Your life after cancer will never be the same. Whether the process leaves you feeling glad it's over, sad or angry about what you've been through, or terrified that it may come back, these are common emotions when you've been given the all clear.
You may also feel totally lost without the daily support of your medical team as well as anxious and worried about going it alone. Again, all of these feelings are completely normal. And, just as you needed professional help to deal with the emotional turmoil you experienced when you were first diagnosed, you need to seek help now too, so you can learn how to pick up the pieces and get back to living once again.
The emotional cost of cancer survivorship
Survivorship does come at a psychological price, explains Professor Michael C Herbst, a health specialist at CANSA, and there are a number of issues that have the potential to emotionally paralyse you. These include:
- The 'Damocles syndrome' - according to Greek legend, once Damocles realised that a sword was dangling precariously over his head, he was no longer able to enjoy the banquet in front of him. Similarly, the sceptre of cancer hanging over your head may be preventing you from moving on
- Survivor guilt - although you're obviously happy to be alive, you may feel guilty that you've survived while some of your fellow patients did not, and those 'Why me?' thoughts you had when diagnosed can now change to 'Why not me?'
- Fear of recurrence – this is the biggie for most cancer survivors. Bouts of anxiety and fear as debilitating as those you experienced when you were diagnosed or during treatment can be easily triggered during follow-up medical visits, along with unexplained pain, or even sights and sounds you associated with treatment.
Think of yourself as a 'cancer survivor' or as 'alive'
There are two distinct ways of approaching life after cancer, says clinical psychologist Dr Colinda Linde. “You can think of yourself as a 'cancer survivor', or you can think of yourself as 'alive'. Consider this for a moment - the first option means still identifying yourself with the illness, and you'll hear yourself saying the word 'cancer' often, even when coupled with 'survivor.' And regardless of where you go to from here - even as a spokesperson or campaigner for fighting cancer - the illness itself will still have a starring role. This doesn't mean to say it should all be forgotten or hidden as if it never happened, but rather that the 'life' part is far more important right now, at least for a period of time. Remember that life is short and uncertain and therein lies the gift after an experience of cancer. You've been faced with the reality of death, you've been given a second chance at life, and it's time to start making the right decisions about exactly that - life. And a good starting point is to prioritise getting your emotions, particularly the fear factor, under control”.
Dr Linde offers the following guidelines about how to reclaim your life:
- Seek professional assistance to help you to deal with negative emotions such as anxiety and fear. Feeding the fear of why it happened, and frequently the fear of 'what if it comes back' is feeding the wrong part of your life. Remember, attention is like food, and what you pay most attention to (i.e. feed) grows. So learn how to let go- whether through breathing or meditation or even prayer- whatever works best for you
- While you can't control a cancer recurrence or any other health issue, you can certainly prioritise your wellbeing by focusing on what you can do to stay fit and healthy and reduce your cancer risk
- Practice daily mindfulness to help you to be as present as you possibly can and to focus on the here and now, as constantly mulling over the past or endlessly worrying about the future will only fill you with anxiety and stress
- Embrace the importance of self care and work/life balance by factoring this into to your daily life and new habits
- Banish all thoughts of deferred living. So many people live this way - 'When I am....' or 'When I have ... then I will take time out/ go on holiday/ start a hobby. The time to start living is now.
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