Life After Cancer: The Emotional Fall Out
When I was diagnosed with leukemia, my self-esteem was not in great condition. I remember specifically thinking to myself “nobody will even know that I’m gone.” As a junior in high school at the age of 15, those are not very healthy thoughts to be feeding yourself. I never expressed those thoughts, though, because I was too busy holding myself together for everyone else around me. It was enough of a burden that I was physically sick. I didn’t want anyone to have to endure my emotional baggage on top of that.
Much to my surprise, I received a humongous outpouring of support from people in my school. People, from peers to teachers, made handmade cards, sent me video games, and came to visit to support me during this time. It touched me and completely changed the way I valued myself. The feeling of being seen, heard, and acknowledged can completely change the trajectory of someone’s life, especially at that age - sick or not.
Receiving unexpected attention
When my treatment concluded and I returned to school, doors seemed to open for me socially that were never there before. At first, riding this wave was great. After all, it was validation that I belonged and was worth noticing. Perhaps the most striking moment was when some girls asked me if I wanted to take their friend to the junior prom. Who was I to say no? But as time went on, I eventually realized that I was receiving attention and being validated because of my sickness and not my personality. So after I graduated from high school, I made a personal decision to not be known for having cancer. I wanted people to know ME first. My plan to achieve this was to not talk about, think about, or process my experience with cancer unless I trusted that people liked me enough first.
This went on for about 8-9 years.
Beginning to isolate myself
What I didn’t realize during that time is that by powering through treatment and glazing over being cancer-free, I was secretly suffering by isolating myself. Imagine breaking a bone, not going to the hospital, and then trying to make your own splint. Without the right support, the bone wouldn’t heal properly. I was so focused on taking control of my life back, putting cancer on the shelf behind me, and moving forward that I didn’t allow myself to work through and heal from what I had actually felt. Over time my optimism evolved into gratitude, and eventually after becoming acutely aware that not everyone’s cancer journey was a fairy-tale ending like mine, my gratitude molded into guilt. By the time guilt hit me, I had already begun to isolate myself by not opening up to people about my feelings.
Being convinced that life was worth living became the easy argument for me. Convincing myself that I wasn’t a burden to people, and that it was ok to need emotional support became the challenge that I carried around with me during the beginning years of my survivorship. My active battle with cancer lasted 8 months of inpatient treatment with a couple months of outpatient checkups. Some battles go on for much longer – years even. But regardless of the duration, it's important to keep in mind that the emotional battle can be just as challenging and persistent as the actual sickness. This is why finding community and connectedness is vital in helping people process these experiences, find closure for themselves, and move forward in the best way they can. I’m so grateful to have found this community at Blood-Cancer.com because I have the opportunity to be apart of a community that is working to create meaningful dialogue around the blood cancer experience.
What type of blood cancer are you or your loved one diagnosed with?