When you finish your chemo treatments that’s not the end of your journey with cancer. In a way, it’s just beginning. You enter a new phase, one of constant dread, one of “wait and see”. You are in remission – for now.
And who are you to complain? You are in remission. Many cancer patients don’t get to this blessed state, and you are happy you made it, but it’s alway a happiness with an asterisk. Especially during the first year post treatment.
So, it’s been a year. I got my last treatment on the 21st of December 2021 (nice date: 21.12.21), and then had about a month of feeling like absolute trash – like three locomotives carrying every ailment in the world slammed into me at once. I was on old school chemo, not the new fangled targeted stuff, no immunotherapy for me: my treatment was discovered in the ’70s and it’s good enough to remain the gold standard 50 years later.
But I kept on walking, and I kept on eating and drinking and taking my meds, and gradually I started to feel better. I got my tastebuds back. My hair started to grow again. My blood tests started to improve. The number of meds I was on got smaller and smaller until it was replaced just by a few vitamins that I was prescribed to take care of the damages still left. I got to see my doctor less and less often. We’re now at the wonderful “every three months” mark. I lost the weight that I gained from the steroids.
I got back to running: 1k, 2k, 3k for while as my lungs got better, my heart got better, and I learned to deal with my PTSD better. Then 4k, 5k, and back to long runs. These days I run five times a week, four 5ks and one 10k long run. And running means so much to me I can’t express how much it means that I get to enjoy it again.
I also got back to lifting weights at the gym, to meeting people face to face, to listening to podcasts that I used to love (though there are some old favourites that I can’t listen to these days). I went back to the office, back to public transit, back to travelling abroad, back to participating in races. I went to two escape rooms with my friends.
But I didn’t go back to being the same person.
That’s impossible, and all the time I see cancer survivors struggling to come to terms with that. Even if you lucked out and didn’t get PTSD (about 25% of patients do), cancer leaves an indelible mark on you, on the way you think, feel and react.
Thankfully I realised that about halfway through my treatments, and I like the new me. And I’m comfortable enough saying that without hedging, explaining or apologising. Period.
I have another year of high risk of relapse, which means a checkup every three months, and then three more years after that of checkups every six months. Then, at the five year mark, I’m ostensibly free. From the cancer patients groups I know there’s no real freedom from this, but it’s something that I’m gradually learning to live with.
Right now I’m still at the “every twinge, cough and ache is a cause for panic” phase. It’s not a fun place to be, and you get to stay there for a good long while. But I’ve made it through the most high risk year for my kind of cancer, the first year, so I get to celebrate for a bit. I brought a cake to work this week, and I plan on celebrating with my family this weekend, and completely ignoring the panicking voice in my head that is yelling that I am tempting fate. If my cancer returns, it returns and I’ll deal with it then.
For now it’s been one year since I finished chemo and I get to celebrate.