My New Normal: What Changed After Cancer?

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I’m fairly hard to shock, but a statement during a surgical consultation in 2016 left me speechless. “You’re lucky. If you’re going to get cancer, this is the one to get.” My mouth fell open. Nothing felt lucky about being diagnosed with cancer at 25, weeks before my wedding. I honestly didn’t know how to respond. “Thank you?” I managed to mutter out, confused.

I didn’t fully see it at the time, but a few years later it makes sense. Cancer is terrible, but if it had to happen to me I’m glad it was of the thyroid variety. My treatment, compared to others, was mild. In the grand scheme of medicine, my ongoing medical needs are fairly low cost.

That being said, having cancer has changed me forever—both in the obvious physical sense and my sometimes-fluctuating mental outlook. Two and a half years later, 2 big post-cancer “normals” come to mind.

Self-Care Comes First

This time 2 years ago, I was working at least 60 hours per week. I had a full-time job in marketing that, luckily for me, only kept me in the office 40 hours per week—but I used at least 20 more to maintain my blog and expand my freelance journalism portfolio. I would go to bed at 1 or 2 am after spending nearly the entire day on a computer typing for one project or another, and then I’d wake up begrudgingly at 6 am to get ready for work.

It wasn’t a system that was going to function forever, but the decision to change it actually wasn’t mine. I was suddenly laid off, which left me with a big decision: How do you want your work/life balance to function?

I had to think back to my post-surgery recovery time. I needed vacation days to use for the wedding and I couldn’t afford to take short-term disability and lose the money, so I worked from home as soon as the medicine wore off. I had a terrible reaction to the anesthetic, so I was nauseous all the time and, since my throat was full of swollen stitches, I was very concerned about how much vomiting would hurt. I couldn’t move my head or talk much, but my husband propped me up in bed with a laptop and some other office necessities. When 5:30 pm would roll around, I’d switch the work laptop for my personal laptop and wedding planning binder to finish my freelance assignments, blog work and bridal duties. And then I’d cry into some wedding magazine because I was scared and angry and overwhelmed and tired.

My now-husband had a great idea: Step away from work and relax. Delegate tasks. Be honest about how much you can take on. He made me come downstairs and watch the Super Bowl so I could see my team win from the couch. He drove out for frozen custard because it was mushy enough for me to eat. And he reminded me to wear the special PJs I’d bought to make my time at home feel a little less lousy.

A focus on self-care was what I needed then, and after cancer it’s what I need now. While I’m obviously in a fortuitous work situation—unlike some, I had the ability to begin working from home for myself—self-care is a priority in my personal life too. Some days that’s as simple as getting a latte after going in for my post-cancer thyroid level check-ins, but it makes a difference to me. While cliché, the airplane oxygen mask analogy is true. You must take care of yourself first.

But Anxiety (Still) Exists

I’ve always been an anxious person. I have really vivid memories of working on an over-the-top project in the middle of the night and having a near-hysterical panic attack because I couldn’t get it to work exactly the way I imagined it . . . in the third grade. So, when I knew I was being tested for cancer, I told Lance I wanted to prepare for the worst. As the partner of an anxious person, he’s used to—as he puts it—putting out fires. And that’s what he did, to the tune of, “It’s not going to be cancer.”

But then it was. And I was stunned.

Getting bad news is, to say the least, surreal. My doctor told me fast, bookending it with positivity about the ease of surgery. It was like getting hit with a snowball that turns out to be ice: You knew something was coming but—look out!—it’s worse than ya thought. I had attended the appointment alone, which was a mistake, so once he said I could leave, I walked to my car in that half–blacked out state you get right before you faint. Doctors were apparently going to be in my future, so I didn’t want to deal with them then. I locked the door, I slunk low in my seat, and I sobbed. And gasped. And screamed. And then eventually I didn’t feel anything so I drove home and went to sleep.

In true anxious-but-productive fashion, I tried to force all of my nerves into work. One of my then-bosses made a crack about how all of my time out of the office could make me look less-than-committed to the company (even if cancer “wasn’t my fault”) so I was determined to crank out good projects. I had tons of pre-wedding blog posts planned that I wanted to finish. And I refused to falter on all of the ambitious DIYs I had started for the wedding. I was just too busy to have feelings.

For a while, this silenced the anxiety. Now that I work a much healthier schedule, I have more free time for it to seep through. I’m physically healthier, but some days the anxiety is worse than ever before.

For me, the issue with anxiety after cancer is simple: If that could happen, what else could? The threshold for potential bad shifted, and not in my favor. But as I try to remind myself, this also grew my threshold for stress and pain. It made me stronger. I don’t have a solution on how to always deal with this anxiety yet, but I’m doing my best to stop stifling it with to-do lists and to start talking about it. Or writing about it. Or just acknowledging it’s a part of me, and that’s okay.

If you’re having trouble asking for support during cancer treatment, you may benefit from LivingWith™, a free mobile app for people living with cancer designed to help manage life with cancer and organize certain important information in one place. This app is part of Pfizer’s This is Living with Cancer™ initiative, as well as the This is Living with Cancer website. In addition to its health notes and appointment organizer, the LivingWith mobile app is like private social media for your personal team of supporters. You can share updates or ask for help, from a ride to an appointment to a chat about your nerves.

Trust me—it might make you feel a little better.

For more information and to download the LivingWith mobile app, please visit Patients and their loved ones also can find the initiative on Facebook and Instagram.

I was selected for this opportunity as a member of CLEVER, and the content and opinions expressed here are all my own.

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