You know that phrase: “The more things change, the more they stay the same”? Well, that’s how I feel about the second year of life after cancer.
I have now been cancer free for two years. My life continues to change in many ways, but in some ways it is very similar to my life when I walked out of my oncology clinic on the last day of radiation. Today I wanted to outline those similarities and differences for you, as you might be wondering about life after cancer (or maybe you’re living the life of a survivor and wondering if you’re alone in some of your feelings at this point).
(Are you a FRESH breast cancer survivor or still going through treatment, you might be interested in my post: What No One Tells You About the First Year of Cancer Survivorship.
As always, my hope in sharing my story is that it will be helpful to someone fighting a similar battle. If you want to read my full breast cancer story, you can find it here.
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Let’s start with the physical things:
WHAT’S CHANGED – This was my hair length on the last day of radiation, as it had started growing back during my 12 weeks of Taxol chemotherapy. I lost my hair in March and this was in September.
And below is a recent picture of my hair. I no longer have any awkward hair stages that make people wonder if I am a cancer survivor. My head gives no clue as to my history with cancer.
WHAT’S THE SAME – My hair still has much more curl than it did before I lost it. Before I got sick, my hair was wavy-ish and could scrunch with some effort, but nothing like now. I just get out of the shower, put a little product in it and it looks like this.
I also STILL have the urge to grow super-long hair. Let’s see how things look a year from now! LOL
And one more hair-related item: My eyebrows never grew back quite right. I still have to fill them in a bit. (And I still have no idea what I’m doing. I’m hopeless when it comes to makeup).
WHAT’S CHANGED – This year brought my nipple reconstruction. You can read my post about that here. That surgery helped my brain finally chill out when walking past the mirror after getting out of the shower.
WHAT’S THE SAME – I have found that my reconstructed breasts are still prone to “zingers.” They feel like little nerve misfires that come out of nowhere.
On that note, another thing that remains the same is the limited sensation in my chest. Even though my nerves seem to be trying to figure things out, I haven’t regained any sensation. From what I’ve read, it would be pretty uncommon for that to happen, but I’ve always held on to hope!
WHAT’S CHANGED – I buckled down and lost ALL of the weight I piled on during cancer treatment. Over 30 pounds!
WHAT’S THE SAME – My habits of stress eating, paired with my menopausal metabolism, caused me to fall back to familiar weight-gain patterns. I’m basically right back where I started and I’m feeling pretty bummed about it.
WHAT’S CHANGED – I feel like things have calmed down in regards to certain aspects of menopause. I have way fewer hot flashes!
WHAT’S THE SAME – I still feel like I’m losing my mind some days and I struggle a lot with mood swings. I use essential oils in an attempt to help, but this year I’m going to try adding meditation to the mix. Exercise definitely helps regulate my mood, so I will try to get back into a good routine.
I think that’s most of the physical reminders of cancer…now let’s dig into other things.
WHAT’S CHANGED – I am finishing up with some of my doctors! I just recently had my final appointment with my plastic surgeon (until it’s time to check up on things down the road). I’m also getting ready to switch to 6-month checkups with my oncologist instead of the 3-month checkups.
WHAT’S THE SAME – I still find appointment days to be emotionally draining. Just this past week, after a 3-month checkup with my oncologist, I got into the car and cried. Not for any real reason other than the fact that there were too many emotions to process at once. My body just needed to release them.
WHAT’S CHANGED – This is kind of hard to explain. My fear of cancer recurrence used to come at least daily. But rather than a huge feeling of FEAR, it was this odd realization of “Oh, yeah. I just dealt with a life-threatening illness. It could come back. Oh, CRAP!” It felt like a blow to the gut and the best word I can use to describe it is “fear.” It used to come regularly, but now I rarely have those particular moments.
WHAT’S THE SAME – Even though the manifestation and frequency have changed, I definitely still fear cancer recurrence. I have had a chest x-ray, leg ultrasound, head and neck MRI, and a breast MRI to address various concerning symptoms that I was having. Neither me nor my doctor truly suspected cancer, but we did it to alleviate some of my fear. Because the fear is there, no matter how logically I think about things.
I think that’s why my employment situation remains what it is. Mr. Blue Eyes and I have been talking about the future and what I might want to do once the kids are all in school (taking on a teaching job, starting a different career, working from home, etc.). Sometimes I even toy with the idea of becoming the main breadwinner so that Mr. Blue Eyes could find something with better hours (which would most likely mean a pay cut). But then the fear shows up and says “Whoa, Nelly. What if you DIE?? You can’t have the family relying on YOUR income!”
So, yeah. Fear’s still there…even after two years.
WHAT’S CHANGED – Even though I have that underlying fear that prevents me from making huge commitments for my future, I do find myself actually thinking of ME having a FUTURE. I am definitely thinking more in the long-term. Sometimes this invites fearful thoughts, but I’m at least grateful that my mind is going to the future more often.
WHAT’S THE SAME – I still have a pretty zen outlook on life. I can definitely get riled up, but it’s usually over big things involving my family. Small, petty stressors just aren’t really a thing in my life. Granted, I have built a pretty low-key post-cancer lifestyle, but overall I just don’t get worked up about most things any more. Life is too precious for that!
WHAT’S CHANGED – I can’t speak for the grown members of my family and extended family when it comes to how they feel about my current status, but I know that the memory of cancer has dulled for my kids over time. They mention it less and less frequently.
WHAT’S THE SAME – My kids still get nervous when I mention that I’m going to the doctor. They ALWAYS have follow-up questions when I mention an appointment (which is pretty typical for all kids, I would imagine). Also, our cancer books and cancer doll are still around and they make appearances during play time every so often.
So that’s a little snapshot of my life…two years after cancer. As my breast cancer experience sinks deeper into my past, I hope that I will be able to look even more confidently toward the future.
I would love to hear from you! Where are you at in your cancer journey? Did any of this ring true for you?