If I’m Really Better, Why Don’t I Feel Better? (Subtitle: Cancer-free but not free from Cancer)

 

I remember the day my doctor told me I was cancer-free.  I was resting in bed a few days after my mastectomy when she called.  “The chemo and surgery worked!” she told me excitedly. “We got everything and you’re officially cancer-free.” Those were words I had been working so hard to hear for the past 6 months, and I thought I’d feel amazing when I finally heard them. Instead, I remember not feeling much at all.  My family and friends were ecstatic but I wasn’t.  I think on some level I was scared to believe it, for fear that it wasn’t really true and there was still something lurking inside me that they had missed.  It was strange. I figured the hard part was over and I should be feeling all sorts of happy.  But, I found myself feeling depressed and totally the opposite of how I thought I would – or should.  I started feeling guilty and frustrated with myself. What, was I crazy? I just survived the most harrowing experience in my life and I wasn’t over the moon happy.  I finally brought it up one day in a support group at Gilda’s Club.  Thankfully, other people had gone through similar emotions.  I wasn’t crazy.  Someone brought up PTSD – post traumatic stress disorder.  I had gone through a traumatic, life threatening experience and was now feeling the after effects of it. I’d had to go into survival mode to get through everything and now that the immediate threat was over, I was starting to feel the fear and other emotions I put aside in order to survive. I was also still in treatment and dealing with what I’ve now come to call the “leftovers” of my medical journey.  My hormones were a wreck, my body was trying to make sense of being in menopause at the age of 44, I was going to physical therapy 3 times a week for a frozen shoulder from the mastectomy, trying to navigate side effects from my hormone-blocking meds, and attempting to adjust to my “new normal”.  I was cancer-free, but I still wasn’t really free from cancer.  I figured out that recovering from cancer is much more than healing from surgeries and living through the chemo.  It also required healing emotionally, from all the stress and fear that I had to put aside in order to keep my sanity and get through treatment.  And it meant healing and redefining my relationship with my partner and children, which were affected as well. I learned my journey didn’t end with the words “you are cancer-free” – those words just started me on another phase of my journey, one which I can now officially say I am all sorts of happy to be on.   

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