Guest Blog: You beat cancer, now what? Thoughts on survivorship

By Nicole Balkau

Cancer isn’t always the loneliest place, survivorship is, too.

Being in treatment with active cancer becomes so normal that it can be unsettling when you move to a different stage of healing. These are uncharted waters, and navigating this space is chilling. The routine of treatment becomes so comfortable that countless terrors and disquiets plaque you as you enter the real world again.

People think that your life just goes back to normal or you pick up where you left off once you’ve finished treatment. You might think this too, because this is the part no one warns you about. No one prepares you for the stark reality of survivorship. So, you have absolutely no idea what you are doing and are just trying to figure it out as you go. This is a lonely place to be. 

There is this pervading feeling of loneliness that no amount of support or human interaction can cure. You can be locked in a room with a dozen other people and still feel as though it’s completely empty. This feeling of seclusion lingers for a little too long and you can’t shake it. It’s this haunting shadow that follows you around everywhere you go and as much as you try to hide from it, it’s always there.

When we’re in treatment, we so badly want to reach the finish line and get back to our old life. In theory, it’s simple. We expect that we can just pick up where we left off. But, in reality, you get there, god willing, and realize the place you left is no longer the same as how you left it. The world didn’t stop for a moment while you were fighting for your life It’s gone, burned to ashes.

This rollercoaster from hell finally spit you back out into the non-cancer world, but you aren’t the same as when you got on the ride. You are a shell of who you used to be. Meanwhile, an exhausted and beaten down body is expected to be “all better” now. There is an unspoken expectation for you to return to your usual state. This expectancy feels so heavy, yet all you’re trying to do is keep your head above water.   

Your pre-cancer life seems like a distant memory, almost like it was a completely different life. The sad reality is, now it’s a place you can never return to. There is nowhere to call home anymore because the previous homeowners kicked you out. Everything looks the same: the people, the buildings, the street corners, and other landmarks. But this is no longer a world recognizable by you. You’re trying to find your place here again and where you might fit in. Instead, it feels like you’re floating through space with no real sense of belonging. You feel empty, and when you look in the mirror the reflection staring back isn’t someone you recognize. Everything is just…bland. Colorless, tasteless, lifeless.

You begin to mourn your old self.

You grieve who you were because you are no longer that person. That person is a stranger to you now, a ghost. How strange it is to mourn someone who isn’t dead, but isn’t quite the same.

Your body is tired, sure, but your soul is exhausted and all you want to do is rest. It’s not your physical self that always need tending to, those wounds can heal quickly. Healing from the emotional scars you have accumulated takes infinitely longer when you have faced your own mortality. It takes time to recover from a trauma like that.

Remission is a lot like someone following you around with a gun to your head. They haven’t pulled the trigger, but they could.  Will they pull the trigger one day or will they decide not to shoot you? You try to get on with your life because you’ve been given a second chance at life. That’s what you’re supposed to do, right? Move on? Live the life that you worked so hard to keep? How do you move on when you’re constantly terrified that the gun can go off at any moment? This is another lonely place to be.

The illness is no longer active in your body, yet the world assumes that you are healthy again. The majority of the population doesn’t have the sympathy or understanding of why it could be so hard, this life after cancer. You no longer look like a cancer patient, so you must be normal again. They expect you to be on top of your game, ready to live your life. After all, you’ve been given another chance. Yet, no prepares you for what it’s like after your life has been saved.

You’re thankful to be alive, sure, but you don’t necessarily feel the joy you think you should feel while on the other side. The truth is, you aren’t free from cancer even when you’ve beaten cancer. You feel so lost, confused, and scared. You’re angry at yourself for feeling these things, guilty even. Trying to accept and embrace your feelings while simultaneously feeling judged for them is another lonely place to be. The world thinks you should put on a brave face. Try to move on. After all, you survived.

Navigating survivorship is much like peeling an onion, as cliché as this analogy is going to be. Every step in recovery is like peeling off another layer. You finally get to a point where you feel like you’re through the last layer, but wait, there’s more. It’s not over. Trauma is fickle, and it has a way to resurfacing when you least expect it to.

Some time passes and you wait. You sit there with your new self until you start to recognize her and feel a little more whole than you did the days before. There’s so much pressure to be a cancer survivor and if you don’t check off all these boxes that society tells you how you should be after cancer, you feel like you are a failure.

There’s an immense pressure to do something profound with your life because you’ve been given a second chance. As if you need to do something monumental and transformative by changing the world to justify your existence.

Am I inspiring enough? Am I doing enough? Am I using my experience for the betterment of others?

You aren’t a failure, you are victorious, and you have complete autonomy with how you choose to live your life. Your life here on this earth is a gift to everyone who loves and cares for you. Your ability to still fill your lungs with air is never something that you should vindicate.

Victory is when you somehow, some way, get to another place. Your pain has changed you, in ways no one could know but you. It wasn’t pleasant and your pain has changed you, in ways no one could understand. This near-death experience of yours has reduced you to what feels like a lesser version of yourself, but like the phoenix, you will rise again.  

You have waited in the dirt for so long and now you’re able to walk among the living again. You get to take pride in knowing that you continued to walk forward even when with every movement you made, the stake into your chest wedged itself a little deeper.

Cancer changes you. It alters the lens in which you used to view the world through. Your former self may no longer have a seat at the table where you once dined, but that’s ok. Find a new table, change the menu. After all, change is just another way of creation.

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