One of the things that no one tells you when you’re first diagnosed with cancer is that you’ll never be the same (and if they told you, you probably wouldn’t believe them!). Whatever the outcome of diagnosis and treatment, many people feel changed. This can be a disorienting feeling – after all, we just want to get back to normal, don’t we?
In our latest blog, Jen shares her thoughts on some of the good and bad changes that she’s experienced since her diagnosis a year ago. Here at Shine we don’t always push “positive thinking” because – let’s be frank – there’s A LOT about cancer that just isn’t positive. However, as Jen points out, “there’s nothing like a life threatening illness to highlight what’s truly important in life”. It’s a shame we don’t often get this insight without the life threatening illness, but it’s still worth remembering!
If I had the choice of never having had cancer and returning to the life I was living before, I most definitely would. The rollercoaster of a cancer diagnosis and treatment is a long, bumpy, and terrifying ride. It’s also one that does not end where it started. To quote the title of this blog series: it’s your life, but not as you knew it!
As I slowly accept a new version of me within my strange new world I am starting to appreciate the positive changes that have come about due to my ride on the cancer rollercoaster. I may have new limits but I also have new priorities, new perspectives, and new hopes and dreams.
Following my diagnosis last October, I took a stoic approach, gritted my teeth and readied myself for six months (Ha ha! This was my first naive mistake!) of gruelling treatment. I was determined that I would get through whatever I needed to, be cured, and then return to my normal life. I would plod on with living as if cancer had never happened (this was naïve mistake number 2!).
Almost all of my family and friends shared my naïve view, and why wouldn’t they? Unless you’ve had experience to the contrary it is a perfectly sensible view to hold. Many times throughout my treatment I was reassured by well-meaning friends and family that it would soon be over and I would get back to normal. The concept seems laughable to me now, but for at least the first few months of treatment the thought of returning to a “normal” life kept me going. I was fiercely determined not to be “changed” by cancer. I did not need a brush with my own mortality to be taught to appreciate life thank you very much!
It’s very difficult to accept change when it is forced upon you so brutally. Initially it was the superficial, physical changes that were my focus and I was determined to return to exactly how I looked “before”, as soon as possible. At times it felt as if my entire identity was encapsulated in the way I looked. I think the focus on these superficial things stems from the fact there is absolutely nothing you can do about the non-superficial things that have been changed. The scars from surgery, the damaged nerves and muscles from chemotherapy and radiotherapy, the terrible memory and disrupted thinking process – it has been hard to accept these things as part of my new life.
As time has passed, however, I’ve had to slowly learn the art of acceptance rather than try to return to ‘normal’. I will never look like I did before and I will never feel like I did before but, you know what? That’s OK. I may be the same person but my experiences have shifted my life onto a completely new trajectory.
There are, of course, the physical changes that I have to learn to live with. I must accept that I may never regain the same level of fitness and health I enjoyed before and that there may be permanent damage done by treatment. I am learning to let go of the anger and bitterness that I sometimes feel about that. It’s easy to say “well at least I’m alive” but at times it’s difficult to feel that. And then there is the threat of a recurrence that all cancer “survivors” must learn to live with. I need to learn to supress the reflex to break out in a cold sweat every time I have a nagging pain or feel a lump or bump. I am assured it gets easier with time and I’m sure it will.
Looking past these more negative aspects of my changed new reality there is, however, a much stronger and overriding positive change. There’s nothing like a life threatening illness to highlight what’s truly important in life. I have been shown the true value of relationships and witnessed the best of humanity in the love and support I’ve had showered upon me. Small acts of kindness have meant so much. I hope that in my new life I can always remember how these small gestures have impacted upon me and pay the kindness forward. I know more about myself now than I did a year ago and I have an appreciation for aspects of my personality that I perhaps didn’t previously value or recognise. I am aware of how quickly ‘good health’ can be whisked away and I find joy in simply being able to walk or run in the sunshine. I try to focus on what I am doing more and think about the future less. Living in the moment is such a cliché but, for me, it has been directly correlated with peace and happiness. In my new, post-cancer life I have found a deeper appreciation of how I can create my own happiness, and I fully intend to create as much as possible.
Returning to ‘normal’ is no longer my goal. My new normal is pretty damn good. There’s no going back. And that’s OK.
Jennifer has just finished her treatment for breast cancer. She lives in Dorset with her husband and two daughters – and, with two others, runs Shine New Forest!