How to survive the pressure of the ‘Born Again’ Cancer commandments

It’s a tricky place post cancer. Now that your hair is long enough to look like a cut, your eyebrows are back and your pallor is generally healthier and not peaky from chemo sickness. People have on the whole forgotten you were ill, which generally is a good thing, yet other times you want someone to think, oh actually it must be a tricky place to be at times. After my interview for my job last week a HR rep referred to me as ‘a big strapping girl ‘  and continued that you wouldn’t expect to see my vulnerability and be tearful, remarking that if I did present that way it would be acceptable to say ‘pull yourself together’. Dear, oh dear, we’ve created a monster ! There is clearly a height restriction on being vulnerable ….

This is my ramble which was prompted by my thoughts on my drive to work today and considers some of the expectations and pressures that unwittingly we place on ourselves following on from treatment. 

We so often see in media, inspiring stories of people that finished life saving cancer treatments and were determined afterwards to not return to their previous life, quit their jobs, travel the world, meet the man of their dreams, fundraise a million pounds, volunteer for a great cause etc. People being treated successfully for cancer stories are increasing and it’s a wonderful thing, they pop up in weekly magazines, hailed as heroes and for displaying bravery during gruelling treatments, people read them and feel inspired and hopeful. And of course so they should as they counterbalance the brutal reality of the percentage of people that treatment doesn’t work for, or are detected too late or it being too advanced, or too aggressive. But what of the larger population, that finish treatment and think what now ? That can’t afford to quit jobs, leave partners, travel the world, etc and just ‘get back’ to what they know, perhaps with a very different outlook on life ?

For those of us lucky enough to get to NED, no evidence of disease, after treatment for cancer there are strange expectations and inadvertent pressure that we place upon ourselves, that perhaps in a way are created from this fear of recurrence and the positive spin we put on how to survive cancer. I can’t obviously speak for anyone other than myself, but some common misconceptions in the folk lore of life beyond cancer, are

1) Thou shalt not be stressedEliminating stress from your life completely – really ? Is this possible ? As stress is a subjective experience and we all have pressures, internal and external, can we ever totally eradicate them ? I think it’s better to acknowledge what you will and won’t put up with and act upon what you can reduce. However it’s an added pressure when people remark that, ‘ you need to not stress too much and make yourself sick’ translates to sick=cancer recurrence to anyone that’s been previously diagnosed.

Sometimes I query whether I am making wrong lifestyle choices, in fear that the work pressure could cause those damn pesky cancer cells that chemotherapy (hopefully) obliterated into staging a comeback. Was stress a major contributing factor to my breast cancer ? Who knows. Am I being irresponsible in continuing in my career choice post cancer ? Who knows.

2) You Reap What You Sew – The Law of Attraction – oh now, as a positive person, who previously had a lot of interest in reading self development books, I have issues with some of their statements. True that, The Gift of Health is my Wealth. But I adamantly refused to believe that by having a stray thought pop into my head about a pain, or symptom, or fear about cancer spreading to another body part, is going to make it happen. Are you feeling my anguish here ? It’s absolutely impossible for anyone to not have health related anxieties after diagnosis, we’ve lost confidence in our bodies detection and screening, at the end of the day we had a cancer manifesting within us and never outwardly knew. So when you read, emails like the one I’ve shared below, you can understand why this maybe unhelpful to anyone with nagging doubts about their health.

From The Secret Daily Teachings

If a person is focused on illness then they are inadvertently attracting more illness to them. On the other hand, if a person focuses more on health than illness, then the law of attraction must obey and produce health. The principles of the law of attraction are a powerful tool to summon the healing power within us, and can be used as an aid in total harmony with all of the wonderful medical procedures that are available today. Remember that if there were no healing power within us, nothing could be healed.

