I was diagnosed with cancer at 27. After treatment, I ditched my hospital gown and hit the road. Traveling from the Big Apple to the Bible Belt, I recorded one-on-one conversations with 25 young adult cancer survivors who confessed to me experiences they had never told anyone else.
I was surprised by how many patients said that the hardest part of their cancer experience was life after treatment. Here’s a snippet of my conversation with Geoff Luttrell, a twenty-something survivor interviewed in my book Everything Changes: The Insider’s Guide to Cancer in Your 20s and 30s.
“When you have cancer and you wake up every morning, man, you know what’s happening: chemo, scans, IVs, the whole protocol. Everything else just falls away. There’s no confusion. Life was perfectly clear on chemo. A lot of people recovering from cancer talk about trying to live life like there’s no tomorrow, but you have to work, you have to go grocery shopping, you can’t just walk around 24/7 thinking, I have to make the best of it because I could die in the next five minutes. It’s not realistic.”
Like Geoff, I wanted to be realistic about how to deal with the directionless fray my life had become after treatment. Through my own trial and error, and while talking to other patients for my book Everything Changes, I learned some lessons that made the transition back into daily life just it a bit easier.
After treatment, be kind to yourself. Take it slowly. You don’t have to dive back into life where you left off. In fact you can’t, because life has moved ahead since you were last in it. Step slowly into your life, taking time to learn about what you want from other people and from yourself.
The entire world will want to know how you’re doing. Create a standard yet honest reply – an elevator line, that will educate them about what you are facing, such as, “I’m glad that treatment is over, but it’s pretty common to feel fatigue for a while, so I’m still recovering.”
When I traveled to Alabama, I met Tracy, a 37-year-old breast cancer patient who said, “Some people think that after an experience like cancer, if you are not smiling and doing cartwheels every day, then you’re just sitting around and feeling sorry for yourself. I am grateful to be alive, but I have good days and bad days just like I did before cancer. I also believe you can’t help yourself if you deny that you have suffered.”
She’s right. Life after treatment is hard. Maybe you’re dealing with medical bills, adjusting to a missing a body part, or making sense of your work, love, or family life. Perhaps fear, anger, or sadness about your diagnosis or recurrence are smacking you in the face. Don’t pretend that everything is fine if it is not. Being real about how you feel helps relieve tension. Don’t worry – you won’t get stuck here forever. I’m living proof of this.
If you have gone through treatment, what was life like afterwards? What was the biggest challenge you faced and how did you deal with it? Are you surprised that so many people said life after treatment was the hardest part of cancer?
For candid stories, practical tips, and expert advice on 20 and 30-something cancer, check out my book Everything Changes: The Insider’s Guide to Cancer in Your 20s and 30s. Visit my blog http://everythingchangesbook.com/
Kairol Rosenthal is a healthcare blogger and patient advocate working with national cancer organizations including Gilda’s Club, Planet Cancer, and I’m Too Young For This. She lectures on healthcare issues at Columbia College and is co-host of The Stupid Cancer Show.
Kairol has been interviewed as a cancer expert for The New York Times and Harpers’ Bazaar. Her essays have been produced by National Public Radio and appear in Help Me Live: Twenty Things People with Cancer Want You To Know. Everything Changes: The Insider’s Guide To Cancer In Your 20s and 30s is the culmination of her five years of research with patients and health care professionals in the young adult cancer community.
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