Taking Care of Me, All of Me, After Cancer
“Tara, you have cancer.” At 37, I didn’t expect to hear those words. I was in the best shape of my life, I was training for a half marathon, my oldest was graduating from high school and was leaving for college in a few months. My family was happy and healthy, and I was excited for all the changes that were happening in my family.
Those three words — “You have cancer” — not only shocked me, but also brought back all kinds of emotions and feelings from the past.
This unfortunately wasn’t my first experience with cancer.
At 14 years old I was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease and went through about a year and a half of chemotherapy. That experience and that part of my life seem so long ago, and I honestly blocked a lot of it out. I don’t know if it’s just because it happened so long ago or if my brain just went into protective mode and shut down. I do remember how sick I felt and how awful the treatment made me feel. I was 14 and wanted so desperately to feel normal. I wanted to be with my friends and do all the normal stuff you do when you’re a teenager. I didn’t want to worry about chemo and scans and whether or not my hair was going to fall out. I didn’t want to worry about how much school I was going to miss. I remember how much stress and worry this put on my family, especially my parents. I remember crying when I went in for my last treatment because I was so afraid that if I wasn’t getting treatment, my cancer would come back.
As time went on, I fell right back into being a “normal” teenager and pushed that experience and those feelings far into the back of my mind.
Fast forward to 23 years later and hearing those words again. This time it was breast cancer, and I knew that the stakes were much higher. I have a wonderful husband and three beautiful kids. I don’t just have me to worry about anymore! They need me. I have to be healthy. I have to stay strong.
After hearing those words, I went into fighter mode. I got this. I’ll do whatever they tell me to do, and I’ll fight and keep a positive attitude the whole time. I tried my best to do just that. Three lumpectomies, 4 rounds of chemo and 33 radiation treatments later, I completed breast cancer treatment.
So now what?
What do I do with all these emotions? Why can I not stop worrying about my cancer returning? Why do I have so much survivor’s guilt? When will the anxiety about scans and testing go away?
There’s so much talk and information out there about the physical part of cancer. We hear over and over again about what cancer and cancer treatment does to our bodies. The fatigue and all the aches and pains that come with treatment. The nausea, the mouth sores and weird tastes. Hair loss and weight gain and all the rashes and burnt skin. I felt it all. But on top of all the physical symptoms, I felt all the anxiety. I felt all the stress from not only my battle with breast cancer, but also the battle I faced when I was a teenager. It all came flooding back. It was a lot. Overwhelmed was an understatement.
We need to know it’s normal to have survivor’s guilt. We need to know it’s normal that every time you get sick or don’t feel right, your mind goes right to cancer. We need to normalize that cancer is not only a physical experience, but a mental one as well.
I think about cancer ALL THE TIME. I worry about it returning. I worry about my friends and family getting cancer. I hate that I think about it as much as I do. I hate that my family worries so much about me and my health. I hate that cancer has been such a big part of my life.
I have tried to prioritize my mental health a lot more this time around and even though I still struggle with certain aspects and probably will for the rest of my life, I have found some things that have really helped me:
- Therapy has been super beneficial. I found a wonderful therapist that gave me so many tools and advice on how to deal with stress in a healthy way.
- What also helps relieve some stress for me is to get outside and enjoy nature. Running and hiking with my husband and our dog and riding bike has really helped with not only losing some of the weight I gained during treatment, but also helps me clear my mind.
- Reading is one of my absolute favorite ways to tune out the noise and relax. I love to read all kinds of books, but also reading about other people’s journeys with cancer has been extremely helpful. It makes me feel normal and less alone. Reading others’ stories is very therapeutic and has helped me realize how important and powerful it is to share your story with others.
- Having a wonderful support system with family and friends has been one of the biggest gifts and has helped me tremendously over the years. Whether it’s been family vacations, going out for breakfasts and dinners, having girls’ nights or weekends away, being involved in book clubs, sitting around a fire, going to concerts, going to the beach or just getting a random text or phone call by someone just to say Hello and to check in. It’s all those things that make it easier. The big and the little stuff. To feel loved, supported and understood and to know I am not alone has made me fight harder and has given me the strength to get through some pretty rough days.
Cancer and its treatments are not one size fits all. When I beat cancer the first time, I wasn’t really concerned about my mental health. This time around with breast cancer, I was prepared and more proactive about not only taking care of myself physically, but mentally as well. Not one day has been easy, but finding different ways to keep my mind and body healthy, along with a positive attitude really has allowed me to get through the difficult days. Taking care of me, all of me, has been my main focus since being diagnosed for the second time and will continue to be as I keep moving forward. — Tara
Read more from the community on mental health here!