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What No One Told Me About Life After Cancer

“Patient (pt.) received into care with resected high-risk colon cancer for adjuvant chemotherapy. Pt. will undergo egg fertilization therapy and port-implantation prior to chemo […] pt. informed cancer will be terminal if it recurs.”

This is how they teach us to document in the healthcare field — pt. has condition x, y and z, and as a result pt. will elect (or not if we’re being “difficult”) to undergo treatment. While undergoing chemotherapy, pt. will not be identified by their name; pt. is now identified by a number, or rather, a series of numbers. A number enables greater confidentiality. It is a security measure. It is for our own good.

Plot twist: We are never just numbers. If I could say anything to 22-year-old me post-diagnosis it would be this:

Cancer is the club you never asked to be a part of, yet, here you are — and welcome. I am sorry, this is likely the most unwelcome welcome you could ask for. But I am also here. And contrary to what you may have been told, there is no “good” cancer, and you are not “lucky.” There is nothing wrong with you for being concerned about your future fertility — it is important to you and that should be honored. The world needs a lesson in cancer edict; you should feel the depth of your emotions and embrace the chaos and pain. And right now — you do not need to take care of anyone else, just yourself; that is likely a lesson you will spend a lifetime learning.

Contrary to popular opinion, your pain will not go away — but you will adjust. Your world will grow around the pain, and one day your sphere will grow so large that cancer, and the pain it caused, will just be a part of it — not all of it. It will bring new perspectives and wisdom. And love. It will make you fall in love with yourself and the world. You will appreciate the beauty of the little things — so much so, that you will embarrass yourself in front of a future date by staring at the stars… and then falling off of the curb. Unfortunately, cancer does not teach you how to be smooth or coordinated. And in the future, there will be a pandemic — where everyone hoards toilet paper and uploads memes on social distancing. You my friend, are a pro at social distancing. You will embrace all of your cancer activities once more — striving to be a yogi-bear, watching too many TED-talks and reorganizing your home for the ten thousandth time. It truly will be a blast from the past.

From patient to nurse — I have been told that is inspirational, but I still cannot grasp why. A cellular mutation led me to nursing school; I did not have control over this mutation, but I do feel like it was fated. If not for cancer, I’d still be studying air particulate matter while living in Hamilton. I’d be frequenting my favorite thrift shops on James Street while taking plenty of coffee and brewery breaks (for hydration of course). I would also still be power-lifting a rather aggressive amount — but I would kick-ass. I loved my life before cancer — but I never felt fulfilled. While in undergrad, I came to understand that purpose fosters a feeling of fulfillment — leading me to look everywhere for mine. And every year after that realization, I would make that my birthday wish — to find my purpose and be unequivalently happy. I did not envision cancer as the catalyst, but stranger things have happened.

“How courageous, how strong — what a great nurse you will be.” I feel like that is misleading. At my lowest moments prior to diagnosis, I would try bartering with some unknown spiritual presence, I would kneel down and pray that I could die in my sleep so I would no longer be in pain, or that I could wake up the next day and be pain-free — and in turn, I would dedicate my life to helping others. My strength and courage was in getting up that next day, every day, until I was no longer in pain. It was persevering despite being exhausted. Actions have always been my preferred choice of positive affirmation. Language can be a powerful tool — but it can be insufficient. Words have meaning — but can be hollow without context. They lose their meaning and power, and can often be misconstrued. If I could say anything to the general population it would be this:

Cancer is not just pink. Beware of cause-marketing, you do not need to support conglomerate corporations’ capitalizing off our pain. Instead, consider supporting the grassroots’ organizations; donate to the research centres, or better yet — donate your time. The concept of celebrating “warriors and survivors” comes from an honest and genuine place, but have you ever considered that it may be unfair to those who have died? Framing individuals who have had cancer as “survivors” indicates that others “lost” their “battle.” Those are all fighting words — and yes it is a fight. But it is one that cancer never wins. It is a fight within yourself, for yourself and your loved ones. Cancer always dies. If you die, cancer dies with you. By using those terms, are we not inadvertently giving power to cancer by implying it had a chance of winning? I met so many wonderful individuals in treatment — and none of them lost. Yes, some died — but cancer never won. For me, I use the term “thriver” — because at the end of the day, I’ve always believed that thriving is a human goal that transcends all individuals. And for me, thriving implies living in peace — in a state of appreciation; it is being surrounded by friends and family, it is filling a home with love and laughter and being able to take care of others. And dogs. It is a home filled with all of the dogs.

And now here we are. It’s been three years, six months, and 15 days since my emergency surgery where I was diagnosed with stage IIIB colorectal cancer; this was after a lengthy period of misdiagnosis — compliments of being a young, “stressed,” female. Healthcare has a way of doing that — boxing you in. Misdiagnosis taught me that as females we are stronger together and must be each other’s biggest advocates. Fighting to be diagnosed was and remains my toughest challenge to date — and telling my family I had cancer was no easy feat. I have always preferred phone calls, but for some unknown reason, felt that this exact moment was the time to embrace texting. I could not grasp the gravity of what the cancer diagnosis would mean for those closest to me — my family. So I hid from them, not wanting to face their sadness. I am not proud of that moment, but I have tried to learn from it.

