February 2, 2004
What Now? Life after Cancer
Karen Ritchie, MD
So you have finished cancer treatment. You are a survivor. Congratulations.
It wasn't easy, but you did it. And you are feeling . . . . . what, exactly?
Like a winner?
Back to your old self?
Maybe you are, and maybe you aren't. The truth is, many people feel strange after cancer treatment, not the way they thought they would feel.
Like them, you may feel awkward or uneasy, like something is not quite right. Although you may be back to your old life, you are not the same. You are changed.
Cancer is a disease of the life, not just a disease of the body. And though others want you back to normal, normal is different now.
You are more than you were before the cancer. You may have new insights, a new appreciation of what matters. You found strength you didn't know you had. Some people were supportive in unexpected ways, and you have new friends. Perhaps you are more patient, and no longer sweat the small stuff. You understand the value of being alive.
Although you are more than you were, at the same time you are less than you were. You have lost time and you have lost money. Your body is strange - you have scars or numbness, your hair grew in differently, permanent reminders. Other people act weird, and maybe you have even lost friends. You are missing parts of your body, parts of your life, and parts of yourself.
Some people feel safe as long as they are in treatment - as long as they are fighting, they are doing something about the cancer. But after treatment, when they are not actively fighting, they feel vulnerable and powerless.
You may feel as if you are out of step with others. Life-threatening illness and the ordeal of treatment bring a new perspective on everything. You have changed - you are not who you were. If you are lucky, friends and family change with you, but this is asking a lot. They may just be supportive and hope you get back to normal. They want you back the way you were, but you have lost your innocence and can't go back.
You are supposed to be a hero, but you really don't feel like a hero. You didn't do anything out of the ordinary, after all. You just went for treatment, something anyone would do.
You don't feel like a winner. There is no after the battle. You never get the medal, the guarantee you have won. The notion of winning may seem hollow, because you only win when something doesn't happen. You win only when, years later, you die of something else.
When you are given a diagnosis of cancer, you are expected to be a fighter, like the hero of an action movie, fighting against the cancer. In a way, it is very easy, or at least simple. But when treatment is finished, the script runs out. There is no screenplay to tell you what to do next. You are on your own.
Those who are fighters often find the battle exhilarating, and enjoy the support and encouragement of those around them, cheering from the sidelines. After the battle, however, when the warrior goes home, she needs a different script.
Nobody tells you that cancer will change things, but it does. When you have been to the cancer world, you don't really come back. You go somewhere new. This isn't a bad thing to happen but it feels strange, and your loved ones may not like it.
We don't really have a good concept of change. We think that change is failure, or betrayal of others who care about us. But change is part of life, and big events such as cancer change people in big ways. If you have lost some things, you have gained other things. The trick is to turn a life-changing event into wisdom. Then, maybe, you are a winner.
- Of Interest:
- No Heroes, No Losers
Angels and bolters: a field guide to the wildlife of cancer
The Power of Anger