Transitioning out of breast cancer treatment back to “life” has not been a straightforward process. It has been more of a meandering path where I am trying to figure out what to do with my life and, more importantly, who I have become.
A year goes by quickly, but it is enough time to form habits and routines. That is about the length of time I spent treating my breast cancer with chemotherapy, Herceptin and surgeries. During that period, I was intensely focused on understanding my disease, visiting doctors, and recovering from chemotherapy or surgery. Although these are not my top picks for how I want to spend my time, they did lend structure to my life when everything else was pretty chaotic. Being treated for cancer also brought lots of attention and support from others, which was comforting, but it dissipated once I was done with the treatment. Similar to the diagnosis, the end of treatment brought about abrupt changes to which I am still adjusting.
Of course, I was very happy when I finished chemo, when I had my last dose of Herceptin, and when I completed the final surgery. Through each stage of breast cancer treatment, I looked forward to the end of it all so that I could get back to the life I had put on hold. I am not interested in adopting a cancer patient identity, but picking up where I left off hasn’t been easy.
Handling Fear After Breast Cancer Treatment
Chemo was tough, but it made me feel I was doing something to get rid of the cancer. With all of the hard core treatment out of the way, I worried that any little ache was a sign of metastases. I would immediately freak out and give my husband an earful about how I thought the cancer had taken hold of my lungs, bones or blood. Poor guy — he puts up with a lot.
As it turns out, all the little aches have resolved themselves (so far), and I’ve learned two things. First, it will be difficult to enjoy my life if I am constantly paranoid about cancer. Second, people, including my dear husband, will eventually shrug off my concerns and attribute them to paranoia. There will come a time when nobody, not even my doctors, will take me seriously. So, I’ve decided to curb the fear by promising myself that I will:
- Listen to my body, but not overreact
- Only investigate symptoms that don’t go away after three weeks
- Begin seeing a general practitioner to manage my overall health
Doing these things has given me some peace of mind because I don’t stress out about minor issues but I have a plan for addressing legitimate concerns. I am really happy that I decided to see a general practitioner because he is taking a holistic approach to my health and doesn’t only focus on the tumor markers.
Recognizing & Accepting Personal Growth
Another challenge with transitioning out of breast cancer treatment has been realizing that my cancer experience does not define me, but it has changed me in ways that I am still discovering. I am not a drastically different person, but I have noticed that I am less inhibited and less willing to tolerate things that don’t make me happy. I am also more decisive, and this is fantastic! It used to take me eons to make a decision. I had to weigh all my options and even then, I was always ridden with paralyzing doubt. The uncertainty typically led me to do nothing about most things. Now, I find myself over thinking less and doing more.
My experience has changed my mindset about control and planning. I now believe that with the right outlook, almost everything works out. On the contrary, some of the best laid plans fail. So why not be a little more spontaneous? Why not do more things that bring me joy even if they don’t fit perfectly into my plans? I haven’t totally thrown planning out the window, but I am no longer a slave to planning and preparation.
My willingness to do something unscripted surprised me last summer after our camping trip at Echo Lake had ended. My husband and I were not expected at work until the following week, so we decided to take our kids to San Francisco, which was only three hours away. After two days in San Francisco, we decided it would be nice to drive down California’s Pacific Coast Highway. We did not plan any of this, yet it was one of our best vacations! Thanks to our cell phones, we were able to book cheap hotel rooms a few hours before arriving in each town. We had several long stretches without cell phone service. Would we have a place to sleep? In the end we figured we could always sleep in the back of our van, although we never had to actually do that. Each day of this trip was a small adventure that may not have been as much fun if we had planned it out. Take a look at some of the views we experienced:
I’ve also begun doing things that I had put on my to-do list for “someday.” I am intent on making “someday” happen today. For example, I wanted to learn how to make soap. I dragged my sister along for this project, and now we get together a few times a month to concoct beautiful batches of homemade soap. The best part: I get to spend time with my little sister doing something we both enjoy. Next on my list is learning how to sew. I want to make my own roman shades!
I still have a full time job. I still have two kids. I still have a home to keep clean and organized. The demands on my time haven’t changed, but how I use my time has. I’ve learned that it’s okay to release some control and that it is important to carve out time to do things for myself.
I am still learning how my cancer experience has changed the way I approach life. I now realize that you don’t emerge from a traumatic experience enlightened or understanding how it has altered you. You have to rediscover your identity. I also wonder if some people don’t experience any personal change from traumatic experiences. In her book Lopsided, Meredith Norton concludes that having breast cancer did not make her any wiser or provide any answers to life’s questions. She writes, “There we were with the same annoying habits and bad manners, ungrateful, pessimistic, undisciplined, and bored. We were just as mediocre as when this whole drama began.”
Have you had any traumatic experiences that have impacted your outlook on life? If so, how did you use that experience as a source of personal growth? I’d love to hear from you in the comments section below.
Until next time,