Clapping, cheers, a pin and certificate—congrats, you finished your chemotherapy and your cancer treatment is over. You are now released back into the wild to live your life once again. A pause from me and then the big question was released from my lips: “So, now what?” No one could tell me so I was off to learn on my own. That was just over six years ago, back in 2010 when I was finishing up treatment for breast cancer. I was 32 years old when I was diagnosed with stage I, ER+ breast cancer. I had a bilateral mastectomy, reconstruction surgery and four rounds of chemotherapy.
This cancer survivorship journey is no picnic. It has turned out to be much harder than I expected. I really thought it was going to be my first point of celebration after my diagnosis. I had no idea where the road would lead. For me, cancer survivorship started with tears but not the happy tears I had expected. These were fearful tears. My thoughts were racing, and all I could think about was how fast was the cancer going to come back now that my treatment had ended? So I marked time with the growth of my hair as I moved farther away from the bald look. That also meant I moved closer and closer on my way towards flirting with depression. I got up, went to work, and to the outside world, functioned as normal. But on the inside, I was drowning in fears, thoughts and emotions all pointing to cancer.
Many say that as you move further from cancer, it gets easier. I say you just get better at dealing with it. I have not experienced a departure from fears. About a year after treatment ended, I started noticing I would be inclined to check my body for lumps and bumps. I had breast cancer, so it seemed natural to still check my breast area for lumps. Mind you, I had a mastectomy, so there wasn’t much to check. What seemed like a natural and innocent thing to do post-cancer was actually sending me on a path to so much worse.
Over the next two years, I started checking my body more and more. Unbeknownst to me, it was becoming a terrifying obsession. Pain in my neck? Feel for lumps. Arm hurts? Feel for lumps. Hear a story about someone with a swollen lymph node in the armpit or collarbone area? You guessed it. I’d dig around in my armpit feeling for lumps. My anxiety over cancer was skyrocketing year by year. By year four of my cancer survivorship, I thought my cancer was back just about every day. I was literally rubbing myself raw looking for tumors. I was terrified, I was ashamed, I was embarrassed, and I was downright afraid the cancer was back.
I realized I couldn’t function anymore. It was time to make the call. I found a therapist to talk to and work through my hate-hate relationship with cancer. I had to find a path in which I could live alongside the cancer and accept what had happened to me.
PTSD can happen to people via a wide scope of circumstances. I plead ignorance, as I had no clue. I only thought it affected those who have served in the military or someone involved in an accident. PTSD and cancer? I didn’t think it was possible. Well, low and behold, I was diagnosed with PTSD thanks to the cancer. Anytime I had an ache, pain or heard a story of someone else’s cancer, I’d start rubbing my body raw looking for cancer. I told myself stories about how it would happen to me again, reliving my diagnosis, etc. I was literally drowning in cancer fears, and I could not swim fast enough to catch my breath at the surface.
As I started talking to my therapist, I noticed there were holes in my cancer journey. There were literally black holes in my memory when certain things took place. That’s what PTSD can do. I am still learning about PTSD and how it can affect someone. At least for me, it seems these memories were blocked for a reason. Pulling the shade up and asking the light to come in is quite the painful process. I’ve uncovered some but not everything that I had suppressed. The surprising thing is it actually helps.
Living with anxiety and depression in the driver’s seat has kept me living in the world of cancer. I have invited it to define my life from the time I was diagnosed. Everything I did, said, thought or planned revolved around cancer. I never did anything without consulting cancer, anxiety or depression first. I refused to plan one, two, five or 50 years down the road. Cancer said there was always a chance it would come back. Anxiety agreed and depression said there was no point in looking at the future. I believed it for years.
It was a horrible place to live. I fought so hard to keep my life, and this was how I was going to live it? I was tired of being controlled. It was time to get it back. For two years, my therapist and I talked about my thoughts and fears; those painful reminders of what happened to me. It was right around year six of my survivorship that I started to accept. I could say I was a cancer survivor who had been cancer-free for six years. I could go days without being fearful or scared. There are still things I can’t remember. There are thoughts I don’t want to revisit. I’m still triggered by aches and pains, and other people’s stories still affect me. The PTSD makes sure of that. However, I have tools I have learned that I can now use to combat the cancer fears. I don’t rub myself raw anymore feeling around for tumors.
I have been working on acceptance. I think as a cancer survivor it is the only way to move forward. Acceptance is the key. I thought that accepting cancer happening to me meant I was fine with it. I thought it would mean I wouldn’t be vigilant on monitoring for changes in my body and that I would miss something. All I was doing was denying myself freedom to live. I am still a work I progress but I have invited acceptance along with me now. Acceptance is in the driver’s seat. Anxiety and depression are still on the journey but not front and center. They don’t get to choose my every move anymore. I do.
Accept, believe, and life will proceed,