Hmmmmmm

3) Thou shalt not eat an unhealthy diet – the alkaline diet, the no alcohol, the no sugar, the certain supplements or healthy foods ‘known’ to chase cancer cells off and what happens if you don’t abide by these rules ? Should my diet carry a warning ? Should I be thinking whenever I eat a slab of chocolate, this could seriously limit my life expectancy and limit my time in NED ? So again, am I making a poor lifestyle choice ? Do I not want to live ? Have I not taken this diagnosis seriously enough to not make lasting changes to my life ?  Yes,these really are the warpy thoughts and pressures that pop up as a dialogue for eating ‘outside’ of the healthy recommendations. Treatment cruelly adds weight to women’s frames too,being overweight increases your chances of developing cancer, really ? How do you lose this pesky cancer treatment related weight gain in a diet obsessed world ?

4) Thou Shalt Exercise to the recommended amounts– are you moving enough ? Walking can prevent recurrence ? Does this mean if I’m not getting the recommended 150 minutes per week once again I am impacting on my life expectancy ? Am I taking life for granted ? If I’m tired and come home and miss a gym session am I putting my health at risk ? What can I and can’t I do ? Some people turn into Iron Woman afterwards and run marathons, and others restrict themselves from fear of injuries, and lack of awareness/ support. I’ve done both of these in the 9 months since finishing treatment, initially challenging my body with two fingers firmly stuck up at cancer defiantly, is my winter lethargy something to worry about ?  

5) Thou shalt makeI will never’ statements ….they didn’t last long did they ? Normally great intentions, not overworking, skipping lunch, taking regular breaks, worry about minor things, worry about anything…etc, etc But these unrealistic expectations that I will live a holier than thou lifestyle after I finished treatments are another battle.

6) Thou shalt not waste time – Don’t put things off, don’t waste time on wrong people, activities, dwelling on the past, don’t do tomorrow what you can do today ….but then don’t do too much ! Time is pressured, we are chasing our tails, how can you drop out and avoid this life if you financially are unable to quit work, or reduce the balls you are juggling ? Walk slowly whilst everyone else is dashing past you ? Drop out of activities, be selective and only do what your body/mind can cope with ?

7) Thou shalt have boundless energy again ….or not as the case may be. I don’t understand the tiredness I feel lately, I never felt it when finishing treatment, so why now ? Could it be that on trying to pick up all the things I juggled before I’m still trying to catch up pace and thereby pressuring myself more ? No shit Sherlock.  And many others don’t understand this too. In a fast paced world, people can’t relate to what chemo, radiotherapy or Tamoxifen can do to your body and actually just think you’re all fixed now. Hell I can’t relate to what they’ve done most of the time, but it always makes me smile (in a curious way) that people are surprised that I am to take Tamoxifen for 5 years.

8) Thou shalt be positive at all times – positive =winning, low moods or depression are signs of weakness. We are brave cancer warriors that can’t show this flipside, we must remain upbeat -for others ? Ummmmon average 65% of people post treatment experienced low mood or lack of confidence, increased anxiety at some point. Hardly surprising, if people in general worry about weight gain, a bad hair cut, not feeling desirable, being tired etc etc, just how should that differ for anyone that has lost parts of their body, or their hair, gained weight from treatments, lost self esteem, confidence, etc. 

Let’s be real here, how can being diagnosed with cancer change everything about you ? In some cases it does, people are unable to work, unable to exercise, unable to socialise, travel , unable to form relationships with others or accept the changes that cancer has brought about. Are the limitations we experience self inflicted ? Are the pressures we place upon ourselves self inflicted, on occasions yes, and what drives them ? Fear ? Are the cancer idols that we see running marathons adding pressure to our expectations too ? Should we be doing that, we’ve no excuse after all – if they can, we can. And so the vicious cycle continues  berating yourself for not abiding by such pressures or high expectations, just adds to pressures and stresses and like a yo yo dieter, giving up as the extreme restrict diet is not sustainable.

Sustainability is a key word for me, not just used frequently within my interview – ha. It’s also key to how I move forward. I am in no doubt, this reflective mood and considerations are responses to finding acceptance, balance and coming to terms with what happened, how I feel about myself and how I am letting go of some of my old expectations that don’t fit anymore. If I was a television channel I’d be displaying the test card, a website – a notice saying under construction. I am work in progress, and reminding myself life is fluid, temporary, just living it is key, forget destinations, enjoy the lessons learnt on road trips.

http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2012/oct/07/life-after-cancer

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