About two years after I finished treatment I was having dinner with a friend and decided to tell her that I was feeling down and I couldn’t figure out why. My mind seemed sharper, I no longer felt like I needed a nap after the gym, I had a cute bob… and the world was still blissfully unaware that COVID-19 was about to reek havoc on our planet.
“It’s normal,” my friend said. “You are just going through the next stage of the grieving process… You know, the five stages of grief?”
I was confused. I wasn’t grieving. But then I Googled a grieving diagram and, whoa, I was textbook.
When you are given a cancer diagnosis, you realize that something you’d long taken for granted - your health - has suddenly been taken from you. Not only are you losing that, but most of us end up losing our hair, a part of our body that we thought defined our womanhood, our energy, and ultimately, our identity. We lose a little bit of ourselves when we hear, “You have cancer” and all that ensues. It takes a moment - and by moment, I mean years - to fully metabolize what just happened to us. Whether we like it or not, acknowledge it or not, we all go through the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. And we need to. It’s all part of the “process.”
Below I’ve shared how I went through these stages myself. I have a feeling many of you will relate…
From the day my doctor called me with the news, until I was about two rounds into chemo, I waited for a phone call from the lab who’d run my biopsies. “We’ve made a mistake. We mixed your tissue samples up with someone else's. You’re totally fine. We’re so sorry.”
I even planned on suing the lab for their error and making me endure two rounds of chemo when I was completely healthy.
I truly believed I was going to receive that phone call.
After I saw there was no way of getting out of my diagnosis, or chemo, or radiation, or endocrine therapy, I found myself looking at grumpy old people smoking in the park or accosting some random person, thinking, “She’s a hundred and five, smoking, a full-on meany… Why the hell couldn’t she have been the one to get cancer? I’ve got my whole life ahead of me!” I was thirty-seven when I was diagnosed.
Then I got mad at pesticides, pollution, processed food, self-inflicted stress, Celiac Disease, microwaves, and everything else I suspected contributed to my cancer.
After the smoke coming out of my ears cleared, I decided that in order to heal, I needed to help others by opening up and sharing. At first my logic was juvenile: “If people see me in this weakened state, maybe it’ll make me strong.” Being on the receiving end of sympathy has never been something I’ve enjoyed.
Then I needed to give this thing that had happened to me a reason for happening to me. Maybe if I went through it and talked about it, I could save someone else. Maybe I could make someone else’s journey through cancer less scary. Perhaps then it would not all be for naught.
But I was scared. Really scared. At one point, when I finally realized I had zero control over anything, I looked up and told the sky: “Just let me see my kids into adulthood. Please. That’s it. If you do that, I’ll do anything.” I then went on to list all the parts of myself I’d sacrifice if it would guarantee I’d be able to stay around for my kids.
This is an obvious one, but it may show up in less obvious ways. For instance, after finishing treatment, when you imagine you’d be honking air horns and swinging from chandeliers with elatement, many of us are like, “Great. Now what? I just spent the past year in and out of the hospital, fighting for my life, now everything is supposed to, what? Go back to normal?”
For me, the first couple of years out of treatment I was so focused on not “allowing” myself to get depressed, that when year two rolled in, and I was feeling rather unlike myself, my desire for life deflated, I didn’t feel like hanging out with people, I thought my writing was terrible, that my spouse didn’t get me and never would, that I was a sucky mom… I felt all of this, but it wasn’t until my friend spelled it out to me that night at dinner: “You’re in the next stage of your grief cycle: Depression,” that if finally registered that I was depressed.
We are so focused on holding it together for our families, for our jobs, for our friends, for ourselves, that we often chose to ignore the red flags.
We lost our health. The rug was pulled out from under people we thought we were and we were left flat on the floor, bruised and broken. For me, none of my friends had been through what I’d been through. Maybe they had a grandparent or an aunt who’d had cancer, but no one had experienced it firsthand. No one got it. Everything had finally sunk in and it sucked. Deeply.
Prior to this realization, I believed I’d been striding forward, looking at life through a new lens, making more time to really connect with and be present for my kids, but doing that meant going back to the mundane, day-to-day of making lunches, braiding hair, telling kids to do homework, writing, but not publishing enough of my work, still too fragile send it out and possibly deal with rejection. I also no longer had my little network of supporters cheering me on, telling me how amazing I was, how admirably I was handling everything I was going through… that everything was going to be okay.
Getting through cancer was supposed to change my life, but now I was just right back to where I’d been before I started my whole “journey.” I was playing catch-up more than striding forward. I was making up for all the things I’d missed and suddenly frustrated with how “normal” everything seemed. I was no longer in gladiator mode, running through fire so that I could survive for the sake of my children. I’d done it. I had survived.
Now what? Offering peanut butter and jelly on toast or oatmeal for breakfast?
Like most of you, I’m still trying to figure “what’s next.” Maybe you flipped your life and are full-on pursuing your dreams… Maybe you are more than happy to be fully immersed in mundane (it’s better than sitting in a chair with a needle in your arm). Once you realize that the dreams you had prior to cancer are still the dreams you have now and they are as equally difficult to attain as they were pre-cancer, it’s a smack in the face. For me, the difference now is that I’m now fully aware that I will not be okay biting it until I’ve accomplished more of those dreams than I have. Cancer’s good at making you realize what you still haven’t done. Once you clearly understand that time is indeed limited, it makes you work a little harder on attaining your goals.
I’m not sure if I’m at this stage yet or not. Almost four years after my diagnosis, I am finally less scared of recurrence than I used to be. A few weeks ago I gave my wig away to a woman who was starting chemo and couldn’t afford a decent wig. I recently got mad at a haircut after swearing, when I was bald, that I’d never get mad at a haircut ever again. The reality of my situation is that I may have recurrence, but there is an 85-90% chance I will not. I have accepted that. I no longer wake up and think, “I might have cancer right now and not know it.” When someone asks me why I’m not drinking/eating dairy/don’t want a piece of sugar-filled birthday cake, I no longer feel the need to explain to them that I had cancer and I’m trying to take care of myself. When someone asks, “Did you used to have really short hair?” I just smile and say “yes.” While I don’t love my scars, I barely think of them any more. The need for me to be perfect has dissipated. Perfect is about as boring as boring can get. Give me my history. Give me the all the pain I have experienced. Give me the scars I never wanted. All of these things have given me the power I don’t think I would have otherwise have had. The power to accept myself and the fact that life is random. It has also allowed me to understand that I’m not alone, that everyone, at some point, has to deal with some really tough sh*t, and in order to move on, we all have to accept what has happened to us, heal by going through these rollercoaster of emotions, and then, and only then, will be be able to release the pain that cancer has caused us.