I’ve got the “I beat cancer” blues.
Am I still a mountain biker when I haven’t been on my bike in years? Am I a runner when I haven’t gone running in months? Am I a writer when I’m not actively writing? Am I a musician when I haven’t been playing my guitar? Do I have value to anyone when I’m not doing something valuable?
Two years ago I beat* cancer.
*which just means it hasn’t yet come back in two years, and it may never come back, but then again it could.
I think there’s a time, just after cancer has been beaten*, when survivors feel more alive and connected than they remember feeling before cancer. It’s an incredible experience. You have no patience or time for bullshit, and you act on things that are important to you—even little things—right away because you know how close you came to having no time left. There is no should when it comes to doing – only will and won’t. You feel overwhelming impatience for meaningless or frivolous delays. If something is worth doing then it’s worth doing it right now—or at least taking the first difficult steps—and it’s exciting.
My husband and I had talked for years about our next pet being a dog. When I was done with cancer, I pushed hard to get that dog. I had been thinking for ages that I should improve my guitar playing through lessons, so I went out and found a teacher. Everything that seemed important to me — from taking a course to riding my bike 200 miles in a weekend to finding a way to get into community theatre to just getting outside — I was ready to act on each and every item in the moment it occurred to me.
My productivity was off the charts… but only for a little while.
As my strength came back and the chemotherapy drugs wore off, I felt unstoppable. And then life started creeping back in.
It’s hard not to believe that once your cancer is in complete remission that there’s nothing you can’t overcome. When life starts throwing exciting challenges (stressful situations) at you, you’re confident that you’ll breeze through it all.
The adorably troublesome and neighbour-irritating new puppy gets pneumonia and nearly dies on the same day that my husband’s grandmother across the country passes away suddenly? That’s awful. But the expensive emergency vet trip saves the dog, and the expensive private training sessions make it less likely that our neighbours will hate us for the dog, and we’re grateful we took our daughters to visit Bubbie a few months earlier. We can recover from a little credit card debt. And it’s nice having a puppy.
My husband starts having seemingly undiagnosable abdominal pain? Okay, well we survived cancer, so we can get through this and figure it out and move on. No big deal. And when it turns out to be a pulled abdominal muscle gone rogue with PTSD, we breath a sigh of (painful) relief and laugh nervously about the strange post-cancer side effects we never expected.
Our ground-level apartment floods, leaving us homeless in the most expensive housing region of the country with possibly the lowest vacancy rates? I guess we can take our family of four + puppy and sleep in our friends’ basements and guest rooms, and stay at hotels and short-term holiday rentals, and try to buy a townhouse in a seller’s market that’s just gone from barely affordable for us to completely unaffordable. For six months.
And then I didn’t feel unstoppable anymore.
I didn’t float through problems secure in the feeling that everything was going to be okay. Everything consistently wasn’t okay. I wasn’t okay.
And now that things are settled — the dog is healthy, the family is healthy, we’ve uprooted ourselves and settled down in a new town in a house of our own, and everything is feeling deliciously normal — I’m still not okay.
I’m supposed to be okay by now.
I held it together for two years of crises. Nobody — myself included — knows exactly how. That’s okay — how doesn’t matter.
What matters is that I’m not holding it together anymore and I feel like I should be. My life is as stable as I could ever hope it would be. And I miss that feeling I had when I first beat cancer — that I could do everything and I could start right now, so I did.
Some of that feeling has stayed — specifically, the part where I want things to start or change or be the way I imagine they should be right now. I’m in a new town, why don’t I already have all sorts of new friends and social engagements and volunteer work? Why am I not already involved in everything? I want it to happen right now. I have no patience for pointless delays like small talk and trying to meet people in my usual awkward ways. Not that I have skills to do it without the awkward.
But the other side of it, the side where I feel alive and unstoppable, where I’m excited about every new idea I have and the new friendships I’m about to discover… that part has disappeared. More than disappeared, in fact. It’s gone into negative space, and it’s feeding the imposter syndrome I’ve felt for as long as I can remember — about my career, about my hobbies and interests, about being not a real cancer survivor because I didn’t have it as bad as a lot of other people. I don’t feel like I’m a real anything, so I don’t want to do anything.
The combination of stress whiplash and the jarring feeling that my ambitions and motivations no longer exist make me suspect one thing. These are the hardest words to say aloud, the hardest ones to even write down on a page:
I am depressed.
I shouldn’t be depressed, because everything is okay now. I don’t have cancer anymore, and it’s been two years since I did. I have a home and a great relationship and family. I have a job with a great team who have supported me through every hurdle I’ve faced in the last couple of years. I am not allowed to be depressed because there is no valid reason to be depressed. My life doesn’t suck enough for me to be depressed. I still play with my kids and laugh with friends and make terrible jokes and sarcastic comments. On the surface I’m perfectly fine.
I know better. I’ve walked this path before, though it’s been a while. I remember how it felt the last time I went through this. It felt exactly like I feel right now.
I’ve talked to friends who also survived cancer; they say they went through that period of feeling alive and motivated and excited about everything, and that it went away, and that they miss it now that things are settled and normal. I haven’t asked them if they, too, struggled with feeling worthless, pointless, fraudulent. I haven’t asked if they got depressed, because that would be telling, now wouldn’t it?
Am I still a biker, writer, runner, musician? Am I valuable? I don’t feel like I am when I can barely find the motivation to sit on my couch and play my video games once I’ve taken care of all the standard mom responsibilities.
I’m terrified of telling anyone my suspicions — that I’m actually depressed — because they’ll look at my life and wonder how that’s possible, when all the bad things are over — I won. They won’t believe me. They won’t know how to help. I certainly don’t, and I’ve been depressed before.
Do many cancer survivors have this much trouble resetting themselves into normalcy?
I don’t know the answers. What I have done is started seeing a therapist regularly. Unraveling the weave that has made me who I am means walking through a lot of things that I’ve been skirting around for the last twenty years. I’ll see you on the other side.