This Is Not What I Expected After Breast Cancer

I know I’ve talked about survivorship with you guys before, but it’s such an expansive topic. I feel like there’s always more to discuss.  As I’ve said before, it’s something that I really never gave a thought about when I was diagnosed. I never wondered “What will life be like after I’m done with treatment?” Naively, I just assumed breast cancer was a blip on the radar of my life and that all would be the same the day I walked out of the hospital. I was so focused on counting down the days – trying to make it through all the appointments and treatment – that quite honestly, I never considered what my future life might look like.

Looking back on my 2011 diagnosis, I find it amusing – well, kinda but not really, I guess  – that I never imagined I’d come out differently. And the women I talk to say the same. We followed the plan, took the necessary steps and then got our minds blown after we tried to merge back into our familiar existence.

A lot of us slammed into a brick wall.

Lots of things happen during survivorship – and quite frankly, none of them are easy. I always say I had some unrealistic expectations that the sky would part, trumpets would sound and everyone would be elated. We’d celebrate. And I’d just go right back to being Val. It really sucked when the final day of treatment was nothing special. I rang a bell, had some confetti tossed my way, gulped down some really sweet, iced cookies and a big unhealthy cheat meal, and then went home. My house was quiet. There were no marching bands in my driveway or people lined up for the Val-Kicked-Cancer parade. It was pretty uneventful overall. And the next day, I was like, “Hmmm.”

Lots of things changed for me after I finished treatment, but there was one thing that went back to normal. The people in my life carried on, and it was as though I’d never been sick at all. I would have originally lumped this into a positive survivorship category except it ended up causing feelings of isolation later. When we’re no longer the cancer patient (something we honestly can’t wait for), and people no longer think of us that way (something we also can’t wait for), it can land us smack dab in the middle of a depressive slump as we begin experiencing side effects and/or lingering problems after cancer. People don’t understand what the big deal is because our cancer “is over” – except it’s really not.

It’s stressful when we can’t remember pretty much anything. Try going back to YOUR job, especially if it’s detail-oriented, with no recollection of 5 minutes ago. Many patients experience chemo brain – something that they weren’t prepared to cope with after cancer. I did not undergo chemo myself, but I had a very hard time on my after-drug, Tamoxifen. My brain fog was terrible. Something as simple as playing Yahtzee with my husband was frustrating because when adding up multiple dice, I’d lose count of my previous total. How many times did I start over – only to give up and finally use a calculator? It really “dumbed” me down, and I felt inadequate at basic tasks. As a teacher, I couldn’t remember my students’ names, what they’d just asked me or pretty much anything outside of a 30 second time period.

Let’s see, there were also the hot flashes. The sleeplessness.The emotional outbursts.The weight gain.The lymphedema. Dude, survivorship sucked. Except I guess it really didn’t because I was still alive. Which brings me to something else I was not prepared for – the recurrence of many of my new breast cancer friends. The funerals started and the guilt ensued. I realized that I wasn’t in danger of returning to old Val anytime soon. That was a sad realization. I mourned my old life, and I had trouble embracing the new.

My problems pale in comparison with so many of my survivor sisters, so I can only imagine the difficult transition many of them have experienced. I have dealt with the lymphedema, the nagging worry of recurring, the endless tests, and a whole host of things over the last 7 years, yes, but I’ve also seen women go through much more harrowing experiences than me. The courage and grace with which they face these adversities is inspiring. No one should have to deal with cancer aftermath such as lifelong neuropathy, failed surgeries, random aches and pains, secondary diseases caused by treatment, loss of employment, failed marriages, strained relationships and/or a number of other things I haven’t mentioned here. But cancer is tricky. It ends up penetrating areas of our lives that we never imagine it will, and it wreaks havoc in ways that we can’t quite comprehend.

What have your experiences been like? Please leave a comment about the challenges and triumphs of your survivorship.

Keep livin’ victoriously,

Victorious Val

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