Tag Archives: cancer recovery

Finding the Path Through the Pain: a Roadmap to Rebuilding Your Life After Cancer

PathAfter treatment ends, and the “Survivor Confetti” is swept away, there are unique challenges for the younger cancer survivor. While much of the focus is on the newly diagnosed, and the actual fight to overcome cancer, little is discussed about this latter part of the healing journey.

As a 3 year survivor, I know firsthand what it takes to forge through this rocky terrain. After being diagnosed with an aggressive form of hereditary breast cancer at the age of 36, I felt my life unravel. A dark curtain fell and I could see nothing beyond the imminent surgery and treatment. While wrestling with the bare bones of survival, there was no space for my plans and dreams. I was coming apart, piece by piece, shedding layers of my life, until I was unrecognizable to myself.

After treatment ended, I could grow new hair and heal surgical wounds, but no one could tell me how to recover my life. Biologically speaking, I was living, but I felt like a shell of a person. The old life no longer fit. I was in this strange post-treatment terrain, where I could barely speak the language and didn’t have a map.

As a Life Coach, I have honed survival skills that have aided in processing and healing my body, heart and soul. It’s my mission to share what I have learned with as many people as I can. I want to help others draw their unique map through the pain and uncertainty of facing cancer mid-life.

Cancer doesn’t discriminate. It can strike a person at any age, but for the purposes of this article, I am speaking to people between the ages of 25-50, give or take a few years. In this stage of life, our healthy peers are building their careers and families; they are taking vacations, buying homes, planning and saving for the future. A cancer diagnosis completely blindsides you during what should be a productive period of life. These are some of the challenges that we face:

You’ve “Graduated” Out of Treatment:  It took Herculean strength to slog through all the treatments and doctor appointments. You were so focused on the finish line, that you hadn’t really considered what’s next. Without the structure and focus of a treatment plan, and the weekly or biweekly appointments, it’s like being set adrift on a raft with no oars.

The Pain No One Sees: Your hair starts to grow in. Your immune system rebuilds to the point where you can safely come out in public. You might look like a completely healthy person on the outside, but on the inside you are still struggling with the after effects of cancer treatment. People stop asking you how you’re doing and what you need. Instead, people tell you how great you look and how brave and strong you are. Inside you may struggle with a combination of crippling chemo brain, exhaustion and lack of stamina, neuropathy, pain at the site of surgery or radiation, infertility, menopause symptoms including hot flashes, night sweats, low to no sex drive, and fuzzy thinking. You might feel disfigured, and struggle with sadness, anger, fear, anxiety and depression.

The Ticking Clock: After treatment ends, you are living in this paradox of urgency. You want to make up for lost time, but have also learned the value of slowing down. You want to catch up with your healthy peers, to recover the lost income, to attend all the social and family events that you had to sit out on. You want to get on with living your life! It’s like an inner voice is shouting, “Go, Go, Go!” but you’re still trying to pull your feet up out of sticky tar. On a good day you might feel a new energetic spring in your step, only to find the next day that you’ve overdone it and need an extra day to recover.

The Looming Cloud of Recurrence: After a cancer diagnosis, a headache or a toothache or a backache can evoke waves of panic and send you scurrying to research what those symptoms mean. If we hope for the best, but prepare for the worst, we might be able to tell ourselves we’ve shored up our defenses, that we will be ready if and when “the other shoe drops”. What ends up happening is that we are living in a heightened state of stress, an ongoing fight, flight or freeze mode. The resulting stress hormones, tension and sleep loss make things worse.

Survivor Guilt: You can’t help notice cancer everywhere after you’ve had a diagnosis. You will likely have friends and family who will face their own cancer battles. Not everyone will see the same treatment finish line. It hurts to see and hear about the people we care about, or even complete strangers, getting diagnosed or worse, losing their battle with cancer. If you’ve hooked into a survivor support system, you might experience the loss of a person who battled alongside you. This loss is triggering and you might find yourself wondering, “Why me?” The inner dialogue might go like this: “How come I’m still here but she is not? What makes me so special? I had better do something significant with my life now. How will I face her family? That could have been me.”

So how do you find your path through the pain and uncertainty, and rebuild a fulfilling and sustainable life after cancer? Some key aspects to include in your Cancer Recovery Roadmap are mindfully tending to your emotions, engaging your future vision, and making specific, attainable goals.

Through my personal experience as a survivor and my professional training as a coach, I have developed a toolkit of techniques to guide fellow survivors in the creation of their unique recovery map. As a coach I hold a sacred and confidential space for processing the pain and the personal impact of this experience. I listen deeply and ask powerful questions. I teach tools to help manage the fear and uncertainty, and deepen your feelings of resiliency and strength. I hold open a bold and brave vision for your future self, and support you as you step into this new phase of your life.

If you would like some support right now, email me at Melissa@MelissaEppardCoaching.com and I will send you 5 Ways to Manage Survivor Stress.

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How to Emotionally Prepare for Surgery

I have kept this blog going, almost 3 years after chemo treatments ended, for a reason. Processing and healing takes time. There is also the sad realization that many more people after me would face their own cancer diagnosis. Perhaps reading my story will help people not feel so isolated and alone. Maybe it will help the newly diagnosed integrate what is happening, to find encouragement and see that there is a trajectory of healing. We all have our own unique situation and healing path, but we share in the many feelings a cancer diagnosis brings… the fear, anger, sadness, the struggle to sort out logistics, developing a care team, communicating with family and friends. We all look for glimmers of hope. We stoke a fighting spirit, that well of inner resilience and reach for wholeness.

