I wrote my reflections on reaching 5 years since my cancer diagnosis in advance on my personal blog, "Five Years Ago Today...", so that I'd have something to share on that day, but until that day came, there was no way to know exactly how I'd feel about it. I was shocked at how I felt when I woke up that morning as a newly minted 5 year survivor of cancer, because honestly, it felt like I had just woken up from a terrible dream, and it was wonderful.
We all seem to have these crazy dreams once in awhile where we feel threatened in some way, we're running for our lives, or we're in the midst of some terrible alternate reality of tremendous hardship that we're struggling through. They can be so vividly detailed that we can't help but think they're really happening, and when we wake up, perhaps with a scream or in a cold sweat, we quickly check ourselves and our surroundings. As we come to our senses and the haze of sleep wears off, we realize that all is well, and that it really was just a dream. Not for me. Cancer was no dream, because everywhere I look, there are signs that this crazy cancer adventure of mine was real, and no dream at all.
I wake up in the morning and I can't feel my left foot, because of extensive permanent nerve damage that my body suffered while being ravaged by chemotherapy. I can never really feel my left foot much at all. There are times I almost could have forgotten that I ever had cancer, but this persistent numbness serves as the constant reminder. I've gotten used to it, but I can't ever forget because of this. I check myself in the mirror, and there are impressive looking scars all over my body from numerous surgeries. If I really need to know, I can check for my right testicle, the one that's no longer there because of testicular cancer. It doesn't get much more real than missing body parts. Despite the overwhelming physical evidence, my mind still wanted to believe that this was all a crazy dream that I had just woken up from. And you know what? I let it.
As a cancer survivor, it's tough not just to find happiness and any peace of mind at all, but being able to hold onto it. My family and I have had the most amazing times and adventures together over the past few years, and I’ve gained some truly wonderful friends along the way. Life itself has been amazing, but in the background, there’s always been this darkness, quietly lurking, and threatening to take everything away again. It’s tough to avoid being dragged down. How could you not be, when every other month your entire life is put on the line, pending a clean set of scans? It's been tough to remain happy. Who would ever want to have to deal with this? And then there’s been the post-traumatic stress, which has been another world of misery all by itself. I've had to learn how my mind works both consciously and sub-consciously, in order to be able to effectively care for myself. There are so many inner mechanisms, and tools of the trade that I've learned in order to keep my mind in a good place. It's required constant attention, struggle, and evolution, which has been far from a painless process.
As I wrote on my personal blog...
"I'm not the same person that I was five years ago. I’ve crashed and burned to the ground hard three times in these past five years, not just from the shock of a cancer diagnosis as a young adult, but from all of the struggles to evolve and grow into life after cancer. That’s three times since being diagnosed with cancer, that I've felt completely shattered and broken inside, and have had to give up so much of what I'd believed about life, and start over. One doesn't simply do an about face on decades of programming and expectations about life in an instant. It takes time measured in years to heal and evolve, to slowly let go of the old, and to finally grow into our post-cancer realities."
Suddenly, I woke up the morning that I became a five year survivor of cancer, and something just clicked in my mind sub-consciously. Cancer wasn't real anymore. It was just a bad dream that was over now, and no longer registered in my mind as a threat. I no longer felt any need to worry or keep watching over my shoulder. I didn't get sick to my stomach, have an anxiety or post-traumatic stress attack meltdown, nor did I need to go on an emergency 5K run just to bleed any nasty feelings off. It just felt like another day. And today, as I'm finishing this blog, it's March 14th, which was my five year anniversary since starting chemotherapy. Days like these had really given me a run for my money in the past, and forced me to be on my game as far as self-care goes. But today, now, at five years out, it's become just another day.
I'm going to take all of the positive things that I've gained from this experience, the new perspective and appreciation that I have for life and so many things, all of the wonderful memories made and friendships gained, and take them along with me through life. Everything else, all of the rotten parts, the constant fear, the worry and anxiety, the recurrence scares, the physical struggles, the periods of depression and post-traumatic stress, and a few toxic people who just made things worse, are going to be left in my mind as nothing but distant and fading memories of this bizarre nightmare that's all in the past now.
It's taken me five years, but I've finally woken up from my cancer survivorship nightmare. It's tough to put into words just how good this feels. It's bittersweet to finally be saying goodbye, and leaving all of this in the past, just as you would a bad dream. That's how my sub-conscious mind sees it now, and God bless it, I'm perfectly willing to go along.
Cross-posted at StevePake.com