You've completed your cancer treatment. You’ve survived. You’ve gotten a reprieve, a second chance, a new lease on life. Now what? The experience has left you a different person in many ways. The challenge is to become comfortable with your new self. You are a cancer survivor.
The cancer experience changes people. Survivors frequently reassess their former life styles and beliefs. It's an opportunity to review and rethink your values and your priorities. What was important to you before your cancer diagnosis and treatment may not be important to you now. Paradoxical as it may seem, the cancer journey yields positive results for some people. It can be a time of reflection. You may want to reorder your priorities, shift things around a bit. You may develop a new understanding of how valuable your time is, and think about new ways to spend it. Or…you may want to continue living your life in exactly the same way you were before the diagnosis. There’s no right or wrong. Your new perspective is uniquely your own.
Recurrence is the most common fear in cancer survivors. You've done the difficult work of cancer treatments. You've dragged yourself for chemotherapy and radiation treatments week after week. Month after month. You've been there and done that. You don't want to do it again. You're not sure you can handle it again. You keep rereading the National Institute of Health's survival statistics and recalculating the odds of maintaining your good health. Sometimes you find yourself obsessing over the statistics. Is this normal behavior? Absolutely. You have survived a difficult and traumatic experience, and it's left its mark on you. You think anything can happen at any time. Your fear is understandable. People may tell you not to worry, just live your life. It's a great sentiment, but it's not always easy to do. Look for ways to ease your mind and try to minimize your worries. Reach for your spiritual practices, whatever they may be. Walk in the park with your dog. Read a book. Watch a movie. Play with your grandchildren. Listen to music. Pray. Whatever works for you. Look at the section called Spiritual Exercises for ideas.
They say having cancer changes you. What does that mean? How can I make the most of this terrible experience?
The adage is true: no one can understand the full complexity of your cancer journey unless they have walked in your shoes. If you participate in a cancer survivor support group, the people you talk to might share some of the details of your cancer experience. But each of you has your own unique way of understanding what happened. That's why cancer changes people and their ways of being in the world. Often, survivors construct new "systems of thought" -- you can call it a spiritual framework or a new worldview -- that let you integrate and interpret the cancer experience in ways that enhance connection. Consider how you relate to the people in your life and think about ways to improve the relationships. Are there people to whom you want to say, “I love you”? Are there others to whom you want to say, “I'm sorry, please forgive me”?
Many people are living years or even decades with cancer. A cancer diagnosis is no longer a death sentence. Ongoing progress in oncology research and treatment has created a new category of cancer survivors: people with chronic cancer. Advances in treatment have lengthened lifespans and transformed some types of cancer into manageable diseases. After your diagnosis and treatment, your cancer is under control. It will never completely go away but you can live with it. Your disease is no longer progressing. As someone with chronic cancer, you must learn to deal with the emotional, spiritual and social aspects of your new status.
One way is to create a new way to fashion a hopeful future. Your life is precious, to you and to those around you. Chronic cancer can sharpen one’s senses and increase appreciation of wonder in the world. You learn to take nothing for granted because things can change on a dime. But until (and if) that happens, make plans. Do the things that bring you joy. Take comfort in human experience and connection. Remember that you can live with wellness and healing without cure. Like many others, you can learn to live with cancer.
Chronic cancer is not like a broken arm, which heals on a predictable schedule. There’s often a high level of uncertainty associated with ongoing treatment. Maybe your current regimen stops working, or you develop side effects. Maybe a new clinical trial opportunity arises. Or your medical team wants to change your protocol. You have a timetable – but it’s not working out. One of the difficulties of chronic cancer is the high number of variables. So a sense of safety becomes elusive. If you’re a believer, Psalm 4 might bring you peace in times of anxiety; Psalm 46, courage in times of fear and Psalm 38, relief in times of pain. If you’re not a believer, consider developing a spiritual practice to bring you a sense of calm. Look for ideas in the section on this site called Spiritual Exercises. When you’re feeling weary, it may help to speak with a chaplain or another trusted counselor.
There’s an extensive bibliography on living with chronic cancer written by medical professionals and cancer survivors. You might find helpful The Human Side of Cancer: Living with Hope, Coping with Uncertainty (2001), by Jimmie C. Holland, a doctor at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, New York City, founder of the field of psycho-oncology, and co-writer Sheldon Lewis; or Surviving Cancer Emotionally: Learning How to Heal (2001), by Roger Granet, MD. Other resources include Picking up the Pieces: Moving Forward after Surviving Cancer (2007) by Sherri McGee and Kathy Scalzo, and After Cancer: a Guide to Your New Life, by Dr. Wendy Harpham, herself a cancer survivor. This is a very small sampling of the many books available on living with chronic cancer.