No one ever plans on hearing the words “you have cancer.” It comes as a complete shock and surprise and for many it feels as if their world has been flipped upside down. Often times people don’t have the opportunity to digest the situation before they are faced with life changing decisions, people to inform, personal and professional arrangements to take care of, and the countless and seemingly endless doctor’s visits.
When the dust has had time to settle and the course of treatment has been decided upon, people often describe this as putting the blinders on and aiming towards the finish line – the goal being the completion of treatment. Whatever the course of treatment may be, or however long it takes, the finish line is the dangling carrot that pulls us forward, and waiting for us, with the hope that our lives will once again continue with some normalcy.
No one is likely to disagree that finishing treatment is a huge accomplishment. Whether it’s weeks, months, or years, the completion is what we’ve all worked towards. But often times after completing treatment we find ourselves feeling like the fight has only just begun. Yes, being excited and relieved to finish treatment is an indescribable thrill and relief, but what also commonly happens after is a feeling of “now what?” Ever since receiving that scary diagnosis we had some clue of what our life would look like – what doctor’s appointment was next, how many more days until the next treatment, etc. There is some kind of imagined safety net around you knowing that you are doing everything in your power to get better. But once you “finish” you may find that life doesn’t look or feel like it once did before starting treatment. Life around you may appear the same, but you are not the same.
Those who have been there every step of the way with you are thrilled that this is behind you. And in your head you know it’s behind you, but deep down it can never really be behind you. It is now a part of you. You have just experienced something so life changing it doesn’t just go away because a certain number of treatments have been completed. You’ve resumed most of your usual activities or your hair is growing back in. You have taken a detour from the mainstream of life into a place that only others who have been there can understand, and when you join back into the flow of life, you can never have the same perspective of life again. Receiving a life threatening diagnosis is likened to a PTSD diagnosis, it can be like just returning home from war. Your head may tell you that you are safe, but your body tells you a different story.
This can be a time when people start to feel guilty or even feel like an impostor because they will act happy on the outside but are still sad and afraid on the inside – often times living each day “waiting for the other shoe to drop”. Those around you are ready for you to get on with your life so they can get on with theirs, because if they know you are still suffering they have a hard time feeling good about their own lives. But as hard as you try you can’t deny what you feel. And you shouldn’t.
There is no time limit on grieving, and grieving is just what is happening after a scary, life-threatening diagnosis. We grieve the loss of feeling safe, the amount of time we’ve lost on that detour out of the mainstream, and grieve the loss of what might have been or what may never be again.
If you don’t feel comfortable sharing your feelings or thoughts with those in your immediate circle, you need to reach out a little further to a trusted friend, a fellow survivor, a support group, or a trained therapist or clergy. You need to find those resources that support you and validate you where you are in the process, not where others think you should be.
Trust in your ability to heal – not just in your body’s innate ability to move towards wellness, but in your psyche’s ability as well. By allowing ourselves to feel what we need to feel without shame, guilt or embarrassment, we will heal, physically, emotionally and spiritually. It takes time, but it will happen.