Life After Cancer: Anxiety & Survivor’s Guilt
I’ve been debating sharing this post for the last week because it’s super personal and it’s raw and real and not entirely happy. However, it’s been very therapeutic for me to write this out and after reading this post from Summer, I realized that I could be brave, too, and share what’s been happening in my life lately.
Two weeks ago, I went down to Boston to see my Oncology team at Dana Farber (If you’re new here and need some catching up on my story, you can read about my cancer here, here, here and here). I had various tests, scans, x-rays and blood work done to check on my remission status. And I was officially declared 9 years in remission. My doctor said when I hit 10 years, I will officially be considered “cured.” And although that news is wonderful, there is a lot of things that have transpired during that day that makes it all bittersweet.
When I walked out of the hospital from my last dose of chemotherapy back in 2006, I was ready to never look back. I wanted to get my life back, to get back to normal high school drama and worry about what I was going to wear. I walked out of Boston Children’s Hospital, grateful to be alive and planning on never looking back. For the next few years, cancer was still very much a part of my life in the way that I still had health issues and more knee surgeries, but I dubbed them as “knee problems” and not “cancer problems.” As far as I was concerned, I was ready for my life after cancer.
But that’s the thing with cancer. It’s something you never get to leave behind.
Over the last two years, things started to change for me with how I was dealing with my life post cancer. I got my degree, I got married and all of a sudden, there wasn’t a “next” for me; nothing to really be working towards. And I found myself starting to look back at cancer and all of a sudden, I started to feel things, process things and, I guess in a way, accept what has happened to me. And it’s been messy.
I have never allowed myself to fully mourn what cancer took away from me. I have had frustrations about my leg, and anger at being fatigued, but I have never fully grieved for myself. I mean, I lost out on my teenage years. I lost a perfectly good left leg, that could take me up and down stairs, on a jog, on a hike. I lost a left leg that could take a trip, a stumble or a fall and get back up. I lost my energy and my capacity to get through the day without feeling like I was going to drop to the ground. And, I just found out that I have lost the ability to have a normal pregnancy (when having children becomes part of our future) because the chemo used to treat my cancer causes thinning of the heart walls, which can lead to complications during pregnancy. Any pregnancy will be considered high risk and will be need to be monitored closely. And recently, I’ve lost my ability to be brave. I am petrified, all of the time, that my cancer will come back for me. Every weird bruise, bump or cough gives me anxiety, which has turned into an ugly monster that rears it’s head over the tiniest little “what-if”. I have begun to relive the trauma that happened to me during 2006; the sickness, the pain and the emotional damage that cancer left me with .
I know, I know, I should be happy and grateful to have my life, and I know that I am lucky to be alive. But, when you watch 17 children on your floor pass away throughout the year of your fight; when you lose your hospital roommates and the little 8-year-olds who became your sisters; it can be hard at times to be happy about surviving. Survivor’s guilt is real and it is painful and there are some days where I feel like it’s going to eat me up whole. Every time I get another clean bill of health, every time my remission is solidified, I get a great sense of relief and then a great, overwhelming sense of sorrow for my friends who will never hear the word “remission.”
Cancer has left holes in my body and holes in my heart. I am so sad for the things that were taken from me; that cancer stole; for the constant, daily, every-step-I-take reminder of what happened to me. And I’m realizing that it is okay to be sad about these things; that I can be grateful to be alive and that I can grieve for the things my life will never be. I can continue to hope for continued remission and I can continue to feel the guilt for my friends who will never be there with me. If you know someone who has survived cancer, I want you to know that there is so much more that comes with beating it. There is joy, but there is sorrow and grief and guilt. There is gratitude and there is courage, but there is fear and there is trauma. It’s a complex range of emotions that no survivor is told about or knows to prepare for.
I’m doing the best that I can with what I was dealt with. I know my life is beautiful. I have much to be grateful for. But I’m learning that being a cancer survivor is so much more than beating cancer that one time in 2006. I survive cancer and all of its messy glory every. dang. day. And I’m giving myself permission to grieve about that.
And yes, I am in the process of getting some help to work through these new emotions and anxieties. I will not go down without a fight.
That’s where I’ve been at lately. How are you today?