How to Thrive in Life after Surviving Cancer

Relaxation

“Have a little faith in your ability to handle whatever’s coming down the road. Believe that you have the strength and resourcefulness required to tackle whatever challenges come your way. And know that you always have the capacity to make the best of anything. Even if you didn’t want it or ask for it, even if it seems scary or hard or unfair, you can make something good of any loss or hardship. You can learn from it, grow from it, help others through it, and maybe even thrive because of it. The future is unknown, but you can know this for sure: Whatever’s coming, you got this.” ~Lori Deschene

Isn’t it amazing how some days are etched in your mind forever and other days are just lost in the wind? One day that is etched in my mind forever is December 27, 2006. This is the day I was told I had breast cancer. While breast cancer is common, being twenty-six years old with breast cancer isn’t that common.

So here I was, twenty-six years old with breast cancer saying to myself, “Well f*ck, that sure throws off the plans I had for basically anything.” I quickly fell into fear, worry, and “why me?”. I will spare you the details of treatment; it wasn’t any fun. I lost my hair and my dignity and fell into depression when life returned to “normal.”

Whatever normal is, I was living it. However, nothing was normal. I didn’t know how to live without a doctor’s appointment to go to. I mean, all I wanted was an end to the endless appointments and here I was without them, and I couldn’t figure out what to do.

So, I took lots of naps because I was exhausted, or so I thought. Well, it turns out I wasn’t exhausted; I was depressed. I was alone with thoughts of wondering when my cancer would come back. I was sucked into a pit of despair that I had never seen before. Who was I becoming? The person who sat in their pajamas all day while I worked from home—yep, that was me.

I wanted to scream, “I survived cancer, now what?” Where was the manual on how to live after cancer? Who helps me get back to living? I just go back to what I was doing, as if nothing happened? I was tired of saying to myself, “But I’m supposed to feel better, right?”

As the stream of appointments, scans, lab draws, and phone calls from friends and family continued to slow, I tried hard to be well and remain optimistic. Continue doing my job, walking the dogs, and dragging myself to the gym. Life just didn’t seem real, and depression overwhelmed me for days or weeks at a time. A quick nap turned into a four-hour slumber; my physical body was healing, and my mental body was spiraling downward.

The difficulty of shifting back to life was not what I expected, and thank goodness for friends. My dear friend Rebecca asked if I wanted to run a half-marathon, but my visceral reaction was no. Then I learned the race took place one year to the date after I finished chemo, so I thought, “Heck yea, take that cancer!” It was perfect timing. One foot in front of the other, I trained for my first half-marathon.

I kept myself going by trying to run when I could. Running was my go-to mental health fix pre-cancer, and it was starting to work post-cancer too. I remember there were days when I would drag myself to run and come back home in minutes. Then there were days I felt like I had superpowers and it felt so good.

Rebecca and I crossed that finish line, hand in hand, and celebrated with margaritas and Mexican food, my other go-to mental health fixes.

So why do I feel inclined to share my story? It’s not just about cancer, depression, running, and margaritas. It’s about making something good come from something bad. 

Cancer taught me a lot of things. The biggest lesson was to control what I could. That looked like taking a long way home instead of sitting in traffic, not getting worked up about long lines in the grocery store, taking risks like rock climbing in Utah, trying new things like fly fishing in the mountains of North Carolina, singing in my car on the way to work to pump myself up for the day, going on camping trips with my girlfriends, and leaving behind a soul-sucking career.

I can’t say I am exactly happy I had cancer, but I can’t imagine life without it. It’s a love/hate relationship. Looking back, it was an opportunity for growth and learning that I can do hard things. It was a reminder to focus on being truly alive.

There is not a guidebook for cancer survivors, no way to time travel to the person you were before your diagnosis, no way to return your body unscathed, or quick way to restore your trust in your body again.  It’s a journey that you must figure out for yourself, one minute, hour, and day at a time.

You must accept what has happened and discover a new self.

I learned more in the year after cancer than I had in the previous twenty-six years. You don’t need a cancer journey to do this.

Life is short; learn to live life to the fullest. However, if cancer is part of your journey back to living, you are not alone in your quest to learn to live again. You can do this. One tiny step at a time, you will learn to truly live again. You will stumble back and take huge leaps forward.

You can have a life full of purpose, happiness, gratitude, and adventure. Don’t merely survive cancer, thrive after cancer! What are you waiting for? Let’s do this.


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