Cancer survivorship is not exactly what I thought it would be. It has brought both unexpected hardship and indescribable joy to my life. But the more I speak with others who have faced cancer, the more I see repeated patterns in our lives about making the transition between active cancer treatment and post-treatment life.
Here are five things I didn’t expect from my first year-and-a-half of being cancer-free.
1. Cancer has long-term side effects. I don’t know why I thought I could just “go back to normal” after sarcoma treatment. Because for the last year and a half, I have practically lived in my doctors’ offices, seeking ways to manage my chronic back pain. Some days, I literally sit down and cry because it hurts so much. Others, I am reminded of what a gift it is just to be alive. But always, my own experience helps me stay empathetic to what other people are going through.
2. It’s a misconception that everything is OK now. When you move from active treatment to post-treatment, an invisible shift happens. In the eyes of others, cancer-free = all good. The expectation is that since you don’t have cancer anymore, everything about your physical, mental and emotional health must be OK, too. Yet your mind and heart are still processing the experience, and your body is still healing. Before my own cancer diagnosis, I was as guilty of thinking this way as anyone. I heard “cancer-free” in relation to my friends and family members and automatically breathed a sigh of relief. Back then, I didn’t know any better. But I also didn’t mean any harm by it, so I know other people don’t either.
3. I’ve had to relearn the art of conversation. After going through such a life-changing journey, it was hard to know what to talk about after becoming cancer-free. For so long, my life revolved around when my next sarcoma treatment was and what side effects I’d been experiencing. I almost forgot what I used to talk about before being diagnosed. Counseling helped a lot, but I’m also very thankful to the family and friends who’ve stood by me as I’ve figured things out.
4. I now realize what really matters. Cancer is a terrible thing, but it did teach me some valuable lessons. For example, I easily brush off stuff that used to really upset me. Even when someone responds unpleasantly now, I realize that it has more to do with them than me, and I find myself being more compassionate. I am also more present in my conversations and more intentional in my relationships. Faith, family and loving others have become important to me in a whole new way.
5. I have truly started living. I have always been a jubilant person, but WOW, am I on fire for living now! I go on walks as much as I can, simply to enjoy the outdoors. I’ve changed my eating habits to take better care of my body and keep cancer away with nutrition. And I volunteer at a local children’s hospital with my husband when I feel well enough. It brings me so much joy just to write, speak and work hard at my job during the two days a week that I can. I hate that it took me almost dying to really start living, but after spending so many hours sick and in bed, all I want to do is live well and love deeply.