Sunday was National Cancer Survivor Day and will be celebrated the month of June. I’m so proud to celebrate along with so many!! But as I struggled to write this blog post, I realized as open as I am about my bowel cancer journey, I have a much easier time speaking about fighting it then surviving it. Perhaps because, like many things in life, no one really tells you how to ‘survive’ anything?
To start, once you’ve had cancer, I’m not sure you ever believe you’ve beaten it. You’re always worried it’s lurking around waiting to pounce just when you start to believe you can finally put a foot forward. So, for me, surviving is a daily thing, not a checked box. I guess the only way I can describe it is this: when you’re in it, as scary as it is, you have a determination like no other. I AM GLORIA GAYNOR -I WILL SURVIVE! And you’re in a cocoon of doctors, tests, research, reading, support, plans, studies, guides and paths to help you. Its full of love and hope and support. It’s all consuming and you don’t think about after.
If you’re lucky enough to come out on the other side and get to after, as happy as that is, it’s sort of where the road map ends. You are hugged, congratulated, celebrated, given a few tips and then pushed back in to your life where you left it. And while you’ve been changed, the world really hasn’t. Which can be scary. Pressures or strains that were there before, are waiting for you still. Your friends naturally have to get back to their families, their lives. And you start to feel like an inconvenience when you have yet another test or cancer related need.
You don’t regularly see the nurses that have become your friends, the doctors that are now family, or your new friend and her husband in the waiting room who always had radiation right after you. And you start looking ahead only making plans in segments. For me, it’s the 4-month blocks between scans. Basically, once your life is saved, you have to figure out how to live it all over again.
Which, despite ample support, wasn’t easy for me. The first year was a roller coaster. Fighting cancer had consumed my life in such a way I felt my identity was forever marked by it. The experience was so affecting, I just couldn’t remember what I was like before. Living after it was a daily struggle. I was a physical and emotional wreck and would go from gratitude to anxiety to glee to needing a nap, in the span of an hour.
I didn’t feel comfortable in my body, which having essentially betrayed me in the worst way hadn’t been mine for some time. I didn’t recognize myself; I was so aged, worn. Worn out. I was really heavy due to the surgeries and chemicals. And I felt heavy. The first time I finally went to get my hair coloured the woman in the chair next to me remarked I ‘didn’t have the cancer look’ after she was told we had that in common. I didn’t know what to say. Well, it wasn’t in my face! Sooooo, thanks I think? I had zero self-confidence and even less social ability.
I didn’t know what I could eat or drink that was safe. Do I go vegan? But vegans get cancer. Can I drink wine? Wait-wine is sugar. Sugar gives you cancer. Will wine give me cancer? I struggled to prove myself at work again. Was I still good at it? Could I keep up? Did I even want to? Forget dating in such a fragile state- as nothing about bowel cancer makes for great dinner convo. NOT. SEXY.
All of this, knowing I also had to remove as much stress from my life as possible.
I didn’t know how much of this after was appropriate to talk about. I felt like ‘the cancer girl’ that brought down every conversation. I would meet new people and try to share stories around anything BUT cancer, yet I really had nothing else to share as that made up the recent years of my life.
So, I was working really hard to be ‘normal’ while everything. felt. off.
And then, it didn’t. And after a time, things started to feel easier, lighter. Some days were better than others, and some days moved more quickly than others. Outside of regular scans- which get me every time- cancer finally began to feel less ever-present. A full life began to feel possible again. I began to reclaim my identity, and my joy. I was even more determined to soak it all in. Come on Gloria- we have stuff to do!!
Cut to 3 years after diagnosis, I’m now a passionate awareness advocate. I became even more grounded in my faith. I began to focus on what I wanted, and didn’t want in my life and made changes. I co-founded a company with one of my very best friends. I accepted a new role at work and moved to another Country. I have amazing friends and family here and over the pond. And my quarterly scans have been No Evidence Detected (NED) for 2 years!!! Not every day is easy. Cancer has definitely changed me, but it’s not the only significant thing about me. And I finally feel like I’m just getting started.
There is no road map to living life after cancer- it is vast and everchanging. So whatever your survivor journey is and wherever it takes you, embrace that you are nailing it in whatever way, shape, or form that works for you.
Happy Cancer Survivor Month, my fellow survivors. This is our day, our month - our life, to celebrate. WITH GLORIA ON REPEAT!!