Things no one tells you about being a survivor…

So…it’s been awhile. Things are going well in terms of my cancer status. I’ve had several checkups since my last post, and my tumor markers and blood cell counts continue to be well within the “normal” range.

Much of what I’m dealing with now are the emotional and psychological effects of being a long term cancer survivor.I have a much harder time verbalizing and writing about them than the physical issues, which explains the long time between posts, I suppose. Now that I’m 2+ years in remission, though, I can breathe a little bit and not feel so focused on the possibility of recurrence. This leaves room for a lot of thinking and emotional processing.

All of this thinking got me to wonder: What would I tell the version of me who walked into the hospital on Nov. 20th, 2012 expecting to be diagnosed with pneumonia, at worst, about being a cancer survivor? Beyond sharing that I survive the treatment and go into remission, here’s what I would tell myself:

  • You will have long term physical side effects that are enough to be mildly annoying relative to, say cancer, but are fairly difficult to negotiate nonetheless. Peripheral neuropathy in my hands, greater susceptibility to colds, and chemo brain are all issues you will have to deal with for months or years after going into remission.  Are these issues life altering? Not really, I guess. Annoying? Absolutely.
  • Complaining about numb hands and forgetting things now and then leads to the fact that you will feel serious survivor’s guilt, and not just guilt that you survived treatment and went into long term remission. That’s pretty run of the mill, quite frankly. No…you will feel survivor’s guilt that you didn’t even think was possible. You will feel guilty that your treatment wasn’t more physically taxing when others have it so much harder. You will feel guilty about getting medical leave with full pay. You will feel really guilty that there were times between treatments and during recovery when you enjoyed being on medical leave with full pay. You will feel guilty that you sometimes feel abandoned and isolated in remission. I mean, you survived, right?
  • Every time someone with cancer has died, you will feel an overwhelming sadness, even when it’s someone you don’t know and especially when that someone is very young.
  • Every time someone says that you should be grateful that you survived, you will question whether you are grateful enough. (That’s a tough one).
  • Other survivors will tell you that there are days that they don’t think about cancer. You will not understand how this is even possible. You will certainly have days when you feel like cancer happened to another version of you, almost in another time or plane of existence, but you will think about it all the same. And, there will be days when it is all you can think about.
  • For better or worse, you will define your adult life in two time periods: Before Cancer and After Cancer. This isn’t a good or bad thing, it’s just something that happens.
  • And lastly, you will vow to enjoy life more after you go into remission. This is easier said than done, but you will try your best.

 

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