This period, often called “the lull” is BY FAR the hardest period of time you will experience in comparison to all the others. It’s the time immediately following treatment, and for most, it’s the first time that you are without any kind of active treatment. From the outside perspective, this time would seem to feel the best and provide some much needed relief. You’re finally free from being zapped every day and/or having poison pumped through your veins, but freedom is unfortunately not really the reality that comes with this period of time.
I remember just one short week after my last fraction of radiation, I was gently massaging my skin and neck while sitting at my desk and thought I felt a hard spot around where Glanda used to be. So I set off to find Dr. Spencer in the hallway as soon as I could to ask her to do a quick feel to make sure I wasn’t losing my mind. (Perks of working in the department that treated you I guess). Turns out, I wasn’t wrong. There was absolutely palpable hardness, but it wasn’t disease. It was simply induration, or stiffness caused by scar tissue and all the radiation I had just received, something that’s super normal after everything that side of my head had been through.
No active treatment to a cancer patient means thoughts of heightened risk for the potential new growth or recurrence. It means fixating on the fact that essentially nothing is being done to kill your cancer anymore (if any still remains) and that’s some scary junk. To add to that, there’s a good chance you’re emotionally and mentally SPENT right after treatment so fending off these thoughts is hard and taxing on your body and spirit.
Since treatment, I’ve learned to poke around on things a little less. I still massage and stretch my neck like a good little patient, but I try to do it mindlessly and focus my thoughts on how far I’ve come in my healing and ability rather than what every little thing I’m feeling is or might be.
But what can you do as you tread the waters of this weird stage of the journey? Well, what you can’t do is go back into treatment (and we all know that’s not actually what we want) but there are a few “normal” things you can do that I believe help. But honestly recognizing this season for what it is, is half the battle.
Don’t roll your eyes at me! I know this sounds dumb and like an obvious answer to…well, life. But treatment takes a lot out of you, including your appetite, your taste, and in some cases your ability to eat. So the time after treatment is a great time to start working on building your strength back. Start back eating if you can (or continue to eat) foods that are rich in protein. Those are the foods that re-build healthy cells and will fill you up the most. It’s also essential to find foods that taste good to you and eat a lot of those to build your caloric intake back up until you get closer to more of where you used to be. Most importantly, remember this isn’t going to happen overnight. It’s a marathon rather than a sprint.
Sleep, like protein, restores your body and gives it the time it needs to repair itself from the damage that was caused during your treatment. While not everything will heal up perfectly and return to what it used to be, sleep is still extra important because our bodies do have amazing healing ability and giving your body what it needs aids in your overall wellbeing and quality of life. So this is the time to sleep, take a nap, relax on the couch, sleep some more, dream about your favorite things, take another nap, watch a movie, nap again, and then finally go to bed to prepare for the next day. And besides, sleep is probably all you’ll feel like doing for a while anyway. So why not take advantage of a good rainy day, a few good movies, and all the zzzz’s.
Take a walk
Around about a week or two post-treatment, it’s important to make sure you’re spending a bit of time during the day moving around and gaining some muscular strength back as well. I know I just suggested a lot of sleep, but there’s a balance in there somewhere. You don’t want your muscles to atrophy too much if you’re able to get up and move around, but you also don’t want to overdo it too soon. Maybe this means moving from the bed to the couch a few times a day. Maybe it means getting up and getting a shower. Or maybe it means going for a walk or running a few errands around town. Just take it easy and do what you feel like doing. Movement is also an excellent idea if you are at risk for lymphedema (swelling because of the buildup of lymphatic fluid). It really depends on the person and the severity of treatment side effects, but the sooner you get back to doing more normal things, the more normal you might start to feel overall.
I’m not sure how this will resonate with everyone else, but working to accept and understand what I’ve been through proved to be very healthy for me. This doesn’t mean I figured out the “why,” though. Cancer doesn’t give a reason when it arrives. It just shows up, so save yourself some trouble and forget every trying to find the why. (I wish someone had told me sooner). When I suggest trying to understand what you’ve been through, I mean understand that what you’re going through is a necessary byproduct of something you have no control over and that’s ok.
Writing my experiences down, talking to someone I trust, or just quietly pondering things all healed me bit by bit but as always, it’s crucial you keep your thoughts in check and not let them get out of hand. The truth of the matter is, what happened happened and it must be processed. There will inevitably be some pretty dark days following treatment and throughout this journey overall, and everyone will manage those differently. But don’t just step foot out of the treatment room and forget where you came from. Your journey wasn’t for nothing and you’ve made it! That’s a really big deal!
Overall, the goal post-treatment is relatively simple, however not simple to do. Find some sort of normalcy and routine. Now, I 100% understand that’s a bit of a joke because NOTHING feels normal after treatment. Nothing. But set some version of normal as your goal and go after it day by day. Before you know it, you will be looking back at the post-treatment days admiring how far you’ve come and you might even recognize a few pieces of normal in there too.