Lately I have been thinking a lot about life after cancer. Maybe this seems like an obvious thing to do. Many people daydream about life after difficult or challenging times in their lives. “When I finally graduate/move out/get a job/etc. life will be so much better.” And certainly my life after cancer will be better. Allowing my body to feel as good as it can and not pumping toxic chemicals into it on a weekly basis sounds like heaven. Growing hair again will be glorious. Not feeling sick 4 days out of every 7 will be incredible. Healing and recovering after surgery will be wonderful.
And yet, many cancer patients, myself included, have a hard time thinking about anything but the battle against cancer that lies ahead. It makes sense in some ways. It’s a hard fight with many unknowns. I often feel like I just have to put my head down and get through it. The weeks plod by marked by chemo and varying degrees of wellness. I keep a “chemo countdown” on the fridge and celebrate each week as the number decreases. Then there’s my new names for the days of the week: there’s “Feel-Sleepy-Fridays” then “Feel-OK-Saturdays,” “Feel-Shitty-Sundays and Mondays,” and then “Feel-OK-Tuesdays,” followed by the best part of the week, “Feel-Good-Wednesdays and Thursdays.” After this is over there will be surgery and probably radiation with their own countdowns to boot.
In the end it’s all for the goal of being declared “cancer-free,” of ridding my body of this unwelcome invasion. The very fact that I believe, wholeheartedly, that I will get there is a gift that not all cancer patients receive so I am grateful for it. But in speaking to cancer survivors many say that the hardest time in their cancer journey is actually after that declaration is made. A quarter of all cancer patients suffer from depression and for many that depression sets in once the fighting is over. During the cancer battle you feel like shit but your life has a single and all-consuming purpose: kill the cancer. Coming to the other side of that battle there is a tremendous amount of loss that is not always accounted for. There are the things that cancer takes away: your hair, your health, your body, your life, your purpose, your goals, your plans… And then there are the things that go away when cancer leaves, like your doctors, your extra support, the new sense of purpose that cancer provided. And what you get in its place is a very real fear about recurrence. Recurrence and new primary cancers are most likely in those first few years after treatment ends. Just when everyone assumes your life can go back to “normal” you become a slave to the every-6-months scans that will tell you whether or not the enemy has come back to roost. I can imagine that every small pain or discomfort could awaken a world of worry, every approaching appointment could spark a panic. Essentially, there is no such thing as “normal” again.
So why have I been thinking about this somewhat gloomy prospect so much? Well, I am trying to prepare. I not only want to beat cancer I want to go on living when it’s over. I want to remember that there is more to me than a cancer patient and there is more to life than battling this disease. I want to make plans for now and for life after cancer, plans that will let me really live. I want to set goals that will reshape my broken identity, that will remind me of who I am and why it’s so important to fight for this life.
So I have started to write them down. They fall into three categories: 1. Life with Cancer Goals, 2. Remission Goals and, 3. Life Goals. They do not have time frames attached because I know better than anyone that plans can change. No matter what the future holds I’ll have these goals to be striving towards. Some of them are small like, start riding my bike to work every day again. That falls under the category of really loving and respecting the shit out of my body which is another general goal I have for every phase. (Important side note: My body is amazing. Every single week I pump something into it that destroys the ways it functions at the cellular level and every week my body fights its way back towards health and lets me run and lift weights and sleep and eat and do lots of wonderful things. You rock body!) Some of the goals are bigger and require some investment, like taking a trip to Asia or South America. Some of them are practical, like finishing my thesis so I can actually get a master’s degree. But whatever they are they remind me that my life is rich and brimming with possibility. I will not always be the cancer patient, or even just the cancer survivor. Somewhere in there I still exist and cancer won’t change that.
I can’t say that doing all of this will help me avoid tremendous feelings of loss or even depression when this is all over. I am trying to leave lots of open space for grief and anger and sadness and fear. They are already here and I’ll have to let them stay as long as they need and come back as often as they want. But I am also trying to make space for celebration, for victory parties, adventures and joy. I am trying to stay excited. I hope I succeed.