February 4th is Cancer day. This is part 2 of my interview with a Cancer Survivor. If you haven’t read Part 1 (Life with Cancer), I would suggest you go and read that blog first before you read this. As it would give you a better understanding of the journey and obstacles she faced and how she overcame them.
Life after Cancer
Q1: Looking back what would you do differently when going through your diagnoses and treatments?
Not to take out my frustrations and anger on my loved ones. I was understandably angry at the whole situation but it was wrong of me to take it out on them. During those times my patience was often running thin and I had quite temper. I could burst even at the most minor things, or they would say things to comfort me and I would take it the wrong way and be angry and rude at them. What makes me feel worse is that even though I was rude at times, I never recall a time where any of them treated me with the same disrespect I gave out sometimes. Therefore, I would change the way I controlled my temper and outbursts and not to take those who love me for granted.
Q2: How are you living your life differently and why? Have your priorities changed?
Yes, they have changed in a way. I am a lawyer and after I finished my training I very fiercely pursued that career. Now after cancer, I still go after my dream of working as a lawyer, but I consider other things more important now.
My top priority now is my health. This is because I strongly believe that without our health we cannot achieve anything. During my treatments, working was very difficult and pursuing a legal career was out of the question. For a career in law, a strong attention to detail is paramount and feeling ill takes away this ability, no matter how smart/capable anyone is. Therefore, now I am very diligent, organised and understanding in keeping all my doctor’s appointments. If anything compromises your health it is not worthy. Health above all, I cannot emphasize this enough.
Happiness is also a priority for me now. The legal profession is an understandably competitive industry. All lawyers are intelligent, hardworking, reliable people. Therefore, the competition to get a job in this field is very high. Getting a job after cancer has been an uphill struggle due to the competition of strong candidates like myself. So this is a grey area for me now. With patience and perseverance will achieving a legal career actually make me happy, having faced so many rejections? Or shall I just get any job that I can do easily and live a comfortable life? I aim to prioritise my happiness, but I am not sure how to.
Q3: What challenges do you now face?
Due to the side effects of the radiation and the fluctuating levels of thyroxine I face certain health issues now. In general terms I tend to get tired more easily and I am more susceptible to getting common illnesses such as the flu.
My hair does not grow as fast as it used to and it is drier and not as thick. I think of all the survivors who lost all their hair and patiently waited for their hair to grow back in order to feel ‘normal’ again, whatever that means. I am grateful I am not faced with this dilemma, so I look at my changed hair texture in perspective. I recommend putting virgin coconut oil twice a week for smooth, long hair. I am a cancer survivor; trust me it works WONDERS.
Body image is also a problem for me. When I had cancer and after the treatment I lost so much weight that all my clothes, even tight fitting dresses hanged like pyjamas on me. That made me so upset because it was a reminder that something could have killed me. As I got better I started to put on more weight and was healthier. Social media affects us in one way or another, no matter how confident/strong one is. Everyone, especially women are bombarded with weight loss and the thinner you are the prettier you are. So, this got into my head. That the fact that I put on weight is a bad thing, which in fact is the exact opposite for me. I quite often feel that I am fat.
Unfortunately, most people have not been sympathetic. Statements such as ‘You are so skinny already, you are just being silly’ or ‘You are just seeking validation and compliments’, or ‘You are being narcissistic, manipulating people into telling you how beautiful you are’ or ‘You are pretty, but you would be even prettier if you put on weight’ are all offensive and disrespectful. These are far from the truth and it’s so hurtful to know that it’s only socially acceptable to have body image issues if you look a certain way. The reality is that ANYONE can have body image issues and they all should be addressed accordingly.
Q4: Have you tried new experiences that you wouldn’t have done before your diagnosis?
I have been doing martial arts since I was a young teenager, but I stopped for a couple of years due to many joint injuries, before my diagnosis. I have black belt in taekwondo and a yellow belt at kickboxing.
