Fear of Looking Forward
Eleven years. That’s how long it’s been since my oncologist said I was “technically cancer-free”.
Often I deal with hardship by imagining myself in the future, to a time when that particular trial has passed. It helps me keep perspective in a bad moment. With cancer, however, I was unable to do that. I didn’t DARE do that. In 2006, even with those words from the doctor, I couldn’t even pretend to be able to imagine this point in my future. I was so far from emotionally and physically healed that I couldn’t see over the wreckage I needed to climb over to get to that imaginary other side yet. I was scared to stand on my tippy toes and squint to see it. Because... what if there was no THERE there? It was too awful to contemplate fooling myself. And I say all this as a naturally optimistic person.
'You' will Return
Even once all the chemo and radiation and multiple reconstruction surgeries were completed, I felt 30-going-on-50. I spent many months (years?) wondering if I would ever feel “young” again. Or “myself” again. It just didn’t seem possible. But somewhere along the way, it happened. It happened so excruciatingly slowly that I didn’t even notice it was happening. But it happened.
That’s the first thing I want you to know about moving beyond cancer. IT WILL HAPPEN. You will get yourself back again. Changed, yes, but still 100% you. Eleven years on I am happy to tell you that I can hardly even believe that was a chapter in my life. It seems. So. Long. Ago. Another “me” ago. Since cancer I have gotten married, moved countries twice and had a baby (which, mind you, we didn’t think I could do as a result of my treatment).
The Emotional 'Well'
That said, there is one other thing I will share about being so far beyond my cancer diagnosis. People will not “get” it. People who have not been through it will never understand the fear you carry in your heart that it could come back. Not even doctors.
I tell you this because you will have the odd medical thing that brings your worst fears to the forefront. A stubborn backache might make your heart pound with fear. When this happens you will inevitably come across those who brush you off like you’re being hysterical. Or “dramatic”. Or people that think the appropriate response is to tell you horror stories of neighbors and cousins and friends-of-friends who had mysterious pains like yours. Ignore them. Ignore all of them. No one fathoms the well of fear you learn, over the years, to board up (so you don’t fall down inside it) and cover with leaves somewhere in your emotional backyard. With each passing year that well becomes more and more overgrown and harder to find, but you will stumble across it from time to time. People will not understand, but you do not need to apologize. It’s normal, even if they don’t know it.
Do what you have to
Lastly, you do with your “well” what you have to. After my treatment I saw many “cancer friends” embracing the fundraising and race-running and awareness-raising events with gusto. They hugged the friends they made at these events and championed (as they should) the monies they had raised. All I felt when I became too involved, however, was despair. For me, there came a point where remaining too involved with the cancer community became unhealthy for me. There were too many bad stories, stories that devastated me and stories that frightened me. Yes, there are wonderful stories, too, but personally, I couldn’t be too close. It kept me gazing down my well and unable to tear myself away and move on.
For me, getting over cancer is like grieving. It never fully goes away, but it does get better. It’s something that you have to learn the best way to live with, for yourself. But know that you will find that way, and don’t let anyone else’s ideas or expectations derail you along that journey. See you other other side of the wreckage!
Beautifully written. I understand Sarah- like never before. Love you so much! Mama W
Wonderful Sarah. X
It does now seem almost like it happened to someone else, but that's testament to how amazing you were throughout (and after) the whole ordeal.
I am now 20 years on and this so resonates with me. I too am me again but the fear never goes and when I have friends who are diagnosed, I always try to support but it has a dire effect on me. I dream chemo and bad news over and over again. Well done on writing this - it needs to be said.