Editors note: This article was one of a select few chosen for the inaugural print edition of Unconditionally Her which debuted at SURVIVORville 2017. Anne Elise also was one of small group of women chosen to share her story on stage at SURVIVORville. We are so inspired by her courage in sharing her story and her passion and enthusiasm with all women who are facing or have faced cancer.
The day I was told I had cancer the first time, I was immediately consumed by a typhoon of tears and questions. Will I die? Will it hurt? Will I need chemotherapy? What the hell is chemotherapy? Will I have to have body parts removed? But the most important question that kept resonating in my brain was when will I be cancer-free and normal again?
Never. For the rest of my life I will be a cancer survivor. You will be too.
I am a five-time cancer survivor. Not the same cancer five times. Five totally unrelated cancers invaded my body within seven years. So, I think it is fair to say, I know my way around the cancer labyrinth!
If you are expecting me to condense all my hard-won cancer survival expertise into a simple guidebook that you can follow to make your life whole, perfect, and normal again after your cancer treatments are over, you are in for a big disappointment. I cannot do that for you. No one can do that for you. Post- treatment is a highly personal and intensely lonely experience.
But there is hope. Her name is Dramatica!
Dramatica! became a part of me the day I finished eight weeks of daily radiation treatments for breast cancer. She is the resourceful, calm, fun-loving, and emotionally strong chocolate fanatic I call upon when I am feeling overwhelmed, scared, or sorry for myself. Dramatica! has helped me deal with all sorts of crises… from another cancer diagnosis to a pair of shoes I absolutely love that are not on sale.
You’ll know her when you see her because she always wears a fuchsia boa!
When going through treatment I envisioned I would drink champagne and skip through sprinklers to celebrate when it was all over. Not by a long shot! Instead, as I finished my last treatment, my radiation team whom I had seen every day for the previous two months, told me to go out and enjoy my life! They told me to forget I ever had cancer! I hugged them all, danced to my dressing room, and triumphantly changed out of my johnnie one last time. Then it sunk in that I wouldn’t see them anymore. No more advice about burned skin or comfortable bras. No more jokes about titty tattoos. Nothing. I was on my own.
That day Dramatica! and I discovered that the problem with surviving cancer is that help and guidance are abundantly available to people when they are diagnosed, and throughout treatment. But, when treatment ends, the medical support system moves on to help others just beginning their cancer battle.
Survivors don’t move on.
Survivors expect to resume their “normal” lives, but they quickly learn what was normal before cancer no longer is. Of the 1.7 million people who survive cancer every year many face physical, emotional, social, and financial challenges because of their diagnosis and treatment. They have to solve those problems, often without anyone to offer advice or guide them. Not anymore! Now, we cancer survivors have Dramatica!
In my pre-cancer life I was a journalist for more than 30 years. One of the perks of being a journalist is that when you investigate things and ask uncomfortable questions it is called “background research.” If you’re not a journalist, people just call you “Nosey!”
My background research turned up both good and not-so-good news. The good news is that the medical establishment is now aware of the devastation and desperation that survivors feel when active treatment ends. Dr. Loria Pollack of the Center for Disease Control (CDC) Division of Cancer Prevention and Control (DCPC) says, “In the past, public health programs concentrated on early detection and prevention of cancer. However, the focus has now expanded to include cancer survivorship and transforming survivorship research into practice.”*
The not-so-good news is that the U.S. government and their medical experts have decided to call everyone a cancer survivor beginning on the first day they are diagnosed with cancer. Long before patients have had any further tests or treatments they are called survivors. The entire time they are in active treatment and receiving support from various branches of their medical teams they are called survivors. So by the time they actually become survivors… who knows?
Have you heard the old saying that a camel is a horse designed by a committee? Dramatica! and I think that when our government officials and their doctors embraced cancer survivorship as an important health issue they may have over-reacted just a tiny bit. We think their definition of a cancer survivor is a homely horse!
A lot of good things have come from the realization that cancer patients need help throughout their lives. SURVIVORville is one great example! Congratulations on discovering it and on having the courage to participate in it! SURVIVORville is the original program developed by The Women Survivors Alliance. WSA has created other empowering programs specifically for women who have heard those dreaded words, “You have cancer.” Get the inside scoop at www.womensurvivorsalliance.org/story
There are hundreds of organizations that have online and local support programs. And we’re not just talking about chat groups that share their problems and questions. Every organization has different specialties. By support programs we mean everything from yoga classes to fly fishing weekends, nutrition classes, and massages!
Dramatica! and I suggest you put on your fuchsia boa, pretend you are Murphy Brown, and do some “background research” to find the best fit for you. A few good places to start are:
The Cancer Support Community, which says that their goal is to ensure that no one faces cancer alone. They provide programs for every step along the cancer path. They have online education courses and private counselors, as well as both online and local support groups. Those are just the beginning of their offerings. Start your search for help and more information at www.cancersupportcommunity.org/find-support.
The American Society of Clinical Oncology is an enormous international organization that encompasses everything from cancer advocacy and research to (of course) survivorship. Cancer.Net is the division that covers the areas you are probably most interested in. That information is found at www.cancer.net/survivorship and www.cancer.net/survivorship/about-survivorship.
Cancer Survivors Network and Springboard Beyond Cancer are programs run by the American Cancer Society. Check them out at www.cancer.org/treatment/support-programs-and-services/online-communities.html.
Dramatica! is too shy to mention this herself (sarcasm intended) but she has her own website that deals with all sorts of issues that women over 55 encounter. Gay ex-husbands, finding the pearls amid the perverts when dating online, and surviving and thriving after cancers are just some of the topics she covers in her unique Dramatica! style. Get the story behind the story at www.DramaticaDealsWith.com.
Whatever was “normal” for you before you began battling cancer is probably not the same normal for you today. That is both good and bad. For today, let’s just concentrate on the good. Throw on your fuchsia boa, go out and enjoy life!