As part of my attempt to get my health back, I started taekwondo again. This time, I went to a new taekwondo school, than the previous one I was at, as a symbolism of a new beginning. Starting up the sport again was physically and psychologically challenging. Due to the fact that my health had deteriorated my punches and kicks were nowhere near to what they used to be and doing any sort of acrobatics was very difficult. As a black belt, I felt very embarrassed-both because having a black belt you need to keep certain standards and I was scared others would think I was a fraud. Thankfully, I have a very good instructor, who understood that my performance had little to do with my actual capabilities. So with time I improved. It came to a point where I was asked to represent Cyprus abroad in a taekwondo competition, but I was unable to go. As disappointing as it was, it was a huge honour, only the best are asked to do this, and this alone made me feel good about myself.
Therefore, in this case, I went for an experience that was something new and something old. I have done martial arts for years, which was my something old. And my something new is I have rekindled my passion for martial arts. I have also made new friends whom I would not have met otherwise. If I did not have cancer, perhaps I may not have gone back to this.
Q5: Do you have survivor’s guilt? What are you doing to overcome this?
Yes, I do have survivor’s guilt. In my head I thought ‘Why am I still alive, whereas so many people have died, are dying and will die of cancer?’.
I just dealt with it the old fashioned way. I disciplined my mind by thinking logically. As a dear friend told me during my treatment, it’s not my fault I am not going to die and that others have. He was completely right, the fact that others have to face death is something out of my control. Therefore, I keep this thought in my head and as a result my mentality changed. I have absolutely no reason to feel guilty that I have been more fortunate than others. In fact, I think people who have died of cancer would want me to thrive and not indulge in self-pity.
On a more practical level, it is helpful to do something active as being sunk into your thoughts can be so destructive, no matter how disciplined you are. For me this means practising my taekwondo, taking my dog for a walk, some shopping, going to a café to study and read over my law notes and legal news or watching movies. Keeping my mind occupied distracts me from destructive thinking which can potentially keep me in a deep dark hole with no way out. Throughout my treatment, I wanted so badly to get out of that dark hole, so logically it does not make sense not to try, especially that I am still alive.
Q6: What has helped you moved forward? Going from Cancer patient to Survivor
The first step to moving forward is to accept that I have been given a second chance at life and what a privilege it is. Most people only have one life, whereas I have been given more than one. Therefore, with the gift of life I want to take advantage of it in to become a survivor. I am still in the process of discovering what this actually means in practice, but I was spared for a reason and one way or another I am sure I will find out why I am a survivor.
Q7: What three things would you tell a person who just yesterday learned of their cancer diagnosis?
- If you want to cry just cry. There is nothing to be ashamed of, as it’s a lot of things to absorb at the same time
- Don’t cry indefinitely, as you need to be practical about your next steps. If you are not practical, recovery is impossible
- Turn to your loved ones. They are the ones who know you best and have your best interest in mind, so don’t take them for granted
Q8: What message would you like to provide women in the community about life after cancer?
It is not a bed of roses where you find yourself and you live your life happily ever after. It is a process. With many ups and downs, successes and failures. Whether it is feelings of anxiety/inadequacy, that knowing most people won’t understand you or gaining meaningful employment. But do not get discouraged as this is all part of the process, it is normal. As long as you take charge of your own life and do not let your circumstances get you down one way or another you will be ok. Because, hey you beat a disease which has cost the lives of millions. You beat death itself, so again looking at the wider picture, dealing with life’s challenges is something doable for us survivors.
I deal with a lot of uncertainty after cancer. Due to the fact that I had cancer once and considering my family history, I have higher chances of it returning as compared to the general population. Also since I have been exposed to radiation, there is a chance that I may not be able to have children. My advice is to focus on the facts. Go to your doctor’s appointments when needed just to check everything is alright and if there is anything it can hopefully be caught early.
Furthermore, if you are feeling unwell it is normal to be scared that it could be the cancer returning. However, the reality is that it is most likely just the common flu and aches and pains. Therefore, looking at this mechanically helps me on an emotional level. I aim to take one step at a time and just focus on what is right in front of me.