How I Learned to Adjust to Post-Cancer Life

Going in line with my last entry, here is an excellent article about adjusting to life post-cancer. It’s so easy for people to think that just because you are done with the surgeries and treatments, that you are back to normal. I get so tired of people asking me if I am done with “everything” and then responding with “so you are all good now” when I respond by saying that yes, I am done with the surgeries and treatments, but I am on medication the next ten years. I generally don’t say anything more as it is clear that the person I am talking to doesn’t even remotely follow what is going on with me. I know that the world doesn’t revolve around me, but it is somewhat insulting when someone I thought was a good friend, has such a conversation with me. I can say, though, that I have had this happen a few times, but they are still my friends, and I love them, so I am still here to talk whenever they want.

This article describes the hell that I am currently dealing with, and have been for months, and in many parts, it is almost as if I had written it myself. As I try to get through the bad days as best as possible, I have had a very positive change, thanks to this article. I have finally been able to get a handle on my issues with not being able to sleep, and I credit two things for that; the first is that I have found an app that works well for me when it comes to relaxing at bedtime, so I can fall asleep quickly before my mind has a chance to race and keep me awake. {the app is called loona}. The second is that now that the neuropathy is mostly gone from my hands, I am making jewelry again, which makes me very happy, so my stress level is much lower on most days. {My website is mmillsdesigns, where you will find my online shop and blog about my small business}.

I want to conclude by saying that it may sound odd to anyone who has not been in the position of having doctors by your side for many, many months, saving your life from cancer; that the routine, even if it involves the terrible experience of chemotherapy treatments or many surgeries, becomes something that you depend on and get used to as time goes by. It’s almost effortless to get emotionally attached to your doctors when you see them regularly, especially in the beginning after being diagnosed. I was going to appointments twice a week for months as the severity of my breast cancer was coming to light. My chemotherapy treatments were every week for four months, and my Radiation treatments were every weekday for five weeks. So when you have been deemed a survivor, for me, it was after my last clear mammogram on August 17th, 2020; there is a sense of relief as you hear the words “no evidence of disease,” but there is also an overwhelming feeling of loss as well because now all of the hustle and bustle centered around saving your life is going to slow down a lot as the doctor’s appointments become less frequent; I currently see my oncologist every three months, and I see my surgeon every six months. As I have said in past posts, the first two years after the end of my treatments is the most critical time in survivorship because the chance of re-occurrence is at its highest. After two years have passed, the chance of re-occurrence will drop slightly, and when I reach five years with no re-occurrence, the chance will substantially drop; so, that is why my doctors are closely monitoring me for the next few years.

After reading my commentary and the article below, I hope that you, my dear readers, will understand a bit more about the complexity of post-cancer life and survivors’ experience.

Medically reviewed by Jenneh Rishe, RN — Written by Jennifer Bringle on December 17, 2020

Moving on and finding some semblance of normalcy is much more difficult than advertised.

I’d just closed my eyes for a nap when the trill of the phone ringing snapped me back to consciousness. Gingerly reaching for the receiver, I answered hesitantly, nervous as to who might be on the other end.

It was my surgeon, calling with the results of my mastectomy pathology.

“The tissue from your breasts was totally clear,” he said with a smile I could literally hear in his voice. “And your lymph nodes were all normal, too. There was no evidence of disease.”

These are the four magical words every cancer patient longs to hear: no evidence of disease.

They’re the goal — the best possible result of months of grueling treatment. They mean you get to live.

Months earlier, I wasn’t sure I’d ever hear those words. After finding a lump in my left breast, I was diagnosed with stage 2 invasive ductal carcinoma, along with the BRCA2 gene mutation.

I faced a gauntlet of chemotherapy followed by a bilateral mastectomy with reconstruction.

There were bumps in the road along the way — an emergency room visit and an allergic reaction to one of my chemo drugs — but I’d finally reached the end.

I could finally relax and get back to my “normal” life.

The first clue that this would be easier said than done came a few weeks later, when I found myself in tears after being released by my surgeon for annual visits instead of the every few weeks I’d been seeing him up to that point.

