By Jane Biehl, PhD
Recovering from cancer and its aftermath is like grief; always changing, undulating and rippling like a tide.
Like many people, I was very naïve about how much cancer would change my life. I thought that one got cancer, was treated and afterwards was “cured” and moved on. Of course I knew there were others who passed away from this devastating disease, and have lost dear friends and family to this vicious disease. What I never realized was that once we are diagnosed with cancer, our lives are forever changed.
There are more treatments for cancer now than ever before, including immunotherapy, and new chemo medications are being used all the time. Radiation treatments have eradicated some cancers, along with more precise laser surgeries to target tumors. Oral chemo, IV chemo and shots are all on the increase. This is a positive step because many of us are living a lot longer and feel blessed.
However, the adjustment to various kinds of chemo over a long period (or sometimes a short period) of time is difficult. Many people are undergoing radiation plus oral chemo and surgery. What almost all cancer survivors are discovering is that treatments never go in a straight line. We seldom move from diagnosis to treatment to “cure.” Many of us are continuously on chemo or immunotherapy, except for brief respites. We may go for treatments daily, weekly or monthly. We constantly are being monitored by MRIs, scans, blood work and bone marrow biopsies. Chemo side effects are numerous, while some of our organs are permanently damaged.
I truly believe that cancer treatments can be compared to the stages of grief. Many of us know these plateaus of grief outlined by Kübler-Ross including Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance. I have written about the idea that these stages are not necessarily in this order and that grief often doesn’t go completely away. We still miss our family and friends on certain anniversaries when these painful memories crop up at the most unexpected times. I still mourn for my life the way it was before my cancer diagnosis.
Recovering from cancer and its aftermath is like grief; undulating, tantalizing, flirting, teasing, and rippling. It is always changing. We never can predict the results of another scan, bone marrow biopsy or blood test. The symptoms often can be unpredictable, sneaky and hiding like a shadow. The side effects can be horrible some days and not so bad other days. Our energy level ripples like a tide, sometimes going over rocks and barriers in the path and being low, sometimes moving along at a great clip and going well.
Our days are filled with chemo appointments, doctor appointments, scans and biopsies. One survivor said she looks at cancer as a full-time job, and she is right! Nothing—absolutely nothing goes in a straight line, nor should we expect that.
In some ways dealing with a chronic disease like cancer is very different than grieving a loved one. If the person is gone, we do know deep down that they are not coming back to earth. Cancer and chronic diseases, however, are sneaky like a tide of water, lurking, and hiding, waiting to attack and then receding. It reminds me of low and high tides in many ways.
The problem is our emotions waver along with every single change. Most people are afraid of change, and I find the older I am the harder it is. But we are now experiencing every single emotion in existence such as being happy, sad, relieved, scared, excited, tired, thrilled, confused and sometimes all of them the same day! We also can experience these emotions over and over again.
There are doctors, nurses, navigators, family and friends to help us with the physical changes and can bring food, drive us to doctor’s appointments and help us in other ways. But we are the only ones who can control our emotions. Sometimes we don’t control them and that is OK – screaming and crying is permitted!
Yes, a cancer diagnosis changes us forever. The cancer burrows, hides, retreats, becomes aggressive and then rears its ugly head like a snake. Cut off the head and it comes back. We need to give ourselves some slack if we can’t keep up with an ever-changing life and ever-changing emotion. We weren’t meant to have to do this. However, years ago we probably would not even be alive and feeling anything, so we need to take a deep breath and cope the best we can. That is all we can promise ourselves and it is enough!