On Tuesday, life took a major shift from cancer patient to cancer survivor when the oncologist cleared me back to regular, everyday life. With the exception of taking care to not put too much pressure on the mediport site, I can do just about anything I used to do. And, Monday, it is back to work. So, little by little, I am venturing out into the world and resuming some of those normal activities that were restricted until this week.
Naturally, on the way home from the oncologist’s office, I stopped by the supermarket to pick up some fresh fruit that I could enjoy without have to peel to eat. Unpeeled raw fruits and vegetables were restricted from my diet until given the green light after chemo, so I was anxious to get some of my seasonal favorites. Surprisingly, instead of finding going into the grocery store exciting and freeing, I found it a little overwhelming because of the number of people in the store. I bought minimal fixings for salad and quickly exited the store. Nevertheless, I thoroughly enjoyed eating lettuce, raw carrots and unpeeled tomato.
However, the following day, I set out at a different time, in a less crowded location, and found delight in selecting berries, grapes, apricots and nectarines–none of which are going to be peeled. Meals have been fruit heavy since then, to the delight of my taste buds! Although I may continue to seek off times to shop, as much as possible, until I overcome my discomfort with the crowds, I am enjoying picking out fresh fruits and vegetables to reincorporate into my diet.
Living Strong, Living Well
This past Monday, I began the Living Strong, Living Well program at a nearby YMCA. The professor from Stanford University who facilitated the orientation session emphasized that the program’s focus was wellness, so we were not obligated to state what kind of cancer we had had or anything to do with our treatment or the disease. Instead, she asked us to share what we hoped to get out of the program and something we valued.
These instructions fit in perfectly with my goal in joining the program, which was to transition from cancer patient to cancer survivor, and to no longer be defined by the disease that gripped me, but by who I am as a person. It was incredibly freeing to introduce myself and to say what I wanted to gain through the program and what I valued. Not to have to tag on anything about the diagnosis, the emotional roller coaster that started after receiving a cancer diagnosis, or the agonizing months of treatment was a redefining moment and one more step in seeing myself as a someone who is healthy and thriving.
Back to School
In preparation for my return to school for the last eight days of instruction before summer break, I needed to touch base with the long-term substitute teacher who has been in charge of my class and my first grade teaching partner before Monday. It was bittersweet heading back to school yesterday to meet up with them, but the anxiety I felt before arriving, and the immediate coughing fit that overcame me upon my arrival, quickly disappeared as I was warmly greeted by colleagues and students.
I must confess I still find it difficult not to protest when people comment that I look good and that all the rest I had must be the reason. Because my work colleagues have not accompanied me on the cancer detour, and in fact have not even been told by me what illness I had, they do not know what caused my weight loss, that the reason my hair looks almost exactly the same as before is because what didn’t fall out quit growing, or that the months of chemotherapy could hardly be described as restful. While the inward battle of emotions rages, I try to maintain a benign countenance and politely respond to their well-intentioned comments. Admittedly, I am extremely over-sensitive, but, as with all other things, I hope this too will pass. And one day my hair might grow back long and thick!
As students rushed up to greet me with hugs, I fought the urge to pull back for fear of contracting some illness. For months I have dutifully avoided human contact to prevent infection, so I am still adjusting to the fact that my immune system can now battle disease and I no longer need to take such rigid precautions. I may have to continue to remind myself of this fact over the next few weeks, until it becomes an automatic reaction to enjoy the embrace of others without trying to pull back.
Meeting Up with Friends
While on chemo, I rarely went out for meals because of the risk of infection. If I ventured out, it would normally be to sparsely occupied places where I could maintain a safe space from other diners. Now that I am transitioning from cancer patient to cancer survivor, I can meet up with friends in public without having to estimate if I am far enough away from any diner who might be coughing or sneezing. While I do not find coughing or sneezing pleasant to be around, I am happy that I am able to meet up with friends over a meal to reconnect after these months of virtual isolation during chemo.
Although meeting up with friends is a welcome change, my long-term dietary changes remain in place. So, I remain ever mindful of my menu selections in order to promote continued health. I am not finding the dietary shifts difficult or limiting, but instead find something of a rewarding challenge in selecting something appetizing that is also healthful.
More of Daily Life
As time goes on, driving longer distances, sitting on a crowded beach, and other normal activities will also mark the shift from cancer patient to cancer survivor. But for now I am satisfied to gradually resume quotidian normalcy.
Which of these daily activities do you think you would most enjoy resuming?
1 Hewitt M., et al., eds. From Cancer Patient to Cancer Survivor: Lost in Transition (National Academies Press, 2006).