I became a cancer survivor at the age of 30, just weeks after my birthday. Months before, I was diagnosed with late stage testicular cancer. The months in between the diagnosis and the good bill of health seem like such a blur now. Yet, I remember each and every day like it just happened. It was a tough road to walk that I was forced to travel. Still, the odds ended up in my favor, and here I am today, almost five years cancer free.
When I first received the news of “no evidence of disease” I was elated. That was it. The pinnacle of my life had already been reached. Surely, nothing that came after this would even hold a candle. I have been right on part of that. I have not faced anything as hard since then. But I also haven’t had the rainbows, easy days, enjoyment of life’s every fine grain like I thought I would. What came after cancer was actually a bit of a shock to me.
I’ve had a variation of this post in just about every blog I have written since my cancer experience. But I know there are so many everyday who start wondering “Am I the only one?” There is a lot about surviving cancer that will take a person by surprise, and it’s not what you see talked about that often. From depression, to PTSD, to lingering physical symptoms. So today, I am listing six things that they don’t tell you about surviving cancer.
Your Feelings are not Irrational – They Are Okay
There is this misconception when it comes to surviving cancer that immediately after it’s over, things become all rainbows and triumphs of human skill. The fact is, depression is something that affects 15%-25% of all cancer patients. This often extends beyond the battle and treatment. Other common mental disorders in cancer survivors include PTSD, generalized and social anxiety, and anger disorders.
Feelings of anxiety, sadness, anger, and even guilt are common in the cancer survivor. And that’s perfectly okay. During treatment, it is hard to focus on dealing with so many emotions. That often comes after the fight is over. Know that it is completely normal. Also know when it is time to seek professional help. There is no shame in it. Don’t let others control your emotions for you. Things will get better in time.
Physical Symptoms Can Long Outlast Treatment
This has been one of the toughest things for me personally. I expected to have side-effects for the first couple of weeks after ending chemo. I did not expect them to last years later. However, it is common to experience physical symptoms from the treatment, surgeries, radiation, and the damage the cancer does to your body. Some of the most common, long-lasting symptoms include nausea, fatigue, and neuropathy.
This is something that was not really talked about by my oncologist or the nurses there. The more I’ve talked to other cancer survivors, the more I realize I’m not alone in that. While you probably will feel much better once treatment ends, do not be caught off guard by long-term symptoms. Pay attention to your body, note the changes, and consult your doctor anytime you think something is not right.
The Magic of Surviving Doesn’t Happen Immediately
Often when we read about cancer survivor’s it’s about the awesome things they go on to do. Run marathons, climb mountains, start their own businesses, and so on. Which is great stuff. It’s awesome to see what people can do with their lives after cancer. But don’t expect it to be a sudden thing. We generally tend to think that when the experience is over, ALL of that experience is over.
That’s not the case however. Cancer doesn’t just end when treatment ends. The fight can continue long afterwards. A lot of cancer survivors find themselves in a hole after treatment. I felt like I must be doing life wrong because all this great stuff didn’t happen immediately. It’s not to say that great stuff won’t happen. It will, in due time. Treasure your survivorship, but always be prepared to fight, even after treatment has ended.
Survivor’s Guilt is a Real Tough Enemy
“Why me?” A constant question asked by cancer patients. Why did it have to be me diagnosed? Why does my family have to go through this? A very normal part of the process of going through cancer is questioning everything. Because it doesn’t make sense. It never will make sense. Another thing that’s hard to make sense of is why you survived when others didn’t. Survivor’s guilt is a feeling of guilt you get because you are a survivor when others aren’t. And it’s a real mental enemy to have to battle.
It’s a tough to explain emotion to those who do not experience it. But it’s also an important emotion to be able to work out. Survivor’s guilt can eat at you until you find yourself at rock bottom mentally. Survivor’s guilt also contributes to other mental disorders commonly experienced by cancer survivors. Having a strong support network of other survivors is an important part of being able to handle survivor’s guilt when it comes. We’ll never have all the answers, but we can have all the support we need.
Friendships that Faded Will Not be the Same
The toughest lesson I learned from my experience with cancer was this:
“At a time when my life was at a standstill, everyone else was still moving forward. I could not expect them to stay behind and wait for me.”
When first diagnosed, I had a lot of friends that came by, offered support, brought food, and handled the kids so I could rest. But as things went on, the amount of people coming by slowly dwindled. And that was a hard thing for me to come to grips with. I’m sure there are many survivors reading this today that have experienced similar things. Once the experience is over, we happily wish that everything will go back to normal.
This is where things get complicated. Often times, we change when going through cancer. We aren’t the same person afterwords, and rightfully so. But other people change too. Sometimes, the friendships that went by the wayside stay that way. I have had friends tell me they just didn’t know what to expect or how things would go, and so they distanced themselves. I have no anger towards them for that. New friendships will come, and old ones will be remembered. Things change, and I must change with it.
Mortality is the New ‘Not Paying Rent On Time’
When we get older, into adulthood especially, our fears tend to change. They go from fear of death, fear of getting lost, and fear of falling off the bike, to fear of not paying the bills on time, car crashes, debt, etc. As a cancer survivor, one of the worst fears becomes our new found grasp on our mortality. Any brush with cancer is a brush with death. And with that, comes all kinds of new fears.
Staring your mortality in the face is not an easy challenge. And what’s it is over, you find yourself with a renewed fear. The “What if” questions that plague your mind now far outweigh your worrying about bills and debt. The realization of mortality and limited time become the new way of life. This is an important time to have a strong support network, to have great relationships with your doctors, and to really learn what makes a life count.
Do you agree with the six things on this list? If you are a cancer survivor, what is something that you wish you had known ahead of time? Drop your thoughts in the comments below!