Ready to Dive Into the Future After Cancer Treatment?

Why not slow down and wade into the kiddie pool first? It could be fun.

Posted Dec 29, 2018

Patricia Prijatel
Source: Patricia Prijatel

Treatment is over, so now it is time to throw yourself back into the job, focus on the kids, cook healthier meals, jump on the treadmill, finish your thank-you notes, and clean your sock drawer. 

Cancer has been your primary focus for months, maybe years, and now that you have turned your back on the oncology ward and are celebrating the life you have earned, you're ready to leap back in with intense purpose. And, perhaps, with a skewed sense of what you really can, and should, do for yourself.

I've got this, you think.  And that. And the other thing too. Yep, you're on it. All of it.

Recovering cancer patients have one guiding principle: to ensure that our future does not include cancer.  But that goal is sometimes clouded by everything else we want to do— everything we stewed about missing while we were dealing with ports and shots and surgeries: 

Why didn’t I travel more?  Or less?  Why have I missed so many of the kids’ soccer games? I want to learn to make a great Bearnaise sauce.  And learn French.  And go to France. And learn what Bearnaise sauce is. 

We have our lives back and we want to make the most of them.  When people tell us to put one foot in front of the other as we move beyond cancer treatment, we start with one, then a second, then a third, such is our enthusiasm and need.  And that third foot gets us every time. We just can't do it. We do not, it has to be said, have three feet.

Our catch-up-on-everything-I missed-and-then-some approach to life after cancer is the emotional equivalent of thinking we have extra powers and appendages.  We want to do more, often much more, than we did before. But we're still, at heart, largely the people we were before, with the same resources and ambitions. Plus, we're exhausted mentally and physically, no matter how hard we try to deny it.

And the fact is we often don’t even know where that first foot should go.  We’re a little afraid it’s going to slam right into a fire hydrant. 

Cancer does serious damage to the trust we once had in our bodies, so we move on hesitantly, looking back over our shoulders to see what boogieman disease might be following us and just how the body we live in might betray us next. We cannot get over the thought that the Big C still hangs over our heads no matter how we try to duck away from it.

And then there’s this: After being the center of attention for so long, we feel a little too much on our own.  The healthcare folks who helped us through treatment have given us the good news—no evidence of cancer, no additional treatment.  Yay!  But now what? Where did they all go? We used to have nurses and doctors and technicians staring meaningfully at our bodies, counting our numbers and cheering us on. Gone.  All gone. It's like they think we can do this on our own from now on. Apparently, that's the rule.

I often get emails from women who are just finishing treatment for breast cancer, expressing envy that I am so far from a diagnosis that my chances of recurrence have decreased to almost nothing. Many tell me that when they finally are in my shoes, they can relax and begin really living again.

I understand this type of thinking—in a few years, I can enjoy life again without all this worry.  Thinking like that may seem a good way to get through the day, but it actually makes you miss the day completely.

It's like we revert to our childhood game of counting the time until we reach the important milestones: when we can finally date, drive a car, finish school, drink beer legally.  Remember that?  How we couldn’t wait to grow up.  And now, looking back on it, don’t you wish you had just enjoyed playing in the kiddie pool with your cousins and left the growing up stuff to Mom and Dad?  

Aiming our plans at The Future, the big, bad, hairy, scary future, keeps us from enjoying the kiddie pools in our current lives. We keep looking toward the day we can live on the beach rather than acknowledging that we can have a darn good time making a splash right here and right now. 

Give yourself a break. Look at the next half hour.  

This is the time to consider the little things that mean the most to you. Move slowly, look at what—and who—is around you, and inhale. That’s all there ever has been: tiny, beautiful moments that add up to a big life.  

If baking calms you, get out the flour and put on an apron. If it's painting, dig out your brushes and a canvas and have a go. Or join friends for a concert or a play. Make a throw pillow. Have long talks with your husband. Listen to your kids tell stories. Get a dog.

For the past year or so, I've been taking photos of my daily walks and posting them on Facebook, and this has resonated with my friends. It keeps me amused as I walk, it's a fun creative outlet, and it chronicles the beauty of the nature I am blessed with—the sun setting over a pond, geese flying above, a fanciful neighborhood garden with tiny dinosaurs and painted rocks. Others miss much of this because they whiz by too fast.

I think my friends like seeing the photos because they're reminded of the small and the memorable. The little things that take a second glance to see.

The photos are proof that I am still here, still walking, still enjoying even the smallest of the smalls.

Twelve years ago, I felt channeled into murky and muddy waters darkened by cancer. It took years for that to wash away, for the cancer to recede in importance, for my life to become about little pools of calm and warmth, and for me to learn to stay afloat, trusting that there's not a shark underneath.

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