Transitioning to Life After Cancer

So far, making the transition from cancer patient to cancer “survivor” (I’m not a huge fan of that term yet for some reason) has been more difficult than I anticipated. From last November through the middle of July, my identity was largely wrapped up in being a cancer patient, going to doctor’s appointments and getting treatments. My focus was on getting well, taking good care of myself, and staying positive and that was about it. In the matter of 24 hours, I went from that to being a cancer “survivor”, which means I have the freedom of not being tethered to cancer treatment anymore. That is obviously liberating and exciting (and God, am I grateful) but it is actually scary at the same time.

Sure, I still have a ton of doctor’s appointments and scans coming down the pipeline but recently, I’ve been faced more so with what my life will look like after cancer. I don’t know entirely what this will mean yet. I DO know that this stage of my life means acknowledging that not EVERY medical issue that arises is related to cancer anymore and that I will have to go back to work and become a functional member of society again. (This, in turn, means I will have to wear actual clothes every day – not just my yoga pants, t shirts and flip flops. I considered going back to work in my cancer attire but I don’t think that would be “professional”.) It’s a pretty jarring thing actually and getting used to the post-cancer life isn’t as easy as I thought it would be.

I’ve already encountered my first minor medical issue (although pretty much all medical issues seem minor compared to cancer) post cancer and the realization that anything that now happens to my body may not be not due, or related, to cancer is pretty surprising. I’ve been so used to a whole myriad of odd and unexpected side effects due to cancer that the idea that something isn’t due to cancer really threw me off.

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, many women go into early menopause during chemotherapy or radiation treatments. This can have long terms effects on their ability to conceive after they go into remission. I was very fortunate in that my period remained regular throughout all of my treatments. In fact, my cycle has been consistent throughout my entire life, for better or worse.

So, you can imagine that alarms went off when my first period after finishing up radiation came two weeks earlier than I expected, followed by another period two weeks after that. This has never happened to me – surely, I thought, it must be due to the radiation in my chest/neck. It seemed quite obvious to me that the treatment affected my thyroid and the hormones it secretes into the blood stream, which then threw off my cycle. I mean, I haven’t gone to medical school, done an internship, residency and fellowship, or practiced medicine for a number of years or anything, but quite clearly, cancer was to blame. For the past 10 months, cancer has been to blame for everything so why would this be different?

Imagine my shock and surprise when my radiation oncologist, who I had my first follow up with not long after this anomaly, turned this possibility down out of hand.

“Well, we didn’t radiate your abdomen and I would only expect those sorts of issues if we did so” was his response. 

I’ve never been 100% enamored with my radiation oncologist. He is a specialist of specialists, who I have found are typically singularly focused on one very specific area and don’t care much to hear about everything else. But when he said this to me, it took a lot to hold myself back from reminding him that a) I’m not an idiot and b) I was the one of the radiation table so I think I would realize that the giant machine wasn’t rotating around my abdomen.

I was so distrustful of his response that I called my hematology oncologist’s office. I spoke with his nurse who said she also doubted that this whole thing was due to treatment but she said she would check with him. A little while later, I had to finally come to the realization that not every medical issue from here on out will be due to cancer when he also confirmed what my radiation oncologist had said.

Ultimately, I ended up going to see my primary physician, who ran a full battery of blood work and did an exam. Everything came back normal, so we’re just chalking all of this up to extreme stress finally catching up with me. (This is a topic for another day, by the way.)

Honestly, I felt like I got dumped by my oncologists. I was no longer their priority. I felt like I got pushed off onto my primary physician (who I love) like a cast off. I know I should be so happy that I’m not on their radar right now, but the relationship you develop with your oncologists, as the people who are very much responsible for not just taking care of you but saving your life, becomes tight knit pretty quickly. Just like that, with one clean PET scan, they’re over it and moving on. Moreover, I had to now come to grips with the idea that not every medical issue that pops up for the rest of my life will be due to cancer or related to cancer, and especially, is not a sign that cancer has returned. I think it will take quite awhile before that feeling goes away.

As I write this, I am also thinking a lot about my return to work tomorrow. I teach at a liberal arts college, and academics typically dictate their own schedule when it comes to returning for the upcoming year so long as we’re there and prepared for the start of classes. We all typically set our own return dates, and I’ve decided to go in tomorrow.

This is a bit early for me in a typical year, but I have a few reasons for wanting to go back so soon. I need to bring in my letter stating that I can return to work to HR and I need to get a parking sticker for my new car. Truthfully, I could do these things later in the week or next week when most faculty will come back, but I really wanted to have a quiet day when very few people would be around so I can settle in and get a few things done. It sounds cowardly, but I’m planning to go in through a back door and hopefully see as few people as possible so I have a day to just re-acclimate. And air out my office…I’m really hoping I didn’t leave a lunch bag in there. I left the Friday before Thanksgiving thinking I’d be back the following week and obviously that didn’t happen.

I’m quite nervous about going back for a lot of reasons. I don’t want to feel overwhelmed when I see my co-workers again after 10 months of being on leave. They have been so supportive but I also know I’m going to have to answer questions and go through the explanation of everything many times over, which any cancer patient/survivor will tell you is exhausting. This will happen again when students return, and I really don’t want to be known as that “Professor who had cancer”.

Speaking of exhaustion, I am legitimately concerned about my ability to actually get through the day. Once classes begin, my lab sections will run for 3.5 hours three times per week. As a dry run, I helped my husband in his office last week and was mainly doing office work. I only made it through 2 days before I felt extreme exhaustion and physical fatigue. I’m truly concerned about my ability to physically get through a lab where I am lecturing, talking with students and walking around to observe what they’re doing. I can try to pace myself during class, but there’s no getting around the fact that it will be difficult. I also don’t know how I’m going to manage teaching, prepping for classes, meetings with faculty and students and keeping up with all of my grading while still maintaining everything at home. The thought of it all is overwhelming.

I love my job, and I’m very fortunate to have it and I know this. However, I’d be lying if I said I’m 100% enthusiastic about going back to work for practical reasons. It has been really nice to be at home, recover, relax and have a life while still getting paid full time. I never had to worry about a doctor’s appointment conflicting with my work schedule. I could run errands whenever I’d like, take a nap in the middle of the day, watch TV, read a book, sit in a coffee shop and read the paper, or really anything I’d like. The freedom to relax, especially since I’ve finished radiation, has been really nice and I must say that I’m not looking forward to the stress of 1+ hour commutes each way, coordinating my schedule with Jeff’s to make sure I can pick him up on time, grocery shopping and meal planning on the weekends with all of the other crazies, cramming appointments into nights and weekends and feeling like there’s never enough time to do anything. I’m just not looking forward to returning to that kind of lifestyle, although I know that my employer will not continue to pay me while I recover at home forever.

And so, I’m packing my work bag (the one whose contents show what was going on in my life 10 months ago – exams and papers that were never graded, meeting notes that I didn’t have a chance to follow up on, and books I wanted to read that I never touched again) and making my lunch to re-enter society tomorrow. Life as a cancer survivor now begins.

 

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