The Next Stage of My Cancer Journey – Chemo Done but Now What?
I received this email the other day from a friend who is five years past her cancer experience.
“I’ve been thinking of you as you move in to the next stage of your cancer journey. I remember having very mixed feelings at each stage – I was somewhat worried/scared as the treatments lessened.”
I recently had posted my good news on Caringbridge, a blog site for people who want to keep loved ones informed about their status. I got flowers, cheers and positive replies, one saying “open the champagne.”
And yet, I was not elated. It was like a bright light was shining my way and I was afraid to look at it. Was it fear of dashed hopes?
Was it the connection I feel with the suffering of others, including the horrific situation in Nicaragua, where my husband’s family lives? Was it worry that I might jinx myself if I got excited? Maybe a bit of everything.
Getting in Touch with Grief
Rather than feeling bad about not being elated, I got in touch with some of the grief of the past eight months. This included the sudden shift in my life – the magical, yet poisonous chemo drugs that both saved me and zapped my energy to a point where I was breathless when I walked to the kitchen.
At first, I could not write back to any of my well-wishers. I spent some time alone, thinking about everything.
Eventually, I talked to my daughter and a few close friends. I managed to say a bit about these feelings out loud. That helped.
The next day, I shared my ambivalence on Caringbridge, feeling that this was a place where people might understand. While I have been upbeat during most of my cancer experience, I wanted to be sure I was authentic.
A friend of my dad’s wrote a message to me. As an 11-year cancer survivor, his recommendation was to stay simple, stay 100% positive at all costs, and, with a singular focus on healing, eliminate all negative thoughts.
He reminded me that my own father, age 92, had cancer twice over 25 years ago. He even apologized for the ‘tough love’. I learned that everyone has a different way of coping. Caringbridge lets you give a reply, so here is what I wrote to my dad’s friend:
“Advice well-taken. But, this is my space to share my real feelings… and I feel better when I do. I agree to stay as positive as possible, when possible. I agree that healing is the goal, but compassion and love is a goal too – including self-compassion.”
The Chemo Experience Is Different for Everyone
Everyone has different reactions and a different experience. I heard from my wonderful clinical trial nurse that the feelings of fear are not uncommon at the end of intense chemo treatment.
The chemo, as hard as it is, serves as some kind of a shield. As long as you are getting treatment, you are taking action. But, what then?
It is a few weeks later now. I did allow myself to feel the grief. Now I am beginning to enjoy the great feeling of getting my energy back. I have a bit of hair too. I cleared the mantle of the many cards and the bathroom shelf of the baking soda and salt and Biotene for dry mouth.
I filled the house with roses from my garden and began to walk up gentle hills. I even went back to the gym and fired up my hot tub. I have nearly a year of maintenance chemo ahead but am feeling very grateful for both my self-compassion and the compassion I feel for others.
At least I can say one thing for sure, we all have a lot to learn on our journeys.
What have your feelings been at the end of chemotherapy treatment? Have you or one of your loved ones or friends been on a cancer journey? What do they share about their experiences? Let’s have a discussion about it in the comments below.
Becki Cohn-Vargas, Ed.D works as an independent consultant to schools and organizations with over 35 years as a teacher, principal, curriculum director, and superintendent in public education in California. With Dr. Dorothy Steele, she co-authored the book, Identity Safe Classrooms: Places to Belong and Learn. Becki and her husband Rito are also working to develop an environmental research center on their private reserve in the Nicaraguan rain forest. They live in El Sobrante, California, and have three adult children.