Cancer survivorship can come with so many unknowns and ways of navigating a new life, forever changed by the physical and mental experience of cancer. While cancer patients and those going through treatment rightfully receive the support, care and attention they need, survivors can often find themselves feeling adrift afterwards, a position I found myself in when I finished my treatment almost a full year after my initial diagnosis.
After surviving malignant pleural mesothelioma and my initial prognosis of just 15 months, I realized community and resources for cancer survivors can be difficult to come by. While there are so many wonderful counselors, services and groups that offer support, very often survivors can lack access to them, or not even know where to begin working through their emotions. Mental health can have both stigma and shame attached to it. Through my work now as a patient advocate, it’s something I work against so that no one feels they have to face this uncertain new life alone.
Life after cancer is filled with so many emotions, memories and unknowns that can be exhausting, confusing and even debilitating. My own post-treatment experience was one of trying to find purpose after losing what felt like everything: my career, health, friends and the life that I had imagined with my husband and infant daughter. I found myself overwhelmed and alone, even though I was fortunate to have the support of my family and dear friends. It was years of trying to figure out what “surviving” meant and felt like, putting on brave faces and pretending to be what I imagined “normal” looked like.
After seven years of trying to work through it myself, one day I realized my crippling anxiety at even the thought of my daughter catching a cold wasn’t normal. The way I saw life through the lens of fear wasn’t normal, nor was the feeling that joy had faded from my life. Finding a therapist who specialized in post-cancer trauma and later diagnosed me with PTSD, finally helped put me on a path towards working through my experience. Recognizing what triggered my anxiety and learning how to ask for help when I needed it were two of the greatest things I learned from my therapy. Along with support from my friends and family, seeking help was what pulled me out of my own turmoil and gave me the strength to find and fully embrace my new purpose in life as an advocate.
What I experienced is not an uncommon or unique situation for cancer survivors to face, nor are the feelings of anxiety, depression, anger and isolation. What I hope is that seeking help, finding community and getting the support that cancer survivors need will also become a common part of survivorship. Survivor’s guilt, PTSD and anxiety from treatment are real and raising awareness, and support for this community of survivors facing these realities is so important.
In my experience, being honest and open about the struggles of navigating these issues are what make a difference. No one understands the paradoxes of being a cancer survivor better than fellow survivors do. I work as hard as I can to make my support and voice heard so that others can find their own.
This June, we mark Cancer Survivor’s Day, an opportunity to not only celebrate survivors in our life, but the chance to support them as well. It’s a time to highlight their triumphs as well as their struggles, raise awareness for not only cancer research, but also ways to support survivors as they rebuild their “new normal.” We need to speak up about mental health awareness for cancer survivors and their own unique needs. There are valuable resources and services available for cancer survivors that can help them heal and find their way. But their greatest strength comes from knowing they’re not alone.