5 Year Survivor Wisdom

Since I just passed the 5-year mark of the end of chemotherapy, I realized that this year has brought much wisdom and was a huge turning point for me.  It felt important to document my emotions and sentiments to pass along to  those of you newly diagnosed and/or less than 5 years out from a breast cancer diagnosis.

Cancerwisdom

  1. Your life never goes back to the way it was “before cancer”, as it is a pivotal life-changing moment.   I think in terms of “before cancer” and “after cancer” in almost everything from a vacation that happened “before cancer” to a new friend I met “after cancer” to a rug I purchased “before cancer.”
  2. Flashbacks from treatment lessen, but occasionally still rear their ugly head.  My sister is now 2 years out from chemo, and having lots of flashbacks.  By talking with her, I realize how much less my flashbacks have gotten.  Occasionally, I still have  Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome with flashbacks, but they have certainly subsided considerably.  When they happen, I have learned how to talk myself off the ledge and live in the present moment.  It has taken much practice and understanding!
  3. Sometimes I go a WHOLE DAY without thinking of recurrence.  In those first few years, it is NEVER out of your mind – for most people even a few minutes out of your mind.  Recently, I actually went through an entire cold/bronchitis episode without thinking I had lung mets (but family and friends always keep saying – “you better get checked” as I sounded so bad!)  That is a first!  Recurrence thoughts are always a part of you and your thought process.  You become more used to living with the lion and learned coping skills to keep that lion from roaring all the time.
  4. If you have not had reconstructive surgery and had a single or double mastectomy, life with a prosthesis seems much more normal.  The grief of losing your breast(s) lessens.  So does living with numbness under the arm and in the breast area.  It fades a little, but never goes away.  Everyone forgets to tell you this little detail.  And even 5 years later, I still have pain, limited range of motion and phantom breast pain.  Phantom breast pain is the weirdest feeling as your breast itches or hurts, and it is not there to scratch!!
  5. If you had people who abandoned you during treatment, you no longer feel angry – just grateful that those relationships are no longer a big part of your life.  Hearing from many women on this topic, most realize that those relationships weren’t ever that healthy for them, and that they always did most of the giving.
  6. Coping skills come back in social settings.  For a long time, I felt like an alien – present but not really there.  It is an odd and unusual feeling, but I know you understand!  It gets better.
  7. Never do I take my hair for granted.  I rarely think about being bald anymore, but I NEVER complain about a “bad hair day.”
  8. My gratitude for life has never lessened in 5 years.  Every day I am grateful that I survived.  Never do I take life for granted, which is definitely a blessing of cancer.  I still marvel and thank God for the miracle that I am alive.  Every single day, it is the first thing I think of when I awaken!
  9. Every time I hear of someone who dies from cancer, it flashes through my head, “Wow, I am so fortunate to still be here” and always there is a slight glimmer of guilt.  People still ask me “How are you doing?”  My answer is always the same – “Good, I’m still here.”
  10. I am still satisfied with so much less than I used to be.  No longer am I looking for the next thrill, or big life moment, or extravagant purchase, or  vacation to fill a void.  Satisfied with life is the best way I can describe it!

I hope my lessens along the way are helpful to you.  It is an extremely long and excruciating process.  Do not be too hard on yourself or wonder why you still feel the way you do.  It takes much time and healing.

 

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Life, Emotions and Reality after Breast Cancer

I have read the two most difficult days during Breast Cancer are the day of diagnosis and the day treatment ends.  I’ve received many emails from women who have now completed Cancer Treatment, but they were not prepared for the myriad of emotions they are now experiencing. For some they are just finished with treatment, and others are as far as 5 years out.   Several have asked me to write about it.

A post on a women’s breast cancer discussion website caught my eye this morning.  It was for Stage III Breast Cancer patients and was entitled, “I Feel Like I am Living to Prepare to Die.”   Immediately, many Breast Cancer Survivors chimed in saying they knew exactly what the poster meant and understood.  The reason so many of us understand that statement is this:

When you are diagnosed with cancer that requires long-term treatment, it is like you go away to a desert island.  Your medical team is there and some treasured family and friends who have chosen to be there with you.  There are no palm trees or tropical drinks on this island.  It is like no where you have ever been.   Everything else ceases to be important, and your focus is on one thing which is GET RID OF ALL CANCER.  This island becomes your home as terrifying and horrible as it is.  It is a land of great suffering, emotional torment, as well as tremendous loneliness and isolation.  But you are being healed as you go through the process, or so you hope.

One day a rescue boat arrives and the boat captain points your way and tells you it is time to leave this island. He delivers you back to where you came from, but you get there and everything is different.  Your physical home looks the same, but everything surrounding it has changed.   It now feels alien to you.

In a flash, you remember those Lifetime movies you watched and condemned where the Amnesia Person tried to put his life back together and the Kidnapping Victim felt a connection to her kidnappers. What you didn’t understand while you were watching those movies, suddenly makes more sense.

Many days you are euphoric that you have escaped the island and survived.  You feel simultaneously chosen and sad because many do not make it off the island. The following day you feel subdued because nothing is the same as it was.  It is difficult to find your way.

Then there is that pesky boat captain.  He is always appearing telling you that it is time to go back for a visit to the island. Your emotions see saw because when you return to the island, the medical team is constantly looking for what they said has been removed from your body.  They feel, examine, scan, tell you “let’s keep an eye on that one” and send you off the island for a few more weeks or months until the boat captain appears on the horizon once again.

You make every attempt to go back to the way life was, but that doesn’t seem to work any more.  Social events now become unfamiliar as some people avoid you because of their uncomfortable feelings.  The confidence you once had has waned as you deal with the reality of  missing or replaced breasts, your hair and lack thereof,  and the lingering side effects from life on the island.  Sometimes you feel like a stranger living in your changed body.

But the good news is, you start to find a new way.  You wake up and thank God for another day of life which you took for granted before the Big C.   You have these rebirth moments when you remember the best parts of your old life as you ponder the dreams of your new life.  And you try to merge those thoughts together.  It feels like you are standing on a bridge looking back at the old while looking ahead pondering the possibilities of the new.

And from a practical standpoint, I do try to keep my closets cleaner, just in case!   I don’t procrastinate on doing things like I used to, and instinctively, I know what is important and what isn’t.   Those are great gifts!   I will let you know more about what I learn as time goes by!