In November of 2015, I was invited by the Cancer Knowledge Network to write a guest post. CKN is part of Current Oncology, Canada's leading oncology journal, which is read by thousands of oncology professionals and patients. It was a great honor to be invited to write for such a publication and to reach a new audience. This was also a huge opportunity to help spread the knowledge of my experiences, especially to oncology professionals, responsible for the care of many thousands of patients. What better thing could I share with such an audience than an updated list of my list of top lessons learned in five years of cancer survivorship?
After treatments for our cancers conclude, every single one of us wants so desperately to believe that our bodies have been rid of our cancers forever, and that our fights are over. We want to believe that we'll be able to put what we've been through behind us, and that our lives will return to normal, if not a new normal. That's exactly what I believed in July of 2011 after a five-month long fight against testicular cancer, but I was in for a rude awakening. My body was free from cancer, but my life wasn't. There was so much I'd yet to experience, and so many important lessons that I'd learn along the way.
1. THE END OF YOUR FIGHT IS ONLY THE BEGINNING OF YOUR JOURNEY
The biggest and most shocking realization I’ve had is that the majority of my struggles all came after my cancer fight had ended, and that fighting cancer was the easy part! After my cancer fight, I had yet to experience excruciating nerve pain and muscle weakness issues that developed, all due to chemotherapy-induced peripheral neuropathy. I'd yet to experience anxiety about every little ache and pain, worrying that my cancer had returned, nor hormonal ups and downs that caused huge swings in my mood and energy levels. I'd yet to experience recurrence scares where I feared that I had just lived my last good day. I had no idea how to handle the depression and post-traumatic stress that followed all of this. I had beaten cancer, but became so overwhelmed with all of the unforeseen and seemingly endless challenges in the aftermath, that I contemplated suicide as a means to an end. The trials of life after cancer had pushed me that far.
2. NEVER STOP BELIEVING IN YOURSELF
Your attitude is everything, and is a self-fulfilling prophecy. No matter what it is that you're facing, if you believe in yourself with all of your heart and soul that you'll find a way to cope, to heal, or to overcome, you'll find that way no matter how extraordinary. If you don't believe in yourself, not only will you not find what you need, but you'll prolong your own suffering and pain. Never give up, never stop believing in yourself, and keep your heart and your mind open. Surround yourself with positive and uplifting people that believe in you too, who can help to carry you during the times you might stumble.
3. THE POWER OF THE RIGHT PEOPLE AND FRIENDSHIPS
Time and time again, it's not been pills, but the power of the right people, the right friendships, and the right souls in my life that had made critical differences for me through periods of distress. Through the power of the right people in my life, I've found the encouragement that I’ve needed, spiritual guidance, and those that could help me laugh, forget, and have a great time. Never be afraid to keep opening new doors, and bringing new people into your life. You never know when the next person you meet could change your life for the better. Some amazing souls out there have been all the medication I've ever needed, and I'm so blessed that they've become a part of my life.
4. NEVER STOP LIVING AND ENJOYING LIFE
I've been that person, huddled up in a corner in tears, and suffering from post-traumatic stress after cancer. I was afraid of everything and everybody, and just wanted to hide from life and the world, but I refused to give in. Don't let cancer keep you down. Your survivorship years are the time to get out there and truly enjoy life. Everything is sequential. Never stop believing in yourself, and never stop opening new doors. Find things that you enjoy doing, people that you enjoy doing them with, and have the time of your life. Make plans both big and small, and do the things that you've always wanted to do. I've learned that each day is a gift and never let one go to waste, and have never enjoyed life more than I have after cancer. The best way to survive cancer is to LIVE!
5. LOVE YOURSELF UNCONDITIONALLY
Above all, love yourself unconditionally. But what does that mean? Loving yourself unconditionally means accepting all that you feel. It means allowing yourself to sit in that secluded corner to cry, without feeling ashamed. Loving yourself means pushing hurtful people and things out of your life, without feeling guilty about doing so. Most of all, loving yourself means simply being yourself, without feeling the need to apologize to anyone for being who and what you are. Ridding myself of this internal mechanism for self-loathing, and learning the importance of self-love and acceptance, has been my gateway drug towards healing from within, reducing stress, reducing anxiety and depression, and finding what was truly meant for me in my life. Our perceived faults are not flaws. We're all perfect just the way we are, and were made the way we are for a reason. Embrace yourself, and love yourself unconditionally.
These past five years of life after cancer have put me through more than I could have possibly imagined. Both cancer survivors and care providers should never underestimate the potential challenges of life after cancer. Even reading about such possibilities while going through treatments never registered, because it simply wasn't believable to me at the time. What could possibly be worse than what I was already going through? Believe it. Cancer survivors everywhere should be encouraged to find and stay closely connected to sources of support throughout these years. It is my hope that through the sharing of my story, care providers will have greater recognition of these patient challenges after cancer, that survivors will become more attuned to the very real challenges that we can face, and not be afraid to seek the support that they need.