Life after cancer

This picture was taken shortly after I returned to work. At this point, my life felt amazing. I had a coworker take this photo because I couldn’t believe I finally had my own desk. Who gets excited over that? Someone who just beat cancer, I guess. Everything was amazing during those first few weeks of my new “normal” but eventually that feeling wore off and I realized there’s a lot more to this new life of mine. Since May 2017, I couldn’t wait to get to this point, yet here I am feeling so lost and confused.

Life after cancer is so much harder than I ever imagined it to be.

Everything about cancer is awful from before the diagnosis, throughout treatment, and apparently even after it’s all over. Life after cancer was supposed to be amazing. I had a new appreciation for everything and a boost of confidence that would get me through whatever was thrown my way. Although I am so thankful to be here and finished with my treatments, it turns out none of this is actually that easy.

Physical effects from chemo: I’m still dealing with some intense fatigue, even months after my last treatment. I’ve been trying to stay busy because once I sit still, it takes every bit of effort to not fall asleep. Working out regularly has helped a little bit with my energy levels though. Once I got back to work, I was determined to also get back in the gym. I wanted to prove that cancer couldn’t hold me back forever. Not only was it really hard to see how much strength I’ve lost since my cancer journey started, but I’m also still dealing with some pretty bad neuropathy. I didn’t realize how bad it was until I recently started jogging again. During what was supposed to be an easy jog, both of my calves swelled up in so much pain and my feet went numb. I couldn’t feel my toes. I’ve been trying to continue jogging since then, but it has become an ongoing problem that severely limits how far I can go. I eagerly signed up for a few 5k races before I realized how much the neuropathy was still affecting me and it’s so disappointing that the cancer side effects continue to have this much control over what I am able to do. I plan to follow through with those 5ks though, even if it means walking a good portion of them.

Emotional effects from cancer: Cancer is traumatic. Somehow, my mind has managed to block out a lot of what I went through, but there are still many things that are really tough to think about. There are a lot of emotions I’m dealing with that I can’t even describe. I don’t understand it because I should be ecstatic, right? I just beat cancer! Unfortunately, life after cancer doesn’t come with a manual to explain these things, although I wish it did. It’s such a roller coaster from day to day. There are days that I feel on top of the world followed by days that are incredibly tough to get through. That’s about as much detail as I wish to go into on this topic right now, but I think it’s important to note that the emotional stress after cancer is almost as bad as during treatment in my opinion.

Financial stress– Another thing people don’t talk about is that cancer is really, really expensive. Many times, cancer will force a person to stop working and even if you’re lucky enough to get some compensation for being out of work, it’s going to be a huge cut from what you’re used to. Then, you have to worry about all of the medical bills, countless prescriptions, fertility preservation fees (which is an ongoing monthly cost), travel to and from the cancer center, moving costs… I could fill up a whole page with this list. These expenses don’t just go away when the cancer does. I can’t imagine what it would be like for someone who doesn’t have insurance because even with insurance, the cost of having cancer has been overwhelming and stressful.

Anxiety- Since my last PET scan, I’ve been living in a constant state of fear that this may not be over. I hear so many stories about people, who I know personally, having relapses or suspicious scans even after they’ve been told they’re clear. I over-analyze every little thing and worry that it may be the cancer coming back. It’s a stress that I’m not sure will ever go away. My next scan is coming up in just a few weeks and I’m sure that has been the cause of a lot of the anxiety in my life recently. It’s one of those things that I’m dreading going through, but at the same time I can’t wait for that day to get here and hopefully clear up some of the “scanxiety” that I’m dealing with.

I want to end this by saying that I have so much to be grateful for and I don’t want this post to take away from that at all. I knew I wanted to write about life after cancer from the moment I beat it, but I never imagined it would go like this. Every day is a work in progress to try to get back to a new normal, a new happy, and a new healthy and I’m realizing now that it’s going to take some time. With that said, I, of course, am very thankful to be given the opportunity to find those new realities and will continue working on myself until that day comes.

