, so I really couldn't jump back into my previous lifestyle. It wasn't feasible to simply pick up where I had left off a long year ago. My new normal included living in four-month cycles of PET scans. So just when I was enjoying activities like a healthy person, the radiologist office would call with a reminder of my next scan, which was also a reminder that my life had changed.

I realize it will take time to adjust to post-cancer life since I neglected so much else while having to focus on getting well. However, I did answer the question, "Do you have what it takes to be an astronaut?" with a resounding “Yes!” All that I have been through has prepared me for almost any type of future. No, I'm not applying to the space program, but if I did, I would have one new qualification. Cancer: mission completed!