I’ve been a part of the community of cancer patients for 8 years now. I’ve communicated with hundreds of cancer patients via my web site, cancer survivor events, conferences, walks. I’ve noticed common themes arise in the cancer community. Things I thought were unique to my experience are not.
Life is different for all of us after cancer. We don’t finish treatment, enter remission and go back to our old lives. Cancer changes us forever. A new friend who is also an 8 year survivor of advanced cancer told me a day doesn’t go by that cancer does not enter her mind. Mine either. Cancer is in our thoughts every day after we are diagnosed, even years down the road. I communicate with cancer patients daily, so I will always be in the cancer world, but I noticed after I finished cancer treatment and before I became an advocate that I thought of cancer every day even when I tried not to. Life after cancer was not what I expected it to be…cancer isn’t something you leave behind; you take the experience with you everywhere you go for the rest of your life. Your life becomes divided into “before cancer” and “after cancer”. Interesting, I’ve had a few 20 year appendix cancer survivors write me after finding my web site. Two decades later, they are Googling appendix cancer.
I’ve noticed many of us have a great need to find purpose in our lives. After cancer treatment, I became obsessed with finding a purpose for my existance. I read a bazillion books on finding your life purpose. I’d actually had been looking for possible new career paths and thinking about my purpose before my diagnosis. Searching for purpose is also a middle age thing, but since most of us with appendix cancer are diagnosed at middle age, I think our quest for purpose becomes compounded. Sometimes it almost seems we feel a need to feel worthy of our survival, to earn the right to remain cancer-free, to stay alive. Kind of funny, but before cancer I didn’t feel such a great need to be worthy of being alive, I don’t think. I was a good person, but I took being alive and planning a future for granted. It’s kind of ironic that I didn’t appreciate being cancer free before I was diagnosed with cancer. I should have.
I’ve also noticed that after cancer most of us place much less value in our careers. After cancer we go back to work, but it’s not the same. Before cancer our careers defined us, gave us value. But after cancer, they aren’t quite so important, they fall short, they often aren’t enough. Our values have changed. Now for me my nursing career has become almost a side job, my purpose is more about the things I don’t get paid to do.
We also become much more spiritual. For me spirituality is not the same as religion.
I was always more spiritual than religious, but now I spend more time asking bigger and more profound questions about time and life. Simple and pat answers aren’t enough anymore. I do a lot more exploring, a lot more searching, a lot more wondering. In a spiritual sense, I have become more open-minded, more accepting of wonder. I’m much more into the big picture now, less into the small details.
We also learn to value quality over quantity. We all want more time, but we want it to be time we can use to live well. We’ve learned from being in the cancer community that living longer is not always better. We’ve all lost friends and are grateful when their suffering is finally over. But whenever we’ve lost someone, we’ve wondered, just for a bit, if we might be next.