Secrets to Living A Meaningful Life After Cancer

by Jane Ashley

The diagnosis of cancer is traumatic and life-altering, but we work through our fears and begin treatment. Some treatment periods are only three or four months while others may require a year or more. And once we’ve completed our treatment, we face five years of surveillance to detect a recurrence at its earliest stage.

No One Should Feel Guilty

Every cancer survivor will admit that it is a daunting challenge to learn how to live again after treatment ends. We remember our cancer treatment because of its lingering side effects. We are reminded of our fear of recurrence each time that we return to our cancer treatment center for blood work or scans.

People who haven’t experienced cancer believe that cancer survivors should just pick up and resume life as it was before their cancer diagnosis. But we soon realize that it’s not that easy. Unfortunately, there is no “pause and resume” button in a cancer survivor’s life.
Each of us responds differently to our cancer experience, but there are some universal changes in our response to life that will allow us to live a meaningful life after cancer. About 5 percent of the U.S. population are cancer survivors — that’s almost 17 million people in the U.S. who face learning how to live a purposeful and meaningful life after cancer. So how do we find peace of mind and quality of life?

Don’t borrow trouble. Don’t worry excessively.

There is a fine line between worry and being realistic about planning for the future. While we as cancer survivors must acknowledge that there is a risk of recurrence, we cannot allow that risk to consume our thoughts and rob us of today’s joy. We’ve fought cancer, and we have a good medical team looking after us. We can’t prevent a recurrence with worry. So while there is that risk, it’s best to be realistic that all we can do is modify our diets, exercise, stop smoking, limit alcohol consumption and follow other recommendations specific to our type of cancer. Beyond that, there is nothing more that we can do — all the worry in the world won’t prevent a recurrence.

Dont Borrow Trouble

Live in the now.

This wise bit of wisdom – live today and tomorrow will take care of itself — is the optimum way to live. This doesn’t mean not saving for a rainy day. We can’t spend money with no regard for tomorrow. What is does mean is to acknowledge and recognize that today is the only day that we have. Why waste it?

More than half of the “what ifs” don’t ever happen. As cancer survivors, we have a wealth of knowledge about life and its unpredictability. Know that whatever happens, we’ll be able to cope with the future.

So enjoy every day. Look forward to a sunrise if you have to get up early. Enjoy that first cup of coffee every morning. Plan a day trip to do or see something you’ve been dreaming about. Weather forecast good? Pack a sandwich and eat in the park or on the front porch. Eat your favorite foods (in moderation). Start the hobby that you’ve always wanted to do. Indulge your “inner child.”

Create attainable “bucket list” goals.

Many people create bucket lists when they have cancer. Some bucket list items are realistic; they are trips or “adventures” that you’ll be able to do within the constraints of your budget and physical health: short vacations, day trips, a new hobby, or a cooking class. Your bucket list might even include tasks that some people consider “work” — like weeding the flower bed or making a fancy dress for your granddaughter.

The problem is that some bucket list items aren’t realistic. Not fulfilling those may lead to frustration and disappointment. A beach house or a cabin in the mountains may not be financially feasible. You might not have the stamina for a European tour.

Don’t sweat the small stuff.

Our cancer journey helps us sort out what’s truly important. We quickly learn that little bumps in the road or small obstacles aren’t that big of a deal. So what if a fingernail breaks? It will grow back. What if you drop a plate? You’ve still got seven more. What if the spot doesn’t come out of your new shirt? You see? The small stuff really doesn’t matter.

Live One Day At A Time

Let go of survivor’s guilt.

Survivor’s guilt creeps us on us when a friend or relative doesn’t have a good outcome. They may suffer a catastrophic recurrence, or they may die. We begin to wonder why we survived, and they didn’t. Every person’s diagnosis is different — from the kind of cancer to the stage when diagnosed, and from how well we tolerate treatment to experiencing a serious allergic reaction to the treatment. No one can forecast what another cancer patient will encounter. Part of survival seems to be random. We got diagnosed sooner rather than later. We didn’t have serious side effects. We didn’t have complications after surgery. Be kind to yourself if you have survived treatment; no one should ever feel guilty for having survived a diagnosis of cancer.

Develop patience.

Life is much easier when we learn to be patient. If the person in front of you in the checkout line is having problems with their PIN number, just remember how frustrating chemo brain has been for you. Be patient … life will be easier and less stressful.

You don’t need to keep up with your neighbors.

Cancer shows us what is important in our lives. Most of us realize that “things” no longer mean that much to us. Cherished moments with family or friends are far more important than “things.” We learn that being able to walk longer distances is far more important than acquiring another vehicle.

Hair Loss Broke The Camels Back

Avoid negative people.

Being around negative people can bring us down. If their glass is always half-empty, perhaps it’s time to distance ourselves from them.
Steer clear of “high-maintenance” people.

You know the kind that we’re talking about — the drama queens, the whiners, the “have-to-be” in the center of attention, the parents of the “most awesome” children, the people who believe that nothing in their life is fair. These types of people can drain us emotionally, spiritually and physically.

Be open to new opportunities.

Many people make new friends during and after cancer treatment. Almost all of us have new “cancer” friends that we met in the chemo room or on an online chat or support group. Our new set of friends understand. They provide an understanding “ear” when we need to talk. They understand “Scanxiety.” We discover new opportunities as a volunteer for Relay for Life or at the local soup kitchen. We develop a new empathy for others.

Don’t worry about other’s opinions or expectations.

Others haven’t walked in our shoes. They haven’t experienced fear at the level that most cancer patients experience. They don’t understand what it’s like to be terrified of a procedure but having to do it regardless — fear or no fear. We no longer worry about how others might judge us. We don’t worry if they don’t support the decisions we make. We, as cancer survivors, learn that life is the most precious and most valuable commodity on earth.

Eat Healthy

So WhatNext?

Our appreciation of life is sweeter after cancer. The small joys of life take on new meaning after cancer. We learn to live more fully than before. We learn to play the “hand we have been dealt.” We live our life; not the cancer.
Gratitude allows us to evaluate our individual circumstances and still find happiness.

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