Driving home that day, wiping away the tears suddenly spilling down my cheeks, I couldn’t figure out why I was so sad. Shouldn’t I be happy?

What I would soon learn is that this is a common occurrence among cancer survivors.

Once treatment ends and we get the all clear, the world expects us to move on, find our “new normal,” and become those smiling survivors we see in marketing campaigns.

The reality is, moving on and finding some semblance of normalcy is much more difficult than advertised.

In the days and months after completing treatment, I dealt with an array of unexpected emotions.

Sadness at the end of a comfortable routine with my doctors, whom I’d become very attached to during the months they stood alongside me, trying to save my life.

Fear that every little pain or cough could be a sign of new cancer or cancer that spread.

And grief over all I’d lost — my breasts, my hair, and trust in my own body.

As time wore on, I realized instead of becoming happier and less afraid, my anxiety was reaching new levels.

Fearful — often irrational — thoughts about cancer recurring or metastasizing began to disrupt my daily life.

Instead of paying attention to my son and husband, I was often distracted, Googling symptoms on my phone.

Even happy moments like birthdays and vacations were marred by my irrational fears that a headache was a brain tumor, or my backache was more than simply a pulled muscle.

I knew I had to do something to get my anxiety under control.

Though I’d resisted asking for help, pridefully insisting I could handle it myself, I realized the time had come to seek professional assistance.

I scheduled a therapy appointment with a counselor specializing in the needs of cancer patients and survivors.

Even though she couldn’t personally understand what I was going through, her training and experience gave her a level of empathy and insight that made talking to her about my anxiety calming and productive.

During those sessions, she taught me another valuable tool to help quell my anxiety: meditation.

Through basic mindfulness techniques like focusing on my breath and learning to acknowledge and then dismiss negative thoughts, I became better able to manage my anxiety on a daily basis.

Using a guided meditation app before bed began to replace my nightly symptom Googling, leading to easier sleep.

While working on my mental health, I also started focusing on improving my physical health.

Cancer treatment left me weaker and more sedentary, so I started incorporating walks into my daily routine to rebuild my strength. Whether it was a quick jaunt on my lunch break or a treadmill workout in the evening, adding vigorous-yet-gentle physical activity helped me feel stronger and more energetic.

I also began paying more attention to what I ate. While I certainly still indulge in my beloved sweets, I also try to eat more fruits and vegetables daily.

These manageable changes to my diet and exercise may not prevent my cancer from returning, but they will help me build a body that’s strong enough to endure treatment again.

While all these new things certainly helped me adjust to life after cancer, I knew I needed something else to help manage my anxiety. After talking with my doctor, I made the decision to give a mild antidepressant a try.

I’d been resistant to adding another medication to my daily regimen, but I also reminded myself that I didn’t question taking a pill that might prevent my cancer from returning. So why was I so reluctant to take something that could help me with the anxiety that had taken over my life?

For those of us who’ve survived cancer, there’s a great deal of pressure to live up to the persona of strength that gets bestowed upon us during treatment.

We’re treated as though we’re almost super-human — the ones who beat death.

But the truth is, that fortitude is often a facade, masking the fear and pain that cancer survivors live with after treatment ends.

The process of working through those emotions to achieve a sense of normalcy in our lives is an ongoing, personal journey.

While what worked for me might not work for everyone, finding my own formula has allowed me to regain something I thought I’d lost after cancer — happiness.

16 Months in Pictures

Mood: Amazed 😌

As I was looking through my pictures the other day I noticed that I have a picture of myself, taken in most months from when I was diagnosed with breast cancer up to the present time. So I decided to make a collection showing how I looked before breast cancer {the first picture} all the way up to how I look now {the last picture}. You can clearly see when the chemotherapy treatments really started to effect how I looked; the loss of my hair, eyebrows and eyelashes, my skin getting dryer and my fine lines showing more.

