Fill in the blank and that probably describes what it’s like on this side of things. It’s scary, it’s different, it’s confusing, it’s an adjustment, it’s a new normal, it’s freeing, and it’s a daily effort to keep my mind and heart focused on things that are good and worthy of my attention.
I’ve realized recently that I’ve been so focused on my poetry (as I prepare to put together a collection this summer in a real life bound book with my name on it) that I have not written hardly enough about what life is like after treatment. Much like actual radiation treatment, you get a front seat to your body doing and experiencing things that you may never had witnessed if cancer had never walked into your life. For me, its numbness in my arm due to inflammation in between my C1 and C2 vertebrae (probably), but I also acknowledge that there are post-radiation changes that are much worse and more severe than my measly numb arm (that still works fine obviously).
None of those experiences are to be minimized, but I’ve learned a few things that I wanted to share with you on how I’ve coped:
1) Where the mind goes the man follows
I can’t even begin to communicate how terribly important I’ve found this to be. December (2 months post treatment) was a particularly hard month for me and looking back my thought life was complete trash. I let fear and the “what if” game totally rule me and cripple me to the point that functioning like a normal human in society was hard some days. But I finally got myself together and snapped out of it.
The Lord is intentional about telling his people to hold every thought captive. So when one of those scary thoughts popped into my mind, I would stop it, squash it, and replace it with truth. Picture your thoughts being trapped in a net or a bubble and releasing it into an open field far, far away. That’s how that goes for me. And that field is way too far away for those thought bubbles to ever make their way back to me, so bye. Replacing the nasty thought with something good, life-giving, and encouraging changes my perspective and at some point I start noticing fewer and fewer nasty thoughts showing up. And that’s a pretty sweet realization when it happens.
2) Stay active
Things that move, stay moving. There is some scientific principle about that somewhere, but the point is to keep your joints and muscles in good working order. Patients that have gone through some sort of surgery or treatment more than likely lost some strength and muscle tone during the process (unless you’re some kind of superhuman) but it’s important to keep exercising in some capacity. I lost 10 pounds during treatment and even 6 months post radiation, I still don’t have my strength back and I still have chicken legs but I’m working on it!
So I go for walks, I do small strength-building exercises or stretches a few times a week, and eventually I’ll get back to dancing. But for now, I’ve learned to do something even if it’s small. Muscles that sit tend to atrophy and bodies that stay stagnant tend to lose motivation which actually nods at my previous point…thoughts. You (and only you) have control over those.
3) Find normalcy again
I know in some cases this sounds like a joke. I like to call it my new normal, which is the closest thing to what I considered normal before. Will it ever be exactly the same? Nope. But regardless of a cancer diagnosis, life was never (and should never) be the same as it was years, months, or days before. That’s how we learn and grow and evolve as people and in relationships. Change is good, but normal feels good.
I’ve slowly modified ways to do the things I used to. K.T. and I intentionally talk about the things we used to, we try to dream as we used to, and we are striving towards our goals with persistence and maybe even moreso than before.
When they first told me it was cancer, I couldn’t see further than the end of my nose into the future. Cancer equaled inevitable death for me. But spoiler, no one’s getting out of here alive so I’ve slowly, very slowly, come back to thinking about family, babies, long-term career goals, retirement, etc. Honestly, it’s more dangerous to get in a car and drive every day than it is to live with cancer on your medical record…and yes I recognize many factors play into that. Just go with it for now.
4) Don’t be afraid to tell people how it really is/was
A cancer diagnosis puts you in a unique group. It makes you see life differently and feel things to depths of the soul that I didn’t know existed at an earlier time in my life. Cancer also has given me purpose. I truly believe that cancer patients are part of a whole and potentially part of a solution. I assume that each person involved in my cancer care has learned something about cancer that will collectively bring the world closer to a cure…and that is absolutely fascinating to me.
I also feel great responsibility to share my experiences with others and especially other survivors. No one can know if I don’t tell them and I’ve found that there are very few people involved in our care that have experienced cancer themselves so sharing my experience with them is valuable as well. They may have experienced it alongside a loved one, but it’s different.
So I’ve vowed to myself to be honest and completely raw. And if you’ve read any of the posts from my 6 weeks of treatment or seen any of the pictures, you know I didn’t hold anything back. And considering writing was part of my emotional therapy, it doesn’t help anyone to sugarcoat things.
5) Remembering I’m NOT defined by my cancer
I recently wrote a poem about this very thing. I often feel like people see me as damaged now or as that girl that had cancer, or there’s just that awkward interaction where other people don’t know if they should say something or if I should say something just to cut the tension. I even apologize to my husband all the time for us going through what we have and that he married a cancer patient unknowingly (although Glanda was at our wedding too), so maybe I’ve done a terrible job with this one so far. But really and truly I know I’m still me and at the end of the day all I want is to be seen and enjoyed for who I am, my hilarious jokes/sarcasm, and for people to understand that I’m not going anywhere.
Cancer is not my name and it’s not what makes up my life. Yes, it’s a detail of my life. I do have post radiation and post surgical changes that nag at me. I have scars (and hair loss) that I face in the mirror every day that create insecurity, but those are blessings! Those are my badges of honor, my symbols of my survivorship, and reminders that I am way better off than I was with a tumor sticking out of my neck last June no matter what.
So while I still struggle at times, life is still sweet and I’m still breathing. And for now that’s enough.
Onward and upward!