Rebuilding Your Life After Cancer

You’ve had the dreaded diagnosis:  Cancer.  Now what?

I’ve been there.  On a sunny day in May 2012, I was at a conference.  I stepped outside to take the call from my surgeon, who told me that the biopsy results came back positive.  I remember not hearing much after that.  It was like in those Charlie Brown cartoons where you just here the teacher making noises, like “wah wah wah”.

I had to find a seat.  My knees were weak and I felt dizzy.  When asked if I had any questions, I said:  “So, when you say the test came back positive, you mean for cancer?”

I was in shock.

Suddenly there was a lot to do:

  1. Tell family, friends, and coworkers;
  2. My husband booked time off so that he could take care of me;
  3. Ensure a comfortable set-up in our bedroom; and
  4. Get my head shaved.

I was reading non-stop about what to expect with a cancer diagnosis, with surgery, and with chemo.  There was so much to absorb, it was like trying to drink from a fire-hose.  I borrowed a lot of books, and spoke with a lot of people.

Cancer….is…AWFUL.  Yet I feel so fortunate because I had 3 caregivers who helped me get through it:  my husband, my Mom, and my Dad.

I know it is difficult to be in their position:  the caregiver watching their loved one have the crap beat out of them by the illness, treatments, and frustrations of cancer.  We got through it, though, and so can you.

I recommend reaching out for support as soon as possible.  I went to the Westerkirk programs at Sunnybrook Hospital in Toronto and attended a support group for young women diagnosed with breast cancer (In The Pynk).  This is hard.  You’ll need a bit of extra support.  Try seeing a therapist to talk through the stuff you just don’t want to worry your caregiver(s) about.

Take care of yourself – know that your energy levels will be different, and give yourself permission to not get back to people, to bail on events, to “turtle”.  Your loved ones will understand.  Be clear about what you need from your caregiver(s)/support system.

As you begin to rebuild strength, take it slow.  I was so focused on getting back to my old life, it never occurred to me that my old life no longer existed.  That was life *before* cancer.  This is life after cancer.  I was a different person, and I was in denial about that.  Don’t make my mistake.  Be kind to yourself, and cut yourself some slack.  Be patient with yourself.  Your emotions may be all over the place, either due to the treatment, ongoing medications, or simply because of the very real trauma that has impacted your life.

Reflect, and try to act with intention when you’re ready to redirect your attention to life after cancer.  Are you returning to your job?  If so, consider a graduated return to work plan where you slowly build up your strength and integration into work.  Are you planning to only work part-time?  Work with your manager and HR Department to find the right solution for you.  Or, are you thinking you may not return to work at all?  If so, you’ll want to be clear with your insurer (and have done the math in advance) and your employer.  All choices are valid.

Reflect some more.  Who do you want to be?  For many people going through cancer treatment feels like putting your life on hold.  Once treatment is over, does that life still resonate with you?

Every person’s journey is different, and just as valid as the other’s.  And, to be sure, not all of us are so lucky as to go through the challenges of life after cancer.

Have you had a health set-back in your life?  How did you rebuild?

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