Phase two of surviving cancer.
A cancer diagnosis at 27 isn’t something you think will ever happen to you. I was blindsided when I learned I had Hodgkin’s lymphoma. I told myself, “You have one day to be devastated that this is happening.” I shed a lot of tears and felt sorry for myself. Then I woke up the next day feeling strong and positive. In my short 27 years, I’d survived necrotizing fasciitis, a few rough teenage years, and postpartum depression. This resilience had left me confident that I would land on my feet again.
Over the next six months, I endured 12 rounds of chemotherapy. I lost control of many aspects of my life. My free time was spent either at doctor’s appointments or resting from my treatments. I didn’t recognize myself in the mirror: no hair, little muscle, neuropathy pain, and a chemo brain that made my regular workload a challenge. Despite it all, I felt supported. People are so understanding of your shortcomings when you have cancer. With that acceptance, I was able to give myself permission to heal.
In spite of this challenging new normal, I made amazing memories during that time. My husband and I had a blast with a dance party while shaving my hair.
I bought nine wigs and had fun switching up my hair from short, pink, and sassy to long and glamorous depending on my mood. I enjoyed hours of quality time with family and built lasting friendships with the other patients I otherwise would have never met. Amazing people in our community prayed for me and brought us meals. My husband and I grew closer through the practice of putting into action our vow to love each other through sickness and health.
Ringing that bell on my last chemo was the best feeling. I folded into my daughter and cried happy tears. We’d made it! I was surrounded by loved ones and my friends at the cancer center. I had so much gratitude for the closing of this chapter and for those who had walked it with me.
I spent the next month relishing in the fact that my treatment had ended. We all felt, “You beat it! You’re done!” We all thought cancer was behind me. But I began to feel like phase two was just beginning.
“Sometimes the full weight of trauma can’t be felt until after the active stage has passed.”Rachel Barfield
Sometimes the full weight of trauma can’t be felt until after the active stage has passed. But that is exactly when people expect you to be joyfully getting back to normal; you expect it, too.
I remember driving home after my LiveStrong workout and thinking life was good, and I was so grateful. The next second, I was flooded with anxiety that my cancer could come back and pull the rug out from under me again. I burst into tears. Over the next few months, my anxiety grew, and the positivity I had felt during my treatment seemed to wane.
I felt ashamed to feel down at a time when I thought I would be radiating gratitude and positivity. This was depression. My old friend had crept back in my life.
I needed to ask for help. I felt defeated and alone. Unlike my cancer diagnosis, these feelings were not something I was comfortable sharing with others. Something about struggling with your mental health can feel so shameful. It was in stark contrast to the experience of going through a physical illness.
I swallowed my pride and got the help I needed. I did not spend the last nine months fighting to live this beautiful, messy life just to let depression get the best of me. All the little things I had grown to appreciate after almost losing it all would not be sacrificed for fear of laying it all out there to get the treatment I needed.
I spent the next few months investing in my mental health, spending time in prayer, taking professional advice, staying active, sleeping well, and eating a balanced diet. Most importantly, I opened up in a meaningful way with the people I knew and loved. That should be as normal as how we talk about our physical health. My hopes are that talking about mental health will become our new normal.
It’s been a year since my last chemo treatment. While I remember those dark moments, the sting is gone, and now these memories are a testament to the resilience of the human spirit, and a reminder to keep looking forward. The fact that we were gifted with each other and a community is a beautiful thing. Our paths may vary, our struggles may be different, but when we walk those paths together, our load is lightened. Author Ram Dass said it best: “After all, we’re just walking each other home.”
Rachel Barfield is the business development and guest service manager at Genesis Company. When she isn’t working, she can be found at home with her husband, daughter, and two dogs or taking long walks through Target. Hobbies include beating cancer, spending time outdoors, eating tacos, and working out.