It’s a given that the last 16 months have been hard on me both mentally and physically.  But, nothing tore me down and damaged me more than the chemotherapy treatments did. Chemotherapy took a part of me that I will never get back. When the chemotherapy treatments were over I realized how much the drugs and the stress of everything I had been through up to that point had aged me, a lot. Looking back through my pictures it’s easy to see how much my face has aged and it breaks my heart. I am doing what I can to undo the damage but it has not been an easy process.

Follow-up with my Surgeon

Mood: Fantastic & Excited! 😁

My follow-up appointment with my surgeon went very well on Wednesday! I have been healing well and he has cleared me to workout, start running again, lift weights, anything that I want to do, so that is excellent news! I have several sutures that are hanging on for dear life but none of them are sticking out to where they can be pulled out. It isn’t safe to dig them out as that will cause open wounds, so we are going to leave them alone for now as they should either get absorbed or come to the surface of my skin.

My husband and I had a lot of questions for my surgeon today and he stayed with us until every question was answered. Some doctors run into the exam room, poke at you and then leave as if they are on a tight schedule, but thankfully none of my doctors have ever done that to me. We had a lot of questions for him because I had made the decision to ask him if I can have one more reconstruction surgery and get breast implants. This has been a very personal decision for me, and I am hoping I will not face any judgement from anyone I know, but I truly feel that this is something I need to do for me to help me feel whole and complete again after a year of destroying my body and soul to fight aggressive, invasive breast cancer.

I am sure you are wondering why I came to this decision. About half way through my radiation treatments I started to struggle with how my chest looks….I am not happy with it….I feel like I am deformed and I don’t look or feel like I did back when I was last healthy in November of 2018. Let me first say that I have the best surgeon I could possibly ask for so this is not a reflection on him or his skills….he did what he had to do and he saved my life from a very aggressive and invasive breast cancer. I lost quite a bit of tissue during my first reconstruction surgery as I had to have a reduction to match the side where the cancer was located. Now my bras don’t fit me any more, the cups are too big, and I suspect that I lost a whole cup size, so I want to regain what I lost. I want to feel feminine again, something that I do not feel these days at all. Breast cancer with its harsh treatments and aggressive surgeries takes away a womans identity and for most patients it is devastating to watch the body you once knew turn into something foreign. I lost all of my hair, two of my toenails and my once beautiful chest is now scarred. The physical scars will mostly go away with time, but the emotional and mental scars will stay with me for awhile. So my mission now is to do everything I can to get back to looking and feeling as close to the old me as possible. I am aware that I will never be completely the same again, but I can try, unfortunately, cancer changes you for the rest of your life.

So, back to the visit with my surgeon…..he said that I am a good candidate for implant surgery, but there is one condition, I have to wait for at least 6 to 12 months before I can have the surgery. Why do I have to wait? I have to wait because of the 25 radiation treatments I had. My tissue needs time to heal from the radiation so that it will be safe for me to have the surgery. We talked about the difference between saline and silicone implants and he feels that silicone is the safest option. He explained that saline implants can fail and that when they do the saline goes into my body which is not good. Saline implants are also not as advanced as silicone as they have not been improved for several years, and they will also only last about 10 years. Silicone implants are safe now and if they fail, which is a much smaller percentage than saline, they stay in place instead of spreading through my body. Yes, if the implant fails it will have to be replaced but that will most likely not happen and they have a much longer lifespan, possibly for the rest of my life.

6 months from now, in August, I will have a mammogram to check to see if my breast cancer has returned or not. Two days after my mammogram I will go back to see my surgeon to get the results and to discuss my surgery and get it scheduled. I will not be able to have my surgery until September as hubby and I are going to Saint Lucia at the end of August – early September. I really don’t mind waiting until September for the surgery as that will put me at about 8 months away from when I finished radiation, and the more time that passes from that date at the end of January, the better it is for me. Do I wish I could get it over with and have the surgery tomorrow? Of course I do, but I understand why that isn’t possible thanks to my surgeon taking the time to talk with us and answer all of our questions. My surgeon has been with me from the beginning of this journey and I know that he truly cares as it shows from the moment he walks into the exam room or the OR, and that is priceless to me during the most difficult journey of my life.