Surviving cancer is a blessing. There is no doubt about that. However, people often reference the “roller coaster of emotions” that survivors go through when cancer treatment is over. I realized that these emotions reminded me of something a little different than a roller coaster. So today I’m going to share with you what I feel to be the rainbow of emotions experienced by a cancer survivor.
Whether you are facing cancer treatment, in the thick of it, or you made it to the other side, I wanted to document these different emotions to help you realize that you’re NOT alone in what you’re feeling after cancer treatment is finished. I hope this post also helps those of you who are looking for ways to support a loved one during and after cancer treatment.
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THE RAINBOW OF EMOTIONS
Before we dive into this post, I just wanted to introduce myself for those of you who are new here (welcome!). My name is Stephanie and I was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 33 and am almost two years into my survivorship after aggressive cancer treatment. If you’re interested in reading either the Reader’s Digest version of my story or my full journey that was blogged as I was living it, check out this page.
I have decided to share this post in first person, because I can only talk about my own experience and emotions. I don’t want to project my experience onto other cancer survivors, or lump us all into one camp. Please, though, leave me a comment after reading to let us know if you’ve experienced this rainbow for yourself. I love to hear from fellow survivors!
We’re actually going to go through the emotions in typical ROYGBIV fashion, but in reverse. Here we go…
VICTORIOUS, YET VULNERABLE
Completing cancer treatment with no evidence of disease is DEFINITELY something to celebrate! It’s hard to NOT feel victorious to some degree when looking back at what has been endured in order to get to this point. The heartbreaking decisions, surgical pain, and horrible sickness are over. The cancer is gone.
However, that victorious emotion is often coupled with an unsettling feeling of vulnerability.
My body has shown that it is susceptible to cancer…what if it happens again?
IRRITATED AND IMPATIENT
While dealing with the balance between feeling victorious and vulnerable, I found that it was common for me to feel irritated with my new reality. Coupling that with my menopausal mood swings (from a cancer-related oophorectomy) has made me one irritated gal at times.
I knew that my body could never be “the same” after being ravaged by breast cancer treatment, but I felt like I could at least get CLOSE to returning to who I was, both physically and mentally, before cancer. I waited impatiently for the “old me” to return. Then I would occasionally be irritated by the “new me” that was taking up shop instead.
The definition of “bereaved” is to feel grief at the death of a close friend or relative. I think this term is completely fitting here, when talking about the loss of my “before cancer” self.
After impatiently waiting for things to return to normal following cancer treatment, there came a time when I had to acknowledge that cancer fundamentally changed me as a person: Physically, emotionally, spiritually.
The “old me” is gone.
And it makes me sad sometimes.
I have found that the feeling of bereavement is QUICKLY followed by an overwhelming feeling of guilt:
Why do I feel sad about losing “the old me” when I should just feel lucky to be alive?!
While going through chemo, I sat in a community infusion room where I made new friends who were valiantly fighting terminal cancer. After treatment, I saw their obituaries in the newspaper while I sat at home with my freshly-sprouted hair and already-fading scars. Now I see loved ones continue to fight with cancer or other chronic and life-threatening illness.
How can I honestly feel sad about being alive???!!! <<Cue guilt>>
YIELDING AND YEARNING
Whether or not the motivation is guilt, there comes a time when I feel that I am finally yielding to my new post-cancer reality. I can now recognize that I am fundamentally different, in good AND bad ways.
Once this yielding emotion sets up shop, I’ve found that there is also a yearning for more time, a yearning for more life. I thought this emotion would fade once cancer treatment was over and my life was no longer in immediate danger, but it’s actually almost stronger.
I have fought so hard and sacrificed so much to extend my life, now I just want to LIVE!
To go. To do. To BE.
As time passes, it becomes easier to be optimistic that my yearning for more time will be satisfied. I feel that my cancer experience was a speed bump in life and that, if it recurs, there will be new treatments that can help me kill it again.
Optimism is an emotion that I clutch to more than any of the others. I WANT to be hopeful. No matter how much I am grieving or how irritable I may be with my new reality, I am optimistic that I really AM finished with cancer.
RELIEVED, YET RESERVED
When all is said and done, the overall emotion that I feel is relief.
I’m relieved that they were able to remove all of my tumor.
I’m relieved that treatment is over.
I’m relieved that my reconstruction went well.
But that relief comes with some reservations.
It is definitely hard to completely give in to that feeling of relief, to say with complete assurance that I’M DONE WITH CANCER! Yes, I am optimistic and I live my life as if cancer won’t be coming back, but I still find myself holding back in the “relief” department.
I’m still feeling reserved.
So there you have it. ROYGBIV….or rather VIBGYOR. The rainbow of cancer survivorship emotions.
WHY A RAINBOW?
The reason that I chose the analogy of a rainbow goes beyond the “R is for…” list that I’ve just given you.
As I mentioned before, people often talk about cancer survivorship as a “roller coaster of emotions,” with ups and downs, twists and turns. The issue with this is that it implies that we are feeling the emotions one right after the other, each one in turn.
I strongly believe that the opposite is true.
Much like a rainbow, the emotions that we experience as cancer survivors are often ALL still in play. At certain points of survivorship some emotions are less evident than others, but they are all there.
Also, the colors of a rainbow perfectly blend together, one into another, to create the optical phenomenon to which we’re so accustomed. There is no clear delineation where one color ends and the other begins. The same holds true for our emotions after cancer. It is a complicated web of co-existing thoughts and feelings!
Some of the emotions that are part of this rainbow aren’t necessarily positive or comfortable, just as some colors of the rainbow aren’t necessarily someone’s favorite.
But would a rainbow be as beautiful if it was missing a color or two?
In order to appreciate the stronger, more resilient, more empathetic self that emerges after cancer, one really does need to experience this wide range of emotions (or something similar): Both positive and negative.
Finally, the reason that I liken post-cancer emotions to a rainbow is probably the most obvious reason: This is what we’re left with after the storm of cancer. Yes, this rainbow of emotions is complicated and it can be uncomfortable at times.
But it’s ours.
It gives us a unique perspective on life that can only be gained by those who have weathered a similar storm. We can choose to try to ignore what appears after the storm or we can take the time to acknowledge it for what it is. I don’t think we’ll ever be as excited for the post-cancer emotions rainbow as this guy, but we can still find ways to help it bring beauty and depth to our lives after treatment is over.
How are you feeling at your particular point in survivorship? I’d love to hear from you!
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