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Growing Pains – Learning to Live After Cancer

So you finally finished that last cancer treatment – good for you! You have endured 2295739months of tests and diagnosis’. You have learned so much about surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, and experimental trials you could fill the pages of a book. You have a list of doctors a mile long, and a medical record so lengthy it could take years to read it from start to finish. Then there is the waiting. You waited for test results, doctors’ calls, surgeries, and treatments. You waited in doctor’s offices for what seemed a lifetime. Then suddenly it all stopped. You said good-bye to the treatment staff that cared for you for months. Doctor visits are made quarterly instead of weekly. Your family may have even thrown you a “cancer is done” party. So why don’t you feel “done”? How do you live now without your care team monitoring every breath? Isn’t this what you looked forward to all these months?

As a cancer survivor, I have also experienced these same conflicting emotions. To family and friends you look better. Maybe your hair is beginning to come in, or you appear less exhausted from radiation, but did you know that it takes a full year from the date of the last treatment for most cancer survivors to feel whole again? There is no question cancer takes its toll physically, but some of the most difficult days of cancer survival are in the days following treatment. While receiving treatment we are caught up in the “doing” of cancer. The routine of treatment, doctor’s visits, and other therapies provide a safety net of support as we navigate the tightrope of emotions during the cancer healing process. But when the safety net is removed it is not uncommon to feel suddenly adrift and unsteady. Where do we go from here?

In her book You Can Thrive After Treatment, Debbie Woodbury shares some simple tips for creating a joyous, inspired life after cancer. She speaks of the importance of nurturing the mind, body and spirit in the days, months, weeks, and even years following treatment. Although the scars of cancer may have faded on the outside, the body is still in the recovery process, and we must be gentle and patient with our progress toward wellness. Perhaps you are coping with a secondary diagnosis as a result of your cancer treatment, or still experiencing days of fatigue months after walking out of the cancer center. The emotional scars of cancer can take longer to heal for some than the outward physical changes brought about by surgery, chemotherapy, or radiation. The spirit needs permission to heal. Woodbury reminds us to remember to breathe deeply, meditate in whatever form is comfortable, fill the body with healthy foods, and get plenty of rest. Dr. Bernie Siegel, medical oncologist and founder of the Exceptional Cancer Patients Foundation, says we must send our bodies a “live message”. By nurturing our physical, spiritual, and emotional selves we remind the body that it is safe to live outside of the regiment of cancer treatment.

Is there life after cancer? The life we knew before diagnosis may never be the same. We may struggle to rectify our old life before cancer and who we have become as survivors. We can celebrate a new type of birthday, one that recognizes our strength, hope, vulnerabilities, and wisdom. By surrounding ourselves with other survivors we see our new identity reflected in their eyes and know that we can not only live, but THRIVE after cancer -   by Susan Orlando, LLPC, NCC