You’re Done with Cancer Treatment (Now Comes the Hard Part…)

“Done with cancer treatment now comes the hard part.” September is Childhood Cancer Awareness month. This blog features a story by Sheri Brisson a cancer survivor, writing about her thoughts after treatment survivorship.

So maybe you’ve already rung the “chemo bell” or maybe you are just about to ring it. When you do, maybe you will have a celebration, or you might give yourself a special present you have been looking forward to. For me, it was buying my first “real” camera—one I could adjust all the settings myself, instead of just being an “aim and shoot.”  Yes, this was the era long before digital cameras or having a camera built into your phone! After cancer, I planned to explore the world and needed a camera to document everything in my life that made it so special. What will it be for you?

I don’t know about you, but just as much as I was ready to be “done with it,” at the same time, my cancer forced me to take on a level of maturity I did not want.  As I finished treatment, it was like I couldn’t relate to anyone my age anymore. I was mad about that, and worse yet, feeling like nobody “got it” made me feel lonely. Yet I was one of the lucky ones: No one on record had survived my type of brain cancer. It was like I had no right to feel sad. But I did. 

I know what it’s like to struggle getting “back to normal.” My cancer made me different from everyone I knew. There was no way I could go back to my life as if nothing had happened. And I worried that if I let myself embrace life again, I was opening myself up to losing so much if my cancer came back again. At the time, I didn’t even know I had these thoughts. Instead, I was just stuck. My life was on hold.

Eventually, I learned that being a survivor means much more than living through cancer. It means putting your life back together after cancer, too. I realized that I needed to learn how to be a cancer survivor.  And the first step was I needed to feel sadness for everything I had lost, before I was ready to just “move on.”

I lost my boyfriend. My job. My independence. In fact, my whole “grown up” life, as I zapped back into my parent’s home at age 24. Their telling me what to do all the time frustrated the heck out of me.  I didn’t even know how to be a friend anymore: I had always been the “giver” in my relationships, and now I just didn’t have the energy. I couldn’t be the big sister I wanted to be and instead, my little sister took care of me. I couldn’t do anything athletic either. In fact, I even had trouble walking without tipping over. No one was having a wedding or baby shower for me, like so many I attended.  Who knew if I would ever have the chance? And I didn’t even recognize myself in the mirror—but let’s not even go there. I had lost a lot, and I just plain needed to be sad about it. And, just as important, I had to learn to be patient with being OK with being sad.

Here are a couple of lessons I learned along the way that I hope can help you not just survive, but thrive:

Express your full range of emotions. There is no such thing as “negative emotions.”  Let yourself feel what you’re feeling. It may be hard to sit with difficult emotions, but it will help you process these feelings.  Sometimes discovering one’s true strength comes only from the opportunity to confront the pain head-on.  

Acknowledge that cancer will always be part of your identity.  There’s no way around it: Cancer will change you. But by acknowledging this change, you can make it more likely that cancer will change you for the better!

Tell your story. The meaning we give to the challenges we face is part of what helps us heal.  By sharing your story with others, you make what happened to you, be part of you. It gives others a chance to connect with you in an honest and real way.  Journaling, creative writing, and expressive art are all tools that can help you understand yourself and your story.  It helps you own—maybe even embrace—your experiences.  And gives you the chance to be proud of your story.

Build resilience.  Take an active role in your emotional health. Connect with others in an authentic and empathetic way.  Discover your strengths born out of challenge by working to identify them.  Finally, accept changes in yourself and your life situation, one step at a time. 

I’m not the person I was before cancer. But I’ve used my survivorship to become more than I was before. Who will YOU become years after treatment? By working to heal emotionally just as much as you worked to heal physically, you can thrive because you’ve had cancer even decades after your treatment is over.