If you have never heard the words “you have cancer”, then what I am about to explain may defy logic, but bear with me.
Let’s imagine you are heading to the cancer center for your last day of treatment – chemotherapy, radiation, whatever it may be. What are you feeling? What thoughts are running through your mind? Got your picture of that day? Now let me explain reality.
If you watch TV, movies or read any books about cancer survivors, you probably envisioned joy, celebrations, maybe balloons and a cake. Now don’t get me wrong, survivors very well may experience all of that – but it typically comes along with more – unexpected – emotions.
It comes with anxiety about what comes next, fear of the cancer coming back, uncertainty of how to get back to life without cancer, and worry about leaving the healthcare team. Many times, these feelings overshadow the happy feelings.
Imagine you have been seeing this team of nurses, doctors, dieticians, social workers and more, several times a month – if not more – for many months. Someone always had an eye on you. They asked about symptoms and knew when to raise a red flag. There were scans and blood work making sure things were on the right track. Now those same watchful eyes have said, “see you in 3 (or 6) months!” (Insert the wide eyed fearful look right there.)
The thoughts going through one’s mind as they ring that bell at the end of radiation or clap after the last IV is removed might go something like this: Can I call them if I’m worried? Who will be checking on me? What symptoms should I call about? Can I go back to work/school/etc.? How will I go back to work/school/etc.? Why don’t I feel like celebrating?
This “transition” from active patient to survivor can be really hard. Tack on the expectations of family and friends wanting their old Susie/Steve back, a job expecting you to pick up where you left off, and your own expectations about being “normal” again.
So, next time you have a friend or family member finishing treatment, temper your vision for what this day should be like and follow their lead. Understand that even they may not be able to grasp why they are feeling these mixed emotions. This transition doesn’t happen overnight. Allow them some time to settle into the role of survivor.
And survivors, know that your oncology team is there for you. Call with questions, find a support group or a supportive friend who has been through this. Give yourself time to adjust to your new role. Getting to the end of treatment may not be all rainbows and glitter, but find the “gifts” in this journey to help you through. You have gotten through a treatment that you may have questioned if you could, you may have seen a strength in yourself you didn’t know you had, you have seen the goodness in supportive friends and family, and you may see the world a little differently- don’t sweat the small stuff and stop to smell the roses a little more. And really, that’s some pretty sparkly glitter if you ask me.