You are cancer free! After chemo, radiation and multiple surgeries you are relieved to be done. Your family and friends are happy to celebrate your return to a normal life. But is that always the case? While weekly doctor appointments, checkups and blood draws are behind you, it can take a while to re-adjust from the fight and flight mode in which you’ve lived. As much as cancer sucks, you soon find it odd that you don’t feel like celebrating this new lease on life. And, as a young cancer survivor, you can be plagued by many questions surrounding life after cancer.
Statistics tell us that you are more likely to get cancer as you get older. In fact, one of the biggest risks factors for the disease is age. So, hearing the words ‘you have cancer’ at young age can be a double-edged sword. On one hand, you have youth on your side to fight the disease, but on the other, there is a greater chance you may get cancer again in your lifetime. So, for those of us who get cancer in our 20s or 30s, this can derail the celebration that you are cancer free.
The harsh reality for a young cancer survivor is that standardly, we still need to work to live; we may not have expendable income or even have a job with good health insurance. Another reality is coming to understand your own mortality and that you are no longer invincible. You know what it’s like to still be on post-cancer drugs or in between surgeries. You’ve experienced chemo brain, maybe struggled with body distortion or chemo-induced menopause. If single, you must come to terms with explaining to a new love interest that your body is filled with scars both physically and mentally. If in college, you may have had to postpone that degree, and with loss of money, may not be able to return until later in life.
Being “cancer free” also means that you will hold your breath until the next blood test, doctor’s visit or health scan. PTSD is real and you seek connection with others who understand. I was a young parent with a uncertain future and quickly came to terms with death. I wrote my own obituary and letters to my daughter on her college graduation day, wedding day and the birth of her firstborn child. Being a mom was my primary purpose for fighting hard to live, and I desperately sought other women who understood my fears of leaving family behind. It was an odd comfort when I found them, but to this day, they are still the ones I turn to when fear creeps in.
You may be deemed cancer free, but the reality is you are never free from cancer. So, the next time a co-worker, friend or loved one is struggling with the aftermath of cancer, take the time to just listen to them. While you may think they look great and are back to their pre-cancer selves, you may not understand that the healing continues long after the treatments stop.
Shay Moraga is a TNBC Survivor and the founder and visionary of Shay’s Warriors Life After Cancer, a non-profit community whose focus is to connect in life after cancer. For more information visit www.shayswarriors.org.