Life after the “It”
“To share your weakness is to make yourself vulnerable; to make yourself vulnerable is to share your strength.”- Criss Jami
The other day, I saw a post on Instagram asking “What is something you wish you knew prior to becoming a cancer patient?” Here are some of the responses…
“The hardest part is post-treatment.”
“That you won’t ever be the same person you used to be.”
“That the mental part is so much harder than any of the physical pain.”
“The hardest part starts when you look healthy and your hair is back and people completely forget that you are still surviving.”
And then, that same day, I listened to a podcast that really hit home. For now, I’m going to leave their names out of the conversation and will refer to them only as D and H. I don’t want their names to distract from the message of their words. Here is a condensed version of their conversation…
D: “While I was there (in Afghanistan) to entertain the troops, some guys got killed, some came back wounded, we went into the hospital to cheer them up. And I watched and I observed the people and how they were dealing with it and what I immediately recognized was that they have dealt with this a lot.
H: Everybody has a story, right? But when you are on the mission, there is a certain mentality of, okay, I’m here for 5 or 12 or 14 months. There is a mindset of, I’m here, doing this job. I’m not going to think about the fact that one of my friends just got blown up. It’s not an option. You can’t. But then, what happens at the end? Because then, you go back into society, you go back into “normal” life. You find yourself walking down the aisle of a supermarket by yourself with an empty shopping basket thinking, why am I here? What am I getting?
There was a study with heart rate monitors that was done in the U.K. with some of the Special Forces guys. They were showing more stress walking back home with their kids running around and stepping on toys than they were kicking the door down and going in and doing the dirty on the bad guys.
And you can think about it. When you’ve got your uniform on and you are with the guys, you know what the task at hand is. It might not be nice, it might not be pleasant, but it’s something you’ve got to do.
D: And you have the illusion of control. You have some power over your outcome. But, with the kids, it’s like, oh, I’m vulnerable here.
H: Vulnerable and it’s completely out of my control and I haven’t been trained to do this. When I’m in my uniform, I’ve got this cloak that I put on, an identity which basically gives me this mental strength to be able to adapt and overcome anything. And be the very best that I am in that moment because it is life or death.
Now, if you’d indulge me for a minute, I’d like to try something…
Cancer Patient: I think there is a mindset of, I’m in this hospital, doing my job. I’m not going to think about that the patient across the hall who didn’t make it. I can’t.
Cancer Patient: I went back into society, back into “normal” life. I found myself walking down the aisle of a supermarket by myself with an empty basket thinking, why am I here?
Cancer Patient: I feel more stress at home with my kids running around and stepping on toys than I did when I was in the middle of my treatments and doing the dirty on my cancer cells.
Cancer Patient: When I’ve got my hospital gown on and I’m with the doctors, I know what the task at hand is. It might not be nice, it might not be pleasant, but it’s something I’ve got to do.
Cancer Patient: During treatment, I have the illusion of control. I have some power over my outcome. But, with the kids, it’s like, oh, I’m vulnerable here.
Cancer Patient: When I’m in my hospital gown, I’ve got this cloak, an identity, which gives me the mental strength to be able to adapt and overcome anything. And to be the very best that I am in that moment because it is life or death.
I have never been a soldier and I have never gone into battle and I don’t want to pretend for a second that I know or understand what they feel. I do, however, know what it is like to go through the post-cancer re-entry into life. And all I can say is that, in my personal opinion, the first few months or even years after treatment can be some of the hardest, most difficult, most surprising, and most life-changing days and weeks and months and years that we will ever live through.
See, for cancer patients, as soon as the treatment ends, the real fear begins. We are no longer constantly checked by doctors or monitored by nurses. The spotlight that had shown so brightly on our invisible disease is suddenly turned off so, in the new darkness, we fear our cancer cells are able to come out of hiding. Treatment, for a cancer patient, makes sense. We have clear course of action and are surrounded by many brilliant guides who help us execute our plan. We feel protected and we feel safe. And then, we get the all-clear and return to our homes where we have no directions, no well-defined course of action, and no one to tell us how to live our lives.
So, how does one navigate this return to life post-trauma? I don’t have an answer other than to say, I get it. I understand. And, I’d venture to say that I think, on some level, most of us understand. I know many of you have never been in a military battle or fought for your life in a hospital but I do believe that even those of us who have lived a relatively battle-free life can relate in some way. Fill in your blank. What’s your struggle? Divorce? Financial issues? Depression? Loss of a loved one? Anxiety? Addiction? Fertility struggles?
Divorced Mom: I found myself walking down the aisle of a supermarket with an empty basket wondering, why am I here?
Single woman struggling with depression: When I am in my bed watching Netflix for days on end, I’ve got this cloak that I put on, a mentality that allows me to hide and to survive.
Woman who recently lost a loved one: I felt more stress after the fact when I was at home with my kids running around and stepping on toys than I did when I was in the middle of my grieving and funeral planning.
We all have struggle. We all go through things in life that change us forever. And we are all then faced with re-entering our lives that, on the outside may look the same, but in reality are forever altered. Pain is pain so let’s be careful to not compare suffering. It’s part of life. But when we are able to come together and honestly talk about our struggles, that is where we find that beautiful human connection that makes life so worth living.
Soldier or cancer patient. Doctor or lawyer. Mom or Dad. Single or married. Young or old. Broken or healed. Our differences may define us but, at the end of the day, it’s our pain that unites us. And it’s our accepting love and grace that we give to one another that heals us. And it is our courage to keep living and to keep fighting and to keep loving that saves us.
Thank each and every one of you for saving me.
In love and hope,
PS- The Instagram account referred to earlier is from the Nonprofit Organization, More than Cancer.
The podcast referenced comes from Armchair Expert with Dax Shepard. D stands for Dax Shepard and H stands for Prince Harry. Actor or Prince. Ex-addict or ex-royal. Two different humans with such a shared connection.