If there's one thing I've learned over the years as a cancer survivor, and just one thing I could say or one piece of advice I could give to cancer survivors everywhere who might be struggling in these challenging new lives as I had been, it's that the best way to survive cancer is to live the best possible life that you can.
I've been through some pretty dark periods during my cancer survivorship - and have written a bit previously about depression and indirectly about the PTSD that I experienced during the first half of 2013. It’s only natural if you’re experiencing either to become withdrawn, and especially if you’re experiencing post-traumatic stress your world becomes very small. Your mind’s protective instincts kick into overdrive and grip down on you hard, and the lines between real, perceived, and imagined threats become blurred such that everything and everyone around you becomes a potential threat to protect yourself from. When you’re having such terrifying and depressive thoughts, caregivers and loved ones will all tell you not to think about such things, but they don’t understand. When you’re in such a state you don’t have full control over your thoughts and emotions, and might not even have any control at all. The bad thoughts just find you, and you might not be able to consciously stop them. You must push back against this and get help if necessary. I've read the stories of fellow cancer survivors having been trapped in such states for years, and even know a few myself. People who have had pre-existing issues with anxiety and/or depression prior to cancer are especially prone to this, and I know just how easily this could happen. It’s no way to live, and if anything such dark periods are especially the time to double down and to truly “attack life”, as I know a friend of mine would say.
As I first started trying to pull myself out of this very dark period that I had experienced, it was important for me to spend and enjoy as much time with my family as possible. We had done some pretty cool things the previous year as a family just during the tail end of the year alone. We went to Disneyland over Thanksgiving of 2012, and in October just my wife and I managed to score some alone time without our kids and went on a private getaway to St Lucia to celebrate our anniversary. It was our first real getaway together since my cancer fight, and it was an incredible time. We knew what worked from 2012, and doubled down in 2013. We followed up our Disneyland trip with a trip to Disney World in the spring of 2013, and went to Chicago and on an awesome road trip across the Midwest in the summer, ending at the Minnesota State Fair in Minneapolis. We hit the beach more times than I could count, almost every weekend we had fun places to go and things to do locally, and my wife and I managed another private getaway again that October. I took care of myself, I did little things just for me each day, I rid my life of toxic influences to help clear my mind, and I kept a full and busy schedule.
As wonderful as my wife and family have been for me, supporting someone like me through such a painful and confusing time is far too big of a job for one person alone to handle. We have a family to take care of and a household to run, but the support I needed would have been an all-consuming effort for one person alone. As I’ve written previously, it takes an entire village to keep a cancer survivor feeling whole, especially when dealing with a lot of metal health fallout. During this time more than ever before in my life, it was important for me to find and develop friendships with people that “got me”, that I could stay engaged with, and most importantly that I felt safe around while sorting out post-traumatic stress. In February of 2013 I had plans to go to a basketball game with a long-time friend, but nearly cancelled at the last minute because my mind had been in all the wrong places that day. I forced myself to go though, and had a wonderful time. It was a few hours where my mind had plenty of things to concentrate on and stay engaged with besides cancer related demons, and it was a breathe of fresh air. A month or so later another friend invited me out to go hiking. It’s something I’d always wanted to try but just hadn't made the time, and it was another wonderful few hours with a trusted friend. I greatly enjoyed the outdoors, the wonderful change of scenery and the fresh air, and it was great exercise that forces you to focus outward on the trail and your surroundings, rather than what might be going through your mind. Around this same period of time I had just managed to meet a family at their daughter’s birthday party, which I almost didn't go to also for the same reasons. Bad thoughts had been plaguing me again that day and I just didn't want to be around people, but I forced myself to go. We quickly became friends when we realized that we lived right down the street from each other, and that there were so many common threads and interests between us. On outings together with our families, whether we were going hiking, to a museum on a day trip, or just out to dinner, I realized that there was a such a nice mix of personalities that I was able to stay engaged with these friends for an entire day, and not have a single cancer related thought even once. It was all such a relief and a huge mental breath of fresh air.
There was so much more going on here than just spending as much time with family and friends as possible. I was definitely having a great time and enjoying life, but by keeping me focused and engaged, all of my friends were collectively helping to rescue me from my own painful and terrifying thoughts that I didn't yet know how to control. By keeping my mind focused and engaged with them and whatever we happened to be doing, they aided in my healing process by throttling and slowing the rate of all of the painful thoughts I was experiencing to the point that I could process them one by one as they came. I had been drowning and was sinking, but friends helped slow this down the point that I could keep my head above water. It also lessened the strain on my wife, and gave her a breather. She needed her husband back, our kids needed their daddy back, and I needed to be able to stand on my own two feet. I’m truly grateful for and feel so much gratitude towards those that were there for me in my time of need.
By the end of the summer of 2013 around this time last year, everything finally clicked, and the answer all along was so obvious. The more engaged with life and living I was, and the more engaged I kept myself with friends, the less time I had to worry about things that might not ever happen, and the better off I was going to be. That’s not to say that I didn't still think about cancer because I did, and it’s not to say that I wasn't afraid because I was. After having kept so many bad feelings repressed and locked away inside of me for so long, I finally allowed myself to feel and express these terrible feelings. It was a great release to finally let them out, and like a huge weight had been lifted off of my shoulders, but I didn't stop living while doing so.
Towards the end of the year I finally managed to process and release all of the repressed fears and memories that had been haunting me, and I learned how to better control these things as they came such that they wouldn't ever gain the upper hand on me as they had been during the beginning of the year. I got the breathing room that I needed from the end of my two-year period of active surveillance, and stopped worrying so much about my cancer coming back. And I consciously chose that I was no longer going to worry myself to death about all of the things I had been worrying about before. Because we've had cancer once, we’re automatically at an elevated risk level for so many other types of cancer. Because our bodies had to endure the harsh and toxic treatments to beat said cancers, we’re automatically at an elevated risk level for secondary health problems later in life relating to said treatments. And because we commonly develop permanent side effects from said treatments that affect us today, there’s always the chance that they could get worse over time and we might not have the quality of life that we had expected as we age, especially if we’re faced with another health crisis. What if we experience a late relapse? I struggle in various ways today, what about tomorrow? What if we do develop another cancer? Will our bodies be able to handle it? What if something else happens? What if we don’t make it? How would our families go on? The list of worries never ends!
I quite literally had worried myself to death, from a mental health standpoint.
The harsh reality for everyone is that there’s never been any sort of guarantee on our health or longevity, and especially as cancer survivors there’s always going to be some sort of a dark cloud or question mark floating above our heads. There’s no sense in worrying about that which you have no control over, advice I had given myself long in the past but seemingly had forgotten. Take the best care of yourself that you can, both to minimize whatever risk factors you face and to maximize the potential of your body, and then simply live and enjoy your life today and every day as best you can. It’s a huge undertaking to be able to let go of your old ways and to completely change your attitude and approach to life, but once I finally managed to free my mind from all of these worries to fully focus on enjoying and maximizing the potential of each day instead, my healing process completed itself. I became a free man mentally and emotionally for the first time in years, and I've never been enjoying life more than I am today. Worry not about tomorrow, live and enjoy your life the best you can today.
The Best Way to Survive Cancer, Is to LIVE.
Cross-posted at StevePake.com