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The Truth About Being a Cancer Survivor That's Not Often Talked About

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People always tell me I’m “brave” for being so happy and positive through my journey. They admire how I’ve adapted and grown through my experience to be this guy who could logic his way through any challenge. Sure, I may often end up or come off as happy, positive and cheery in the face of adversity, but that’s not always how I truly feel. I may have “won” against cancer, but I certainly don’t always feel like a winner.

In reality, the ugly, not-too-well-known truth about cancer is that it affects you long after it’s left your body. The physical fatigue, maintenance treatments and weariness are just the tip of the iceberg. The emotional drainage of facing your mortality, sometimes multiple times, often for years after treatment “ends.” The frustration of an all-too-slow recovery and the realization that you may never be your old self again. All of this plagues many cancer patients long after their last treatment is over. Not to mention the medical bills…

But finishing treatment is still hailed as a victory, as something that needs to be celebrated. And so many — and good on them — go on to do great things and develop amazing personalities and attitudes. So cancer survivors (survivors of any tragedy, for that matter) become hailed as heroes, physical embodiments of those words: “brave,” “blessed” and “bright.”

The thing is, survivors are now expected to act that way. They too often have to put on a smiley face because the cancer and treatment is “finished,” its impacts on their lives “complete.” But that expectation is unfair. It’s causing us to set unreasonable expectations for how we should feel or where we should be after treatment. Even worse, it’s leading to many survivors hiding their true feelings; it’s leading to too many feeling ashamed or weak when they don’t feel as strong as people think they are. 

Expecting someone to feel glad they survived cancer is like telling war veterans with PTSD that they should pucker up and just be glad they’re alive. 

It’s not always easy being grateful for the worst thing that’s ever happened to you.

So, if I’m being honest…

Sometimes, I hate that I got cancer. I hated having to suffer through it. And to this day, I still suffer because of it. I spend more time at the hospital getting treatment and waiting around for appointments than I do at university or hanging out with friends. I get aches, spasms and cramps every day for no apparent reason. I have skin peeling from my body that itches incessantly, and I can’t do anything about it. I get tired for no reason, I fall in and out of depressive moods every few weeks, and I’ve had to go from not being able to walk from all the tiredness and weakness to being able to live a normal life eight times now!

I don’t feel blessed. I don’t feel brave. I don’t feel proud. I don’t feel glad to be alive. Not all the time. More than anything, I feel tired. It’s been four long years, and I’m still not done with this.

And I’m not alone here either. I believe most, if not all, survivors hold this view to some extent. Many, however, hide it instead of dealing with it. 

I’m writing this to let you know that you don’t have to be brave, badass or blessed to beat cancer.

You don’t have to put up a facade or berate yourself for the expectations of others. And it’s OK to feel down and pissed off every now and then. Everyone does. You’re not weak to admit that you’re going through pain and suffering, physically and emotionally. In fact, it’s pretty brave to admit that you are. 

You shouldn’t have to feel that way. You shouldn’t be ashamed that you’re finding things hard.

But if you can admit to yourself that you are at times, it’s actually the best thing you can do for yourself. 

Realizing and accepting that I was human, that there were things I couldn’t control and that it would take time to get better, didn’t bring me down into despair. If anything, it prepared me for those tough times. And it left me only one way to go: up.

It was what allowed me to take a step back and look at where I was without any delusions of grandeur or expectations of miracles. I looked at the big picture and focused on what I could control rather than what I couldn’t. And that was what got me through this, not some inner strength or positivity or the blessing of others (although they were always appreciated). Those two simple steps of (1) taking a step back and (2) questioning my fears and obstacles until I saw and focused on what I could control. I believe you — hell, anyone reading this — can do this for any of your problems. Because it’s helped me through many of mine. 

When I started feeling self-conscious due to the impacts of treatment, I realized I was only hurting myself to please others, and I chose to live my life how I wanted to live it — not by how others told me I should. Over time, that’s made me the happiest, most self-confident version of myself.

When I get frustrated about how long it’s taking to get back to normal, or at how I’m being held back by this cancer, I choose to see that I’ll get there, in time. In truth, I could still do so much, I could still improve myself. I could still read, write and think. This whole experience has taught me so much about myself and what I can do. If anything, it’s brought me beyond my old normal.

So I want to leave you with one simple message. 

You’re not weak if you think life is hard and painful sometimes. You’re definitely not alone. In fact, you’re normal and in truth stronger for it. 

And for those of you who know others are going through hard times, whether it be cancer or any other tribulation, I hope this lets you know that just because someone may seem to be coping with it well, it doesn’t mean they are. Because that simple question, “Are you OK?” can save lives.

Breaking that stereotype of a survivor starts with you.

Follow this journey on Musing of a Med School Patient.

The Mighty, in partnership with Fuck Cancer, is asking the following: Share a story about one moment or conversation related to a cancer diagnosis or experience that made an impact on you. Find out how to email us a story submission here.

Originally published: January 27, 2016
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