When you are in active cancer treatment, there is often a next step- next appointment, next blood draw, next infusion, next scan to evaluate effectiveness of treatment, next poke, next prod, next how to you measure on the scale of symptoms. Appointments, appointments, appointments. Measurements, measurements, measurements. Somedays you feel like you have hardly come up for air before you are back at the doctors again.
When you are post treatment, there is often a next step- for example the next appointment with your oncologist- but in between that moment of- “adios treatment and follow up”… well, for the most part, it’s essentially up to you.
What is really tricky about this next step is the lack of concrete tools to measure exactly how you are doing. During treatment, my doctors could be so precise about how my body was doing, the blood work told the story of how I was faring with the toxic medicine. The blood work, plus the intensity of a specific list of symptoms, provided clear information to help us make crucial decisions. Scans gave us a sense of whether or not the treatment was being effective. Going through chemotherapy was scary, yet often I felt very comforted by the close attention that my team paid to my health and how expertly they navigated the waters towards our intended destination- NED.
Post treatment life is a different beast altogether, it is not as concrete of a path, nor are their concrete tools to measure where you are, nor are there tools that can predict how far you can go exactly in reclaiming who you are. Your blood work can’t measure the emotional impact that cancer has left, which means that you have to develop your own sense of trust in understanding exactly how you are doing- because no test, no scan, will be able to provide supportive evidence.
And that is tricky, right? Because one of the most common after effects of cancer is wondering who the heck you are, and what the heck you have been through. Not only do you feel lost, but it typically erodes your sense of self confidence. And why is that? Because you have been completely thrown to the wolves, facing the four universal fears (of dying, of being alone, of losing a sense of purpose, of losing freedom) while simultaneously being reminded that you have very little control in this life.
Let’s face it, that often leaves us feeling like we are on shaky ground.
The good thing is, you are not alone. Yes, we may need to give up our attachments to having concrete evidence. Yes, we may need to give up our attachments to knowing exactly how close to “normal” we may ever be again. Yes, in order to heal, you will need to walk through the fire. And yes, in order to do that you need to have solid connections to your fellow cancer survivors, who can look you in the eye and affirm- they know exactly what you mean.
In the meantime, I am in the process of working on a free assessment tool that will be available shortly. This tool is designed to help you reflect upon the changes, challenges and raise awareness of what you might want to address to improve your health and wellness. The tool may not ever be as concrete as reading the results of your lab work, but it is a step in that direction. Stay tuned for more!
-Stephanie McLeod-Estevez, LCPC, is an art therapist and breast cancer survivor, and a former oncology counselor at the Dempsey Center. She began Creative Transformations to help others who are healing from a life threatening illness or injury. Through Creative Transformations, she works with people in person and online to offer cancer coaching, an Art as Therapy program, workshops, and this weekly blog. Check out the individual packages. Sign up today so you never miss a blog and find us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.