Like most well-known fairy tales, people assume the story ends there. But did you ever wonder what happened after the happily ever after?
In some ways, my cancer journey was like a story – not necessarily a great bedtime-read, mind you, but there was a ‘good vs. evil’ plot, a battle, and a victorious finish.
I’ve learned, however, that the ‘happily ever after’ we were all working towards is not exactly as comforting as originally written. What if “after-cancer” is just as difficult as “having cancer”? Don’t get me wrong, I’m extremely thrilled and that the surgery is done, the invasive treatments are done, the brutal symptoms and side effects are done – and now I’m happy, healthy and on the ‘winning’ side of this crazy battle.
Here’s my problem – for someone that’s as Type A as myself, even though the cancer journey was absolutely horrible and I never want to go through it again, I was still able to find elements of comfort within it:
I could still work the disease and all things surrounding it into some sort of controlled schedule – my life and my calendar were full of various doctor’s appointments and treatment dates.
I came to know which days I would feel more like myself and which days I wouldn’t be able to get out of bed.
I could still quarterback plans and playdates to keep my beautiful boy busy and distracted on the really tough days.
I was still able to prop myself up with my laptop and my cell phone and continue working on most days throughout the process.
In short, I was still able to “be me” and feel like I still had some element of control, even though I was in the midst of something that seemed to be beyond my control. I had a goal and a focus every day – concentrate on one day at a time, one treatment at a time, and appreciate how much closer to the end goal that brought us all to. I was surrounded by an amazing support network that continued to visit/call/email/bring meals/cheer on/check-in throughout the entire process, and I’m so fortunate to have had that. Doctors and nurses were checking in on me all the time and letting me know how I was doing, how the treatment was going, etc. Really, I was far too busy to ever be worried or wonder what life was going to be like after it all ended – the goal was just to get to the end.
Well, here we are at the infamous ‘end’. Hoping to be cancer-free and ‘back to normal’. Here at my own ‘happily ever after’. Yet now, more than ever, I find myself feeling scared, unsure and alone, with the question “What now” echoing loudly and drowning out many other thoughts in my head.
Now I’m learning that the post-cancer experience isn’t quite like they depict it in the movies. I didn’t get that chance to sit across from my doctor, anxiously awaiting the words “Congratulations – you’re cancer-free”. I pictured sitting there with my husband, letting tears of joy & relief stream down my face as we hugged and thanked her for all she had done for us. In reality, it felt more like a “good luck to you” send-off, complete with a “We don’t test to see if you have it anymore but let us know if you have any symptoms” finale. Really? After all we’ve been through, that’s it? Not even a high-five or a balloon?
Now I have time to truly process everything I’ve gone through. Previously I was far too busy & focused to be sad, scared, or introspective – now I’ve got nothing but time to field these thoughts and feelings that keep washing over me and figure out what the heck to do with them.
Now the daily ‘check-ins’ and support are less frequent (as they should be, of course!) which leave me feeling less distracted and, at times, more alone.
Now I’m mourning friendships and relationships that didn’t survive the bumpy road I found myself on.
Now I’m acutely aware of stories about people whose cancer continues to return – those who successfully battle it time & time again, and those who were sadly unable to claim victory once again.
Now I’m not working anymore and I desperately miss the routine, the outlet and the camaraderie that meant so much to me during these difficult months.
Now I’m learning that getting my body and my mind to get back into total alignment (or something close to it) is trickier than it looks. My mind says “We’re done, we’re healthy, we’ve spent far too much time in a horizontal position lately and we need to get back into shape!” My body, on the other hand, says “We don’t have the energy, we’re still reeling from the last year or so, we need to ease back into things.”
Now I feel like I’m supposed to have learned numerous life-lessons throughout this journey designed to “make a difference” or “ensure my life really matters” – a lot of pressure if you’re not sure how to do that.
Now I understand with every fibre of my being that life is short and can have its own agenda, despite all of our best-laid plans and preparations. It’s so incredibly hard not to be absolutely terrified about the prospect of not being there for those people who mean the most to me.
So there you have it – a lot of “what now’s” that you may not expect to run across when you begin your “once upon a time”. Does that mean I don’t believe in happy endings? Absolutely not – the most important “what now” I have taken away from all of this is that now I am extremely aware of all of the things in life that are beyond my control – but also that there are still things that I CAN control. I can control my reactions to what happens in life and I can choose to appreciate where life has taken me. Perhaps this story isn’t over after all – and now it’s time for me to figure out how that next chapter will go…