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The Impossibility of Going Back (Life After Cancer)


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Have you ever felt like your life wasn’t real, but was instead a movie playing out in front of you that you watched from afar?  I’ve had that happen to me a few times during my life.  If you haven’t ever felt that way, let me tell you it’s an incredibly jarring feeling.

I felt this way when I was diagnosed with breast cancer and again after treatment ended.  Although it wasn’t all that surprising at diagnosis, it was a shock post-cancer.  But maybe I shouldn’t have been so surprised by it.

The problem was that I was trying hard to get back to my “normal” pre-cancer life when the truth is, you can’t go back.  Instead you must figure out what your new normal life after cancer is by determining how cancer has changed you.

Life After Cancer: Fighting to Go Back To “Normal”

Why You Want to Go Back

When you’re diagnosed with cancer, you end up craving normalcy throughout.  There’s nothing normal about struggling every day to live.  Nor is there anything normal about being reminded that you might be dying.  And there’s nothing normal about feeling like your body is being poisoned throughout your treatment.

The whole journey is abnormal.  And what you long for most is to return to your pre-cancer life.  To return to normal.

Sudden Disappearance of Your Support

Everyone rallies around you when you are being treated for cancer.  You have family, friends, doctors, and nurses there for you 24/7.  It can actually be too much.  Sometimes I felt smothered.

And one day your treatment ends… along with all the support.  Life after cancer means that your support won’t be there any longer, at least not in the same way as it did during your treatment.  Life moves on and people can’t be there in the same way for the rest of your life (nor should they be expected to).

Although you might have felt smothered by and resented some of this support, its sudden disappearance makes you feel alone, vulnerable, and scared.  And it happens to be at the exact time when you feel the full emotional brunt of your cancer journey.

It’s difficult to process all the emotions that cancer brings while undergoing treatment. During that time, your focus is on the day-to-day battle of beating your cancer so that you can live.  And so you push some (or many) of those feelings deep within.  But they don’t go away until you’ve dealt with them.  And they have a way of resurfacing once you get through treatment.

Fighting Like Mad to Be Normal Again

You’ve lost your support system, feel more alone than ever before, and have a host of emotions you’ve been trying to avoid (yet can no longer ignore).  Add to that the fact that you’ve been wanting more than anything to go back to your pre-cancer life, as if this journey never happened, and it’s no wonder why you’re trying to get back to “normal” so hard.

But trying hard to go back to something that can never be recreated only makes things worse.

This begs an important question… Why keep struggling to recreate the impossible?  You’re mentally and physically exhausted, and feel like you don’t have the band-width for deep inner reflection.  You did a lot of that when you were sick and want it to be over.

Here’s the thing: most cancer patients go through this process.  It’s a natural reaction to the traumatic journey that you’ve been through.  The key is to be aware of what’s going on so that you can start to move forward (and stop feeling so off).  Because the more you try to go back to “normal”, the worse you’ll feel.  And the only answer is to start moving forward…

[RelatedWhat You Need to Know About Cancer Survivors and Depression and Anxiety].

A Case Study On Life After Cancer (My Story)

I struggled mightily to try to get back to my old life for years (for over 3 years, to be exact). During my first year post-treatment, I told myself that I needed to ignore everything else and just focus on getting my body back.  I was in terrible physical shape and became exhausted easily.

But as I slowly got my energy back, I still had this strange feeling gnawing at me… and continued to ignored it.  I tried to do the same things I used to, I clung to my same way of thinking, and pretended that I was just as I had been prior to my cancer diagnosis.

Yet I felt more alien in my own skin with every passing day.  It was as if I was watching a movie of my life play out in front of me that was all wrong.  Someone else was playing me.  They looked like me, but they were alien. Not only that, but I felt disconnected from my family.

Over time, I realized that I wasn’t really living but was instead barely existing.  And I didn’t want that.  What was the point to living through my cancer to just barely exist in life?

If this is you, I have the same question: why fight to live only to barely exist?  It’s time to deal with your emotions and figure out how cancer has changed you so that you can move forward and LIVE your life.

How to Reclaim Your Life as a Cancer Survivor

The key to moving on and reclaiming your life after cancer is to acknowledge that cancer has changed you.  Your fight to get back to “normal” has ignored this (and you’ve been pretending that it hasn’t changed you at all).  But that’s a lie, and it’s time to own up to the fact that cancer has changed you in some way – probably in big ways.  Here’s how to do that:

Step 1: Admit to yourself that cancer has changed you.

Admit that your beliefs, your desires, your worldview, and even your values have changed.  You don’t have to determine “how” they’ve changed (yet).  Just acknowledge that cancer has changed you – in both big and small ways.

If you’re like me and have been telling people that cancer changed you, yet don’t really believe it, then it’s time to be honest with yourself.   How can you know if that’s the case?  Simple: this is you if you’re still fighting to get back to some old version of yourself and your past life.

Step 2: Reconnect with and redetermine your values.

It’s time to do some personal development work by reconnecting with and reevaluating your core personal values.  Your values are your guide to feeling happy, content about your place in the world, and at peace with your decisions.  They are what give you your identity.

Even if you knew your values before your cancer, you need to go back and reevaluate them (because your cancer may have changed some of them or how you define them).

[Recommended Reading: to understand more about personal values and how they affect your happiness, read How to Redefine Yourself For Happiness].

Step 3: Let go of your pre-cancer life.

You’ll never move forward if you’re not willing to let go of what’s lost.  It’s time to proactively let go of your pre-cancer life.

Admit that your life is never going to go back to what it was.  This step will often cause feelings of regret, sadness, and loss.  And that’s okay.  The point is to process through your emotions and move forward.

[Recommended Reading: to help you process through your emotions so that you can let go, read How to Take Control of Your Emotions So They Don’t Control You].

Step 4: Get help from someone you trust.

This process isn’t something you should do alone.  Although you don’t have to get help, it will be easier and quicker if you do.

Please note that I’m not necessarily talking about therapy.  You may desire therapy to work through the feelings and emotions that have been brought forward.  But if you don’t need it, then you might consider hiring a coach to help you with your next steps or going to a trusted friend who can help you.  You might also consider joining a cancer survivors support group.

Whatever you do, just be sure you feel comfortable getting vulnerable and being open about how you feel.  You won’t move forward without that.

[Recommended Reading: for help with how to find and choose the right cancer survivors support group read How to Find the Right Cancer Survivors Support Group for You].

Your Next Steps

This process will open a Pandora’s box of new questions.  When I went through it, lots of questions started popping up that are likely to come up for you.  Questions such as:

  • How did cancer change your viewpoint on risk?
  • How did cancer change your relationships and the way you love?
  • What did cancer teach you about vulnerability and connecting with others?

These are just a smattering of questions that I answered to help me reclaim my life and feel myself again.  I got to know the new me and figured out where I wanted to go from there.  And when I came out on the other side, my life no longer felt alien to me.  You can do this too (promise)!

And let me tell you, there’s nothing like being confident in who you are and feeling at peace in your own skin.

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Hey there, I’m Heather

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I’m here to help purpose-driven lawyers and other professionals (like you) build your ideal career to support the life you actually want. Because you shouldn’t have to choose between professional success & personal happiness.

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