The journey does not end when the doctor tells you the good news that you are finally cancer free. You cannot flip a switch and go back in time to the way things were before cancer. You are forever changed. So, as the cancer-fighting journey ends, the cancer-surviving journey begins.
People’s mindsets during and after treatment are very different. It is difficult to transition from a focus on survival to a focus on everyday life. Cancer survivors are told that they are better and ready to re-enter society, but it is easier said than done. For Michael Cates, a stage 4 non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma survivor, beating cancer was only the beginning of a tough readjustment.
“My biggest struggle came after finding out that I actually accomplished the goal of surviving. All of my energy had been focused on living, so when I found out that I was okay, it created a sort of vacuum, and I was suddenly overwhelmed with all of these ‘normal life’ things like work, finances and just everyday life stuff,” said Cates.
Going back to everyday life can be a challenge because everyone around believes that the battle is over. It is hard for others to understand the struggles of survivorship, so there are sometimes feelings of isolation. Jennifer McRobbie, a stage 3 breast cancer survivor, has had to deal with the separation that goes along with survivorship.
“[There is] a general feeling of being ‘different’ from everyone else around me and having no way of sharing that difference without feeling like I’m using cancer as an excuse to be different,” said McRobbie.
A sense of isolation is not the only thing felt by survivors.Emotional damage lingers because such traumatic experiences cannot be erased or forgotten. There are new fears: fear of recurrence, fear of reintegration and fear of life after cancer. Everyone copes with his or her emotions differently, but acceptance is a great stride towards normalcy.
“I let myself actually feel my emotions as they occur. It can be confusing and feel like you’re on an emotional roller coaster. But, if you try to avoid emotions or label them as stupid, unhelpful, whatever, you’re actually denying reality,” said McRobbie.
Embracing survivorship is a daily struggle, with different challenges that must be met with strength, heart and perseverance. These new battles can be won if individuals find their own ways to cope, accentuate the positive and counteract the negative.
“To fill this void I started running. It was a natural fit because it provided tangible goals, in this case finish lines, where I could retrain that laser focus that helped get me through treatment. It also helped me finally feel like I once again had some control over my own health,” said Cates.
The battle is rough for all people affected by cancer. This is why the Ulman Cancer Fund not only supports young adults undergoing treatment, but also those embracing survivorship. One such program is Cancer to 5k, a 12-week run/walk program designed to reintroduce cancer survivors to physical activity. This program has helped over 100 cancer survivors regain control of their lives and health. Michael Cates, Jennifer McRobbie and Katie Anderson, another breast cancer survivor, have learned to embrace their survivorship not by participating in Cancer to 5k, but by coaching.
“UCF has really given me a community to be a part of where I can give back to those looking for a support group of sorts and looking for a place to maybe forget about cancer and just run and get back in shape and moving again, knowing [that] people understand them and [knowing] they are supported. It’s also given me a support group and allowed me to embrace my survivorship with a more positive lens,” said Anderson.
There is always a light at the end of the tunnel. Life can go on, and the steps survivors take each and every day can give rise to extraordinary things.
“It’s funny how as time passes on I feel cancer has less of a hold on me and doesn’t define who I am anymore…which is a really great feeling,” said Anderson.
There is a difference between being alive and actually living. For survivors, living life to the fullest can be a never-ending challenge, but one that is worth the fight.