As Childhood Cancer Awareness month comes to an end, I wanted to write about one last thing that's so important.
What it's actually like to be a cancer survivor.
People constantly tell me I’m “so brave” for being happy and positive through my cancer journey. They tell me that they admire how I’ve grown through my experience to become someone who could make it through any challenge. Yes, I may often end up or come off as happy, positive and cheery in the face of adversity, but that does not mean I always feel that way. I may have “won” against cancer, but I certainly don’t always feel like a winner.
There is so much emotional drainage of facing your mortality, often multiple times, for years after treatment “ends.” The frustration of an all-too-slow recovery and even worse, the realization that you may never be your old self again. All of this impacts many cancer patients long after their last treatment is over.
Finishing treatment is hailed as a victory, as something that needs to be celebrated. And many do go on to do great things and develop amazing personalities and attitudes. So cancer survivors become hailed as heroes, physical embodiments of the word brave.
The thing is, all survivors are now expected to act that way. They too often have to put a smile on their face because the cancer and treatment are “finished,” its impacts on their lives is now “complete.” But that expectation is truly unfair. 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 easy being grateful for the worst thing that’s ever happened to you. I feel so tired. It’s been (almost) five long years, and I’m still not done dealing with this. I never will be.
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.
When I'm frustrated about how long it is taking me to get back to "normal", or at how I feel that I am held back by the cancer I had, I choose to see that I’ll get there, in time. In all honestly, I can still do so much, I can still improve myself. I can 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 thing.
You are not weak just because you think life is hard and even painful at times. You are definitely not alone. In fact, you are normal and in truth stronger for it.
To those of you who know may someone going through a hard time, whether it be cancer or any other difficult situation, I hope this lets you know that just because someone may seem to be dealing with it well, it does not mean they are. Because the simple question, “Are you OK?” can save truly lives.