I have often said that cancer was both the best and the worst thing that has ever happened to me. Of course, this is a battle that no one chooses to fight, yet it is a war that affects millions of people worldwide, both directly and indirectly.
This "thing" has allowed me so much clarity in my life that was never there before. It has given me a lot of time to think about what's really important. It's funny how it takes almost losing your life to make you realize just how silly you've been about everything. The things that once mattered don't anymore, leaving you now wishing that you paid more attention to what you once took for granted. Time and health are the only two things you cry out for, repeatedly and wholeheartedly pray for, and desire. You know that these are the only things that truly matter in the end.
I no longer see my life as just something to get through each day. Every day that I am blessed to wake up and have another opportunity to live is a gift. I don't hold off on things I once used to, thinking that I have all the time in the world to experience them, because I know better. The truth is, I don't know how much time I have left on this earth, and neither do you. So, I make each day as full as possible. I dream big and work toward making things happen. I try not to let a day go by without letting the people in my life know how much they are loved and cared for. I do a lot of things I never did before, and I keep thanking God and asking him to grant me as much time here as he can possibly give me.
That last thing I said always hits hard because I used to be the person who questioned their reason for being here almost every day. Someone who has thought a lot about attempting to leave this life It's not something that's easy to say or admit; in fact, most think it's a cowardly way to handle life. But I assure you, it is anything but. It takes much courage to contemplate living or dying by your own hand, and these are questions asked in the darkest of moments, in the most excruciating pain. Cancer has brought me to a place where I am not entirely cured of that darkness, but it's at least given me the strength to try harder to swat away the monster that lives deep in the shadows of my brain. It has allowed me to give birth to a voice that fights back and yells louder at the devil when it's trying to tell me that nobody wants me here anymore. In those instances, that little voice tells him no and now has the courage to call him out on those lies. That voice, my voice, keeps him at bay more often now, and he thinks twice before trying again.
But beating this thing isn't all positivity. Surviving cancer is undoubtedly an achievement, but it comes with a heavy burden of guilt and remorse that I carry. It leaves a lasting impact on my emotional and mental well-being. I deal with the physical and emotional scars of this battle every day, often reliving the pain and suffering I went through. I am told that these are the long-term effects of the treatments I received. I have lived with and battled anxiety and depression before, but the episodes are more frequent now, along with a new diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) due to all the trauma I have endured.
The psychological challenges of surviving any disease are so difficult to describe. It's like winning the lottery without actually receiving any cash reward. Repeated medical exams determine that you are no longer at risk "for now". At times, I feel like I am living six months at a time because I am being continuously tested to monitor the disease's return. Yes, I live my life on purpose now, but every single time "exam month" comes along, I crumble. Those times in my life are filled with constant worry, which definitely affects my ability to enjoy life. It's like that for all of us, all of us who are now deemed "cancer-free." I often wonder how long until it returns. I don't want to think that way, but I am told that it's "normal".
Cancer survivors often struggle with the guilt of being alive while so many others have lost their battle. They question why they were the ones who survived and not others who may have been stronger or fought harder. This is known as survivor's guilt, a common feeling experienced by many. This is something that may be very hard for others to understand.
The journey through cancer allows you to meet some really incredible people. You spend a lot of time with them, getting to know them, their friends, and their families, sharing stories, deepest fears, and unending tears. Soon, they become your people—soldiers fighting, battling right along side of you. Together, you are in the trenches, day after day, combating a war. And like any war, there are casualties—hundreds, thousands, even millions of them. With each passing day, you put on a brave face, trying to be positive, thinking with no real certainty that this is what will get you to the finish line and set you free. But there are never really any guarantees. No one knows who will win and who will lose. You don't have any say or control over what will happen. It all becomes a matter of destiny.
The surviving cancer soldiers who make it out alive carry with them the trauma of their experiences, which will take a lifetime to overcome, if at all. After all, how can anyone forget the others left behind? In war, when soldiers die, their fellow soldiers feel the loss and mourn for them. It's the same in the cancer war. Those who lose the battle leave behind loved ones, friends, and fellow survivors who are left to grieve their loss. Survivor's remorse becomes very real and can be challenging to overcome.
Cancer survivors are bonded by their shared experiences, and they often form close relationships with fellow survivors. However, once the battle is over, survivors may feel lost and alone. The support system that they had during their treatment may no longer be there, and they may struggle to adjust to life after cancer. They may also struggle to find meaning and purpose in their lives now that the battle is over.
The Cancer Survivor Club is a very difficult club to be a part of. Happy to have a second chance, scurrying through life, trying to make the most of each day, so that you can leave a legacy of sorts behind to be remembered by. Desperately attempting to prove to God that you are so worthy of the time he's given back to your life. That's what it feels like for me.
I am so grateful and happy for my life, but I still have this knot in the pit of my stomach every time a doctor walks back into the room with any of my results. Going to the bathroom with the light on (even in the middle of the night, when the last thing I want is a bright light being thrown in my face) because I can't walk away without knowing that there is no sign of blood in the toilet bowl. Bleeding, you see, is the first telltale sign that cancer has returned. I am now also consciously aware that everything, yes, everything, can cause cancer in your body.
Although all these things mentioned above are noteworthy, the one thing that trumps them all is that even when you've been deemed cancer-free this month, you almost feel like you can't share this triumph (or cheer too loudly about it) because someone else has lost their battle.
That's the harsh reality of it all.
Last month, I was so scared of what I was going to hear because I wasn't feeling very well. But by God's grace, things are okay. I was so happy. Then, a few days later, I heard that my friend had lost her fight with cancer and had died. All that happiness just fell away. I didn't have the right to be happy, not when she fought so hard. She had her entire life ahead of her, and it was all taken away. So, I didn't tell anyone that I was okay and still in remission. It doesn't feel okay to do so. I cried for days about it. I couldn't even bring myself to go to the funeral. The guilt was just killing me. Thankfully, I worked through it with my therapist and best friends and am feeling better about things. Not perfect, but better. I know that I cannot beat myself up for feeling this way because it's a very normal thing to experience survivor's remorse. I also need to learn to be kinder to myself and acknowledge that I have every right to be happy and excited about my new life—being cancer-free. It will all just take some time.
Surviving cancer is not an easy feat. It's a battle that no one chooses to fight, but those who do are forever changed by the experience. Cancer survivors carry the weight of their battle with them, and they often struggle with the guilt of being alive when others have lost their battle. Survivor's remorse is a real thing, and it's important for survivors to seek support to overcome it. Cancer survivors are soldiers who have fought a common enemy, but once the battle is over, they must find a new purpose and meaning in their lives.
If you or anyone you know is struggling through living life after cancer or experiencing survivor's remorse, please encourage them to seek help. There are some really incredible support communities that you can become a part of, and I promise that it will make all the difference. It won't mean that there won't be struggles, because there will be. Each day brings new challenges, but you can get through them. There will be good days and bad days, but you don't have to go through them alone. Speak to your medical team and ask for help.
To anyone still at war, I am right here with you. Keep your faith in God, your spirits high, and your warrior face full on. You have a battle to win!
Fuck you, cancer!