– To remain alive or in existence.
– To carry on despite hardships or trauma; persevere: families that were surviving in tents after the flood.
– To remain functional or usable: I dropped the toaster, but it survived.
I almost don’t want to speak too soon, because it’s impossible to know what the coming weeks, months, years have in store, but it seems that I’m gradually moving further away from “cancer patient” status and into the realms of “cancer survivor”. I’ve never been a survivor before. And to be honest, I don’t feel much like a survivor at the moment. The word feels weird on my tongue, my fingers don’t type it smoothly.
I suppose of the three definitions above, I feel most like the toaster – like I’m just about staying functional, moving from day to day in a bit of a haze, burning things a bit in the aftermath of the incident. It’s a balance between allowing myself to feel all of the emotions I need to feel, making it through every day, getting out of bed each morning and being grateful that this part of my story has ended this way, rather than any other. While I’m trying to process all of the emotions around what happened over the last few months, I’m plagued by a feeling of guilt. I shouldn’t be crying over the end of active treatment – for some people their treatment never ends.
I read something that compared the end of cancer treatment to the end of a war – the “battle” has been won, the soldiers have gone home, but the battle site is still covered in debris. Things need rebuilding – but rather than putting streets and houses and communities back together, people who’ve had cancer are putting themselves back together, one piece at a time. We are rebuilding confidence – in ourselves, in our bodies, in our abilities to work or do exercise or to love. We are rebuilding trust in our bodies that they won’t betray us again. In some cases, we are still literally watching our bodies being rebuilt. We are watching scars heal and we are trying to move forward while the shadows of the battle linger on. I kind of hate the war analogy that comes with a cancer diagnosis, but in this instance, it’s actually completely fitting.
As ever, I’m conflicted at the moment between wanting to get back out there and get my life on track or retreating reclusively into the comfort of my own home for a few months. It’s still such early days (I know how absurd I must sound) but I’m already putting pressure on myself to be “better” or “ok” or to figure out exactly what I want to do or be or feel, when the reality is, I actually have no clue. I’m not even sure I know how to be myself anymore. I spent so long trying to get used to being a cancer patient, I’ve lost the person I was before then. I’m gripped by anxiety every time I face meeting someone new, organising anything that’s more than a day or so in advance fills me with fear, so much so that I just shut off and some days leaving the house makes me feel sick.
I tell myself “it’s only been two weeks, your skin hasn’t even healed yet, so how can you expect your heart to have healed?” And I tell my friends who’ve just finished treatment, we have to give ourselves a break, be kind, be patient, take the time we need and not feel guilty about it. So why can’t I listen to my own advice? Why don’t I listen to them when they say exactly the same thing?
I suppose it’s because even though active treatment has finished, cancer patients live with their initial diagnosis for the rest of their lives. We aren’t told that at the beginning, because it would be too overwhelming, but as you approach the end of treatment, you start to realise that even if you show no evidence of disease, you’re a lifer. In this for the long haul. And there may be days, weeks, even months, I imagine when you don’t think about it, but then it’ll creep up on you and you’ll remember what an ordeal you’ve been through.
The hair will grow back, you might go back to work, you might have that “final” surgery, you might manage to have kids if your fertility has been an issue, you might be able to go on the holiday you had to cancel , you’ll come to terms with your new body and the ravaging it had from the treatment that saved your life, but the emotional legacy of cancer will never really leave you. And do you know what? That’s ok. It really is OK. It’s like getting to the end of a really good book – you know it’s done, but you live with it, as part of you, forever.
*Despite the sombre tone of this blog post, I have in fact been singing “Survivor” by Destiny’s Child on repeat since I started this post a week ago. So I think you should be doing the same. Pop it on, turn it up and let’s all have a dance around the living room. I’ll be Beyonce.