A year ago on Father’s Day I found the lump in my breast. It seems like ages ago. Sometimes I can’t believe it happened. I’m happy to say I’m doing really well. I have my off-days both physically and mentally but then my inner voice kicks in: Hello?!? You just subjected your body to 10 months of hell so give yourself a break.
Even though I’m done with treatment, I’m not really done.
A cancer patient can have months of recovery, years of prevention and until they find a cure, a lifetime of wondering if it will come back.
It can take months to a year for your body to recover from cancer treatment. There can be lingering chemo brain and fatigue. Both are totally annoying. If you see me grasp for the name of something, please pretend you don't notice. If lymph nodes were removed, there may be painful lymphedema in the arms which means wearing a lovely arm sleeve and taking pain meds. Thankfully I don't have this. It will take months for your skin to heal after radiation and if you’ve had surgery, there may be additional reconstruction— unfortunately I'm in this boat.
Since breast cancer is most likely to come back during the first five years, many patients will take a hormone therapy drug, like Tamoxifen, to shut down the production of cancer-loving hormones in the body for 5 to 10 years. For pre-menopausal women like me, this puts your body into early menopause with all the hot-flash-y side effects included. Totally worth it to me.
And of course, to increase your invincibility to cancer, a healthier lifestyle is a must. The desire to never have to go through that hell again is a great motivator to exercise more, eat healthier and reduce stress. I've never felt healthier and I'm no longer a soda addict.
There will be periodic tests and check-ups to look for signs of cancer’s return as well as monitoring for signs of late side effects from all the drugs—blood clots, stroke, heart attack, bone loss to name a few. More doctor visits.
In addition to the physical aftermath of cancer, you’re also dealing with the fear of recurrence. Some days you can forget about it and some days you can’t. No matter how positive you are, something will trigger the fear—the physical scars, an upcoming doctor's appointment, or because cancer is so prevalent, hearing a story about someone with cancer.
After unplugging from the matrix and being consumed by everything cancer for so long, you’re eager to get “back to normal” but it's really finding a new normal. On the outside you may look the same (except maybe some foobs) but on the inside, you feel different. Having just experienced the preciousness of life means it's time to do things you've always wanted to do and there's no time for people or things that don't give you joy. It's a feeling of excitement mixed with a bit of trepidation because you're figuring out the new you.
After treatment it’s really tempting to tell people you’re doing great— and most of the time I am. But on my off-days I hesitate to answer "How are you?" with the truth because (a) after months and months of cancer cancer cancer, you think everyone is tired of hearing about it (b) everybody has problems, so get over it and (c) sometimes I don’t want to talk about it either.
I feel fortunate that I have people who support me on my off-days. Not everyone does. At a cancer retreat I attended, it was very common to hear stories from cancer patients about friends and family who expected them to get over it. It's understandable because most people don't know really what's involved.
It's a very long road. I hope this helps you with someone you know who's on it.