 

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It’s not “just hair”

I had just dug my Navy uniform out of a storage box last night in anticipation of my first day back today. This baby hadn’t seen daylight in about 10 months and I was ready to dust off my boots (isn’t that a country song?) and get back to my part-time military life. After some much needled snuggles with Chloe and Cassie this morning, I put my uniform on and immediately went to the mirror to check it out. It had been so long since I last wore it I forgot what it looked like, but it all quickly came back to me. Yup, this uniform was just as unflattering as I had remembered and I was loving it. It was a nice change from the dresses and thick makeup that I typically wear to work. Just as I was in the middle of admiring my uniform in the mirror, a devastating realization hit me out of nowhere.

I can’t wear my wig.

The hair on my wig is too long to wear down in uniform and it’s too short to fit into a bun. I tried on some old wigs that I hadn’t worn in months and quickly remembered why I hadn’t worn them. Seriously, what was I thinking when I bought these?

I stared in the mirror for a good ten minutes, trying to figure out what to do. I spent way too long trying to tame the tiny pieces of hair that each seemed to have a mind of their own. You see, I have this permanent bedhead look going on right now and I can never get all of my little hairs to flow in the same direction. I tried hard to make it look a little less like I had just rolled out of bed, even though I technically had, but to no avail. I was not ready for this. Sure, I post pictures and show you all updates of my hair growing back, but somehow this felt different. You all know what I’ve been through and there’s a level of comfort there that I don’t have when I’m in public. Plus, let’s be real, in photos I can control the lighting and the filters I use and believe me when I say that most of my pictures have filters on them. If Instagram didn’t want us to use them they wouldn’t be available, right? At least that’s what I’ll keep telling myself.

I also have to say that I even skip the wig at the gym most of the time, but honestly there are maybe 3 other people in the gym whenever I’m there. Maybe it’s not very logical to most, but to me it was dreadful. To be completely honest, I felt like someone would end up calling me “sir” before the day was over. Navy uniforms aren’t exactly feminine and combined with short hair, it would be an easy mistake for someone to make.

I fluffed up my hair as much as I could without having any hair products because, well, who needs hair products when you don’t have hair? I used water and lotion (I was desperate) to try to make it look like I have more hair than I do. I walked out the door, made my way to the base, and got to work.

Today ended up being awful. It was one of those days that nothing seemed to go right. I got very little work done because of problems that were beyond my control and it felt like a complete waste of a day. Feeling defeated and tired, I found a Dunkin Donuts on my GPS and made a quick detour before heading home for the day. I needed a pick-me-up and although the Starbucks right outside base looked appealing, I’m definitely more of a Dunkin girl. I pulled up and realized that there was no drive thru at that particular location. I didn’t even realize they made Dunkin Donuts without drive thrus! I wasn’t being lazy, instead I was dreading going inside and showing off my half inch hairs to even more people. I looked for other nearby coffee shops and didn’t find any that weren’t completely out of the way. The caffeine addict in me won and I eventually worked up the courage to walk inside.

I ordered my medium coffee with almond milk in a paper cup (I avoid styrofoam like the plague) and awkwardly waited in the corner, staring at my phone and avoiding any potential eye contact in hopes that nobody would notice me and my lack of hair. As I was walking outside, a woman in front of me held the door open and then continued walking to her car. All of a sudden she stopped, turned around and said, “you are so beautiful.” I don’t even remember what I said back because I was so caught off guard. All day I had been feeling uncomfortable and insecure and this total stranger has no clue how much those four little words meant to me. I got in my car and my eyes swelled up with tears. Maybe it was partially from the stress of my day or from all of the insecurities I had held in since this morning, but I know it was mostly from the sweet compliment by a total stranger and I just completely lost it.

I wanted to share this story for a couple reasons. The first is to show that I’m still struggling. Every. Single. Day. I’m constantly trying to find my “new normal” and it’s been so much harder than I have ever admitted to. Nobody tells you how hard life after cancer is so here I am, letting you know that it is not nearly the cake walk that I had been dreaming about since my diagnosis. Please go easy on the cancer survivors in your life because even when it’s over, it’s not really over. The second reason is to remind everyone that a simple kind gesture will go so far. You never know what the person next to you is truly going through and a small compliment, or any other act of kindness may mean the difference between a total failure of a day for someone or a happy ending.

 

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