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Life after cancer.

I was pretty naive when I first got diagnosed. I thought it was going to be a straightforward path of treatment and once I’d finished radiotherapy, I could have reconstruction and be on my way.

Never did I consider that I would be on ovary suppressing medication for the next 10 years, in medically induced menopause that would bring with it a whole other set of side effects and issues, or that the reconstruction process was anything less than a simple procedure and more like a 15 hour operation to try and piece you back together using other body parts (yes, like I said, very naive)

I never considered how I would feel when I got to the end of active treatment… and the mental toll it would take. When you hear the words “you have cancer” it is devastatingly life altering, but once you have a treatment plan, it becomes empowering. That fear of the unknown turns into a determination and a focus. You spend months thinking solely of “getting better”, pursuing your next appointment, the next milestone, the next hurdle so you can get through it and move on to the next one.

Then you get to the last one. Your diary goes from being filled with hospital appointments, your consultant tells you you’re “cancer free” and your life can move on. Congratulations, you beat cancer. You can now say goodbye to the side effects of treatment and get back to your old self. Umm… Not exactly.

You have been so focussed on getting to the end of treatment and now you don’t have that reassuring structure to your days, the reality of your new life is an unknown, and it’s a little bit scary.

While you’re going through treatment, there is a whole goodie bag of remedies and therapies that can help combat all the physical side effects. Pain relief after surgery, cream for radiotherapy burns, steroids and anti sickness to help chemotherapy, physiotherapy for mobility… but what about the none physical side of navigating life after cancer?

I don’t claim to have any answers, I’m only a couple of months out of active treatment and still very early on in my recovery. I’ve been through a traumatic experience and (as much as I would like to) I can’t just pick up where I left off. The old Laura doesn’t exist, in more ways than one, so I’m having to be super patient with myself while I figure out how to deal with that and move on. It might take months, maybe years before I find a new normal, especially with the current coronavirus situation meaning my old normal doesn’t exist either.

These are the things that I have found to help me move forward and establish some kind of normality -

  • Eating well and rediscovering my love of food and cooking (my taste was so awful through chemo and I lost the energy to be able to experiment with food as I would do normally)

  • Establishing a routine that includes aspects of my life before cancer (work, nursery, shopping etc).

  • Returning to work. The routine still feels a bit foreign, and I’ve struggled with insomnia, fatigue, and chemo brain, but I’m slowly rebuilding my confidence which feels great.

  • Working out. I used to train often, normally 5 times a week which I had to stop through chemo due to the fatigue. Then my skin was so bad after radiotherapy I struggled wearing a sports bra without my skin peeling, now I’m past that and back to working out 5 days a week and I’m feeling my strength and fitness come back every day (although still get very frustrated with myself when I can’t do what I used to do yet!)

  • Yoga has supported me massively in a number of ways, from helping me work on my mobility and strength after surgery, to giving me time and space for myself to close my eyes, empty my mind, breathe, and refocus.

  • Planning my time and being strict on how much I do or don’t do. Allowing time for self care, exercise, and down time is just as important as doing the food shop and the school run.

  • Writing things down to help remember what I need to be doing and when (although I still turned up for a wig consultation a day early this week, despite me having it written down correctly in my diary!)

  • Fresh air. It is a proven fact that being outside and surrounded by nature helps mental health and I couldn’t agree more. I started going for a walk every day from the day after surgery and it really helped keep me going when I couldn’t do anything else.

I am working really hard on healing myself. I still have anxiety and fears around “what if it comes back’ which I am sure will never go away, but I don’t let those thoughts of a recurrence consume me. What’s the point? It won’t change the outcome and I don’t want to live my life in a constant state of panic and “what if” so I’ve learnt to take a step back from my own head and figure out what it is that I need to do to keep me calm.

“So here is the irony of healing and what makes it different than curing: the very wound from which we suffer induces the process of healing. To acknowledge and enter that wounding opens the path to wholeness”

I refuse to let negative thoughts run my life. I have a beautiful family that I live for, and when I’m having a bad day I chose to lift myself up and see the positives, because they are always there if you look for them. I think it’s really important to figure out what prompts your own individual stress, and establish a way of coping with it. I find music really calms me as well - a lovely acoustic or classical piano playlist while I go for a walk are sure ways for me to help find my balance again.

The hardest thing for me to accept now is the change to my body. As someone who has always had issues around how they look and self confidence, having to deal with such drastic changes to how I look is tough. The toll of surgery and treatment shows, and that is going to be the longest road to recovery for me personally… accepting I am never going to look the same again and learning to love the body that fought to keep me alive throughout the hardest year of my life.

Remember… Life moves on, and so will you. Time heals, take a deep breath and take one day at a time.

L x

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