Life after treatment for cancer is not what most people expect. Yes, of course there’s relief for coming out, hopefully intact, on the other side. But there is also the underlying thought of recurrence. That thought kept me up many nights. Instead of being able to live in the moment and enjoy all the small things I had promised myself, I was constantly worried about what came next. My son was diagnosed with cancer at the of 13. Could he be cured? Would the cancer reoccur?
As someone who has watched cancer come back two times in my son, the thought that we can get back to living again came crashing down. I found myself beleaguered with anxiety waiting for something to happen. That reality is real.
I felt NO sense of control. I felt like I could not plan anything past a few days…. let alone think about my future or my son’s future. What was happening to him was the same as if it were happening to me. Cancer is an extremely stressful time in the lives of everyone affected by it - not only the person in the “hot seat” but also their entire support network. When the stress seems to go away after the cancer is gone, the thought of recurrence can linger and fester into anxiety. Victims of cancer and their support network are exposed to a wide range of emotions, dread and anxiety being foremost. As a community, and a country, we need to address these emotional and sometimes physical traumas. By sharing this information, I hope to give the reader a new perspective on the very real effect fear and anxiety can have on anyone's life who is afflicted with cancer or any other potentially terminal disease.
Anxiety is something that I wake up to and persists until I go to bed at night. It can even slip into my dreams. When I am having a panic attack, time stops, and I cannot breathe. My body simply does not respond. It is truly terrifying. I am unable to communicate the terror I feel to the people for whom time has NOT stopped. I had to keep telling myself- I was NOT alone - not in cancer, not in anxiety, not in anything! Cancer casts what can be a permanent dark cloud over our heads in that we have experienced or had a loved one experience cancer once, and know they are statistically far more likely to contract the disease again. If you are a cancer survivor, there is no doubt that you have been advised that the very treatment you receive to mitigate the disease may in the future be a cause for secondary cancers. The mere thought can be terrifying. Even after my son was deemed "cured", it is difficult to avoid the anxiety about the cancer coming back, or even developing a second one.
These worries so overwhelmed me in the initial year after his diagnosis that they almost broke me as a person. I had to come up with a new philosophical approach to living life and enjoying every moment I have with my son. I had to come up with a plan to help me cope with the overwhelming fear of recurrence.
What I discovered is that you must accept that you have no control in this situation. Especially while considering recurrence, my mind had been grappling for things to control. I really just needed to know that my son’s cancer was gone forever! I needed to know that he was going to be okay. However, I now appreciate and hope that you appreciate that we can never really know such things. We have no real control. I had to learn to let go and free my mind from the burden of trying to "know" that everything was going to be okay now, next month, next year, and forever after that. The reality is that there are no guarantees in life, nor in health. It was a difficult pill to swallow, accepting that I could never really know what I wanted to know.
I was in that moment I finally realized that regardless of what happened down the road I had to start living, for me, my son and my family. Obsessing over what might happen was eating me and my family alive. This would not be supportive of my son who was the physical victim. Robbing what time we had with our son was not acceptable. To emphasize, this is the point when I decided to accept how I could live knowing things might be uncertain. Indeed, things would be uncertain!
I knew that I was done missing out. I was done living with constant fear and anxiety over something I could not control. That I was done missing out on an experience because I was frightened that my son’s life would be taken away again. He had beaten it two times, so why was I so afraid? Oddly or perhaps not oddly, my son was not afraid. We all respond differently. I write this article to tell you there is always hope.
My son continues to live his life to the fullest. He has not isolated himself from the outside world nor has it stopped him from doing something because of what might happen. The anxiety I experienced as a mother could be transformed to embracing life for my son, myself and my family.
With hope, a new obsession was induced. To determine how to fully embrace life in this “new normal” without fear and anxiety! I wanted to thrive. That epiphany was the turning point for me to want to share everything I have learned so I could wake up every morning excited for the day and go to bed at night without lying there worrying about the ‘what ifs’.
My obsession took me back to running, something I enjoyed my entire life but had put on hold. Running over lunch became my daily ritual. It was an hour just for me, away from the office and away from my family, where I could privately work my way through all of my inner pain without distraction. There is nothing worse than having fight-or-flight type anxiety freewheeling inside of you with nowhere to go. Running, specifically outdoors, with the wind on your face and scenery passing you by, was just so satisfying in a very primal way and gave this dark energy the perfect place to go. Running did not just work wonders for my body, it worked wonders for my mind as well. I found inspiration in running and motivation to live life to the fullest. I must encourage you to find a hobby, a task, or anything that makes you thrive and break the hold that cancer can have over you. I run and you may play chess. I run and you may swim, bike, or meditate. Anything that will consume your mind over the terror that you have inflicted on yourself. Rid yourself of the distraction. Life does go on!
What more reason or motivation does one need in our uncertainty filled years after experiencing cancer with a loved one, especially while dealing with fears of recurrences than to get out and truly live your lives? Make plans, go somewhere that you have always wanted to go, or do something that you have always wanted to do. Live and enjoy life to the best that you are able and spend time with people that bring you joy and happiness. You want to add to your life experience, not subjugate yourself to fear and anxiety. Never let a weekend go to waste. Always have plans for something in the works. If you stay engaged with life and living today, it will most assuredly help to keep your mind off of the unnecessary darkness that all victims of cancer may contend with from the first day of diagnosis. If there is not hope, what is there? The best way to survive cancer is to LIVE!
Written By: Kerry Blum, Cancer Patient Family Member
Key Words: Cancer, Fear, Anxiety, Life, Hope