In these few years since my own cancer scare, too many friends have been diagnosed. I have had to say goodbye to some, too early, too soon. Some brave warriors I have seen go through surgery and treatment, and joyfully watched their hair grow back in, for the wheels of life to continue turning.

Recently a friend asked me, “How do you prepare emotionally for surgery?”.

This is a great question. There is so much you can do. Most importantly, finding the people, practices, activities and rituals that speak to you, that give you grounding and meaning is the place to start. Here are some things that helped me prepare.

  1. Take photos. You could schedule a photo shoot or have someone close to you take a few pictures. My before pictures were just for me, a way to remember what my breasts looked like before the double mastectomy. There is so much feeling in my face and eyes.
  2. Write and write and write and write. Obviously for me, this was a huge tool of processing what was happening to me. Try writing a love letter to your afflicted body part. Try writing a letter from the perspective of your body part. I wrote a dialogue one time where I was having a conversation with my breasts. It was intense, but opened up a well of feeling that needed to come up to the surface. Then there is this blog. Writing my blog served two purposes initially. It was a lifeline to my family and friends, so they could stay informed about what was happening with me, and afforded me a privacy buffer. It also served as a pressure release valve and way of helping my mind assimilate what was happening. I wouldn’t just write a blog post and be done. I would write it and read it over and over a dozen times. Each time I read it, a layer of stress and pain would discharge, would soften and release, little by little.
  3. Let it OUT! Break sticks, throw rocks into a stream or river, scream into a pillow, cry until you are red and snotty. My default mode is to get busy, to get into problem solving mode. This is helpful to a degree, but is also a very clever way to avoid dealing with your feelings. Make time for these feelings to come up, knowing you won’t get lost in the void. I once described to a friend my fear of falling down the rabbit hole of emotion, that I would never be able to get back out. I promise you will not get lost. You will find yourself. As an added bonus, after a good cry, there is the temporary endorphin rush, a calm euphoria that will settle around you.
  4. Have a small party, ceremony or ritual. The night before my first surgery, I gathered with a few of my closest girlfriends for a “Farewell to Nursies” party. (My little boy had affectionately named my breasts, “Nursies” when he was a baby.) We shared a potluck, and everyone wrote their good thoughts, prayers and wishes for me on beautiful little squares of colored paper. I brought them with me to the hospital and had them to read again later while healing from surgery and going through chemo. My girlfriends made a gorgeous healing totem for me, by attaching beautiful stones, crystals and trinkets onto an embroidered belt. I hung this in my bedroom so I could see it while resting and healing after the surgery. My favorite part was when my girlfriends surrounded me, put their hands on me, gently rubbed my head and arms, held my hands. They prayed around me quietly, infusing all their love and good intentions for a successful surgery and held a vision of my ultimate healing.
  5. Simplify your life. Be kind to yourself and take time. You know that saying, “One step forward, two steps back”? If you rush the healing process, you are only going to make things harder. If you have ever prepared for childbirth, think about the way that you insulated your life, slowed down and made time for a “babymoon” period. Your healing is going to be like this. It is nice to have a vague idea that in 2 weeks or 6 weeks or 3 months, you’ll be back to doing x, y, and z. But stay present to now. Now is not the time to be leaning forward, putting unrealistic expectations on yourself. You will not be the same, but there will be a new normal, and that will change as time goes on. Start now to make way for this quieter time, allow yourself to rest and prepare for your best possible healing.

 

The things that brought me healing and comfort did so, because they spoke to who I am. Do what is right for you. I would love to hear in the comments section how you helped prepare yourself emotionally for surgery. We are here to support each other in our healing and growth, and your feedback might be exactly what someone else needs on their road to healing.

I wish you inner peace, and to be surrounded by calm and circles of support.

I’m here holding a vision for your highest healing. ❤

 

Hope stone.jpg

Melissa Eppard lives in the beautiful Hudson Valley, NY area with her young son and husband. She came through a hereditary breast cancer scare in her mid 30’s. After feeling the gap in support for the younger cancer survivor, she has dedicated her practice to helping other younger survivors find the path through the pain, and rebuild their lives in those first few years after a diagnosis.  www.MelissaEppardCoaching.com

If you would like some support right now, email  Melissa@MelissaEppardCoaching.com for 5 Tips to Manage Survivor Stress.

 

On Your Mark… Get Set…

Waiting to start,

a splinter of light against a vast dark.

What can begin to take hold in this barren yet fertile ground?

Chemotherapy strips you down, like paint thinner washing out the last self portrait. On a cellular level, diminished as each and every dark internal corner is washed in an acrid bath. It seeps out of you at night while you’re sleeping, soaking your PJs and making your urine bubble and fizz.

I count time in treatment windows, 7 days apart. One day off, then four daily shots of immune boosting Neupogen. Each day, one foot in front of the other, I count down to NOW… to Four treatments remaining.  I am weary some days and optimistic others, with just a crack in the door beginning to open to the Rest of My Life.

On day 6, just before returning to the Oncologist is when I feel best. I can sense an inkling of normalcy in my system, which is a thing vastly taken for granted by most in good health. My hair is newborn fuzzy, and my nail beds near the little half moons are starting to look pinker and healthier. I am returning to a new version of myself.

I’m eager to feel good again, to really feel myself in this tired, achy body. She has been through so much.

This second birth is so different than the one that brought me forth all new and pink and screaming 37 years ago. Loaded with experience, expectations, and all my stories, I feel edgy and anxious to turn this page, to take a sharp turn and never look back. I wonder if there is a handbook called, “How Not to Burn Out in Your First Year After Cancer”? This next part of my life feels like a gift, a do-over. You get to live Melissa, now what are you going to do with it? I have a year to make up for, and just want to START.

 birth process