Tag Archives: survivorship

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.

Advertisements

Follow the Money Trail$: Keeping your Contributions Local

I had the chance to speak at a local fundraiser last night. Because we are on the cusp of going from Ovarian Cancer Awareness month to Breast Cancer Awareness month, I thought I would share what I read last night and tell you why it is so important to make charitable donations to your local community whenever possible. I feel SO incredibly lucky living here in the Hudson Valley of NY, to have the supportive programming of the Health Alliance Foundation Oncology Support Program. You don’t know what exists out there until you really need it.

Here is what I shared…

“My neighbor was recently diagnosed with cancer. Unlike me, he has no family; he is an older gentleman who lives alone with his dog. When we spoke, I could tell he was confused and overwhelmed by all the information his doctors threw at him. He has to travel 2 hours each way to get to some appointments. I could see in his face that he was sinking and I was grateful to be able to throw him a life preserver. I told him about the Health Alliance Oncology Support Program, about the social workers who will sit with him and come to appointments with him. His face lit up when I mentioned the possible assistance with gas and groceries. We didn’t even get into the healthy lifestyle and exercise classes, cooking and gardening programs, and great writing and art classes too. I know there are so many people like my neighbor who may struggle without the support of family and a network of friends. The Oncology Support Program is there for people like him.

I didn’t really come into the OSP fold when I was freshly diagnosed. I turned to writing my blog, Melissa’s Healing Hope, as a way to process and heal emotionally. I tried attending a group at OSP early on, but ­­ didn’t identify myself as a survivor because I hadn’t survived anything yet, that dark cloak of surgery and treatments still about to fall. While the ladies in the group were very kind, I felt out of touch as a younger person with cancer.

It was after treatment ended that I found myself back at the Oncology Support Program. With a head full of soft peach fuzz, I struggled to make my post cancer life fit into something recognizable. I wondered who I was now and how to continue living with this cloud of fear and uncertainty looming over me as a survivor of hereditary breast cancer. At that time I was acutely feeling the lack of a young women’s support group in the area and considered starting a group of my own when I learned that a new Young Women’s Support group had just formed at the OSP. ­I found harbor there. There was safety and a normalizing just being with people who KNOW… who get the sacrifices of being a younger person with cancer, who know the exquisite pain of uncertainty. In this space I began to no longer feel like I was barely surviving, but found my new footing as a Thriver!

Instead of getting lost in the “What-If’s of a post cancer life, what keeps me going is my mission to give back. I give what I have and that is my time. I do this through my work as a Life Coach holding space for other people’s search for a fulfilling and meaningful life, and in sharing my voice through writing. I have recently started to co-facilitate that same young women’s support group that was my safe harbor, and just this week completed the Nurturing Neighbor training program that offers peer mentorship to other people diagnosed with cancer. I can never un-do this cancer experience, and I will never be who I was before all of this, but I like to think that I now have this gift of experience and authentic compassion, that I can show up and be there for others who are diagnosed with cancer or met with other life challenges, so they won’t feel so isolated and alone.

But there are other ways, very tangible ways to give. Giving gives back to the Giver. When you support the Oncology Support Program through the Health Alliance Foundation your charitable contributions improve the lives of people living with cancer here in the Hudson Valley. Thank you!”

…So where is the need at and who is answering the call right in your own backyard? Find out how you can help. I have previously written about shady foundations  who pocket large percentages of charitable contributions. What I love about the Health Alliance Foundation is that 100% of the donations go directly to the local people it serves, so that residents of the Hudson Valley hopefully never have to choose between having a treatment or skipping it to pay the electric bill.

Thank you for taking the time to read this!

pink-ribbon