Convention has never applied to my family; my parents did not embody stereotypical gendered roles and raised us accordingly. My father was our primary caregiver growing up — a proud stay-at-home-dad and Mr. “Fix-it,” — yet cancer was the one thing he could not fix, which is a fact I do not think he will ever come to terms with. My mother worked long-hours as an engineer in a male-dominated industry, demonstrating to me the power of strong females. Misdiagnosis made me all too aware of the gendered power-imbalances that still exist in society; imbalances they sheltered me from. My parents taught us to trust our instincts and be confident in our decisions — instilling this unshakable belief. Cancer shook that belief.

Cancer has a way of transforming you — whether you are ready for it or not. Three years. six months. Fifteen days. That’s not actually that long; it is truly the strangest thing — looking back on my life, it is almost as if life before cancer is a film I can reflect on. I sure had fun, but it feels like it was an eternity ago. If there is one thing cancer taught me, it is that you are not in control of your life, but you are in control of your reactions and what you make of it. And that it is OK if your life does not adhere to some arbitrary path society expects of us — get a degree, get a job, get married, have babies — as if life is a straightforward line, an upwards progression. But I’ve come to learn that my life charted would be much more comparable to a squiggle, but that is OK. Growth does not have to be linear, and symmetry is not for everyone.

I still go for excessively long walks with my dog [child] trying to clear my head. I adopted Rae shortly after I finished chemotherapy; I was exhausted and so incredibly lonely. I did not want to fill that loneliness with another person — and I was hyperaware of the work I needed to do on myself to figure out who I was after cancer. So, after much deliberation and research, I went ahead and adopted her. Quite honestly it is the best decision I have ever made; having her to focus on helped me put my pieces back-together. I still have bad days — days where walking by young families and babies makes me cry. And I occasionally still have bad nights too — where I wake up feeling as if the many moments where the little pieces of me that were shattered and lost are hitting me all at once. But thankfully those are farther and fewer in-between now. Maybe time does have a way of healing you.

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I am so proud of my body. Of what it can do, and of what it may do. And every time I look down at my scars — the ridges, the bumps, and the many indents; I am reminded of the gift I have of life, but I am also reminded of the pain. It is a constant reminder of my past and everything that has changed. But in my case, change is not a bad thing — and I might not have the same dreams I had before, but I think my current dreams are pretty great. It is my hope to one day have a family and create a home filled with love and laughter — but I still struggle with dating post-cancer. Doctors never discuss that with you, but after cancer — they really should. This online dating world we live in is tough at the best of times, try adding in the cluster fuck of scenarios going through the mind of someone who has had cancer. The constant wondering…

If I got pregnant, would this person be capable of raising our child (spawn) if I died? Or, how would they handle the barf-storm that is chemo if my cancer recurred and I was enrolled in a clinical trial?

Those are all premature concerns. Cancer did that. It made me consider scenarios a, b and c, and sometimes scenario d, if I’m feeling a little extra razzle dazzle that day. I have always assumed I would be a mother. It was the one thing I was sure of — that I would be a great mom. After cancer, it is the one thing I am unsure of — which breaks my heart, but I cannot help but think it would be selfish for me to have a child. My inner voice is relentless. I tell myself to live in the present, but life doesn’t follow a plan; a fact I am painfully aware of. And there are no guidelines for dating post-cancer, which is an undertaking that can be tough at the best of times. We live in a dating world of heightened games, minimal accountability and unrealistic expectations — and cancer is just that extra razzle dazzle most men are not expecting. Knowing that the keyboard warriors can just swipe left when life turns makes it that much tougher.

Cancer took a lot from me; mainly, it took my innocence by forcing me to realize the cruelty of this world too soon. It made me hyperaware of my own mortality and took my ability to relate to my peers. I now feel most at peace and comfortable with others who have faced their own mortality. But cancer gave me a lot — the pain it caused enabled me to have greater perspective and appreciation for everything. It gave me an insatiable drive to accomplish my dreams. It gave me purpose. It forced me to address everything I was avoiding. It made me a better version of me. And I wouldn’t change it — I wouldn’t change anything. And I have finally found my place, a city I have chosen to call home. A safe place — which if it is not obvious at this point, is very important to me. When I was sick I had so many regrets — I currently have zero. I have worked so hard to earn my “do-over.” And it was tough. But not as tough as cancer. Cancer taught me that life is short, and if you have the power to change something you regret you should. You should utilize your power and embrace it. Your birthdate is guaranteed for the rest of your life — your expiration date is not. Remember that.

Much love,
Your average over-caffeinated dog-mama

Photo by Timur Romanov on Unsplash

Originally published: July 16, 2020
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