September is a big month for me. It always has been – my birthday is September 5th, so naturally I think it’s the best month of the year 😉 Aside from my birthday though, I always looked forward to it if not so much for school but at least for a new year. The changing season and fresh start always brought a sense of hope and possibility.
Now, since cancer entered the picture, it holds even more meaning. My own remission ‘cancerversary’ is at the end of the month, and it just so happens to be Lymphoma Awareness Month as well. September now holds an even deeper sense of newness and change; of rebirth, hope, and possibility.
The War on Cancer: Taking Stock of the Status Quo
But it also brings with it a stark reminder of the status quo. Cancer rates are continually rising. People are still dying. Billions of dollars later, there is still no ‘cure.’
According to the American Cancer Society, a “total of 1,762,450 new cancer cases and 606,880 deaths from cancer are expected to occur in the US in 2019.” That said, the death rates have been steadily decreasing over the past quarter century – by as much as 27%.
Yet more and more people are being diagnosed each year and ‘survivors’ are left to pick up the pieces of their shattered lives.
So should we applaud the declining death rate when overall statistics are increasing? Are we really making much progress in this ‘war on cancer?’
What we Should really bring more Awareness to when it comes to Cancer
Sunday was World Lymphoma Day so it spurred me to write this post, especially as we’re halfway through the month. And it also got me thinking more deeply about this ‘awareness’ piece.
Aspects I think deserve more attention are the skewed focus on certain types of cancer over others, where the money raised ‘for research’ really goes, and the issue of consequences of treatment itself and the ongoing cancer recovery journey.
We spend so much time – and money – on raising cancer ‘awareness’ but how much good is it really doing? Are we getting bang for the buck?
There is so much we are not ‘aware’ of when it comes to cancer, and because these are such big topics I’m going to dive in deeper to the subjects of cancer research and the search for the cure in addition to where the money actually goes.
Reality Check on the Cancer Awareness Calendar
September is not just Lymphoma awareness month – it also happens to be awareness month for childhood cancer, uterine cancer, leukemia, ovarian, prostate, and thyroid cancers. One cancer is not more special or deserving of attention and awareness than any other – cancer is cancer and it is all devastating. I think every cancer should be equally acknowledged. For the record, October is also Liver cancer awareness month.
Choose Hope has a nifty little Calendar of Cancer Awareness Months as well as a little background info on these cancer ‘awareness months.’
Personally, I think February should be the month we focus more closely on – National Cancer Prevention Month. I will dive in more deeply in my next post, but the numbers speak for themselves – we do not place nearly enough focus on prevention.
Reality Check on ‘Life After Cancer’ and the Consequences of Treatment
I also believe far more attention should be given to #lifeaftercancer – the consequences of treatment itself and the impact it has on a survivor’s ability to rebuild their life.
Given my circumstances, I had a lot of reasons to feel ‘lucky’ about my particular situation, yet that does not take away the fact that I had to endure 600 hours of chemotherapy plus a lot of other meds on top of my chemo cocktail. It worked – but it also devastates the body in ways that often aren’t immediately apparent. The fact is, for so many of us, treatment is actually the easy part, as difficult as that may be to believe.
Case in point – I’m three years out now and my birthday the other week involved a little champagne and a couple of cocktails. I had a wonderful birthday, but I also had a pounding headache all afternoon and throughout dinner. I never get headaches.
All summer I’d been dealing with random health issues I’d never dealt with before – minor, but frustrating, especially since they weren’t going away. By my birthday, everything seemed to finally be clearing up. But then bam, everything came right back.
I finally realized it was an underlying gut issues contributing to each and every symptom – a sensitive gut caused by crazy amounts of chemo.
Over the past three years I’ve dealt with next-level brain fog aka ‘chemo brain,’ crippling fatigue, ongoing insomnia, gut issues, hormone imbalances, bloating, weight gain, and bouts of depression and mood issues.
I was diagnosed with Stage 3 Adrenal Fatigue (not recognized by conventional Western medicine, but a very real problem) and through concerted focus on specific diet and lifestyle shifts I’ve finally managed to heal.
And then this gut issue hit with a vengeance.
And I’m certainly on the lucky end of the spectrum.
The Long, Unexpected Road to Cancer Recovery
When I finally discovered the source of my symptoms, I was served a profound reminder of everything I’ve gone through and how sensitive my body still is.
I had no clue it would take my body as long as it has to fully recover – I was ‘the healthiest person’ people knew when I was diagnosed – a vegetarian and avid hot power yogi who could touch her toes to her head while holding a handstand.
With a background in biology, positive psychology, research psychology, yoga, mindfulness, and heavy amounts of research into Ayurveda and healthy living, I had the resources to turn to in supporting the healing process.
Yet it’s been two steps forward and one step back for three years now, in large part because I did not know what to anticipate. And I still consider myself to be one of the lucky ones. Frankly few of us are warned about the prolonged, long-term side effects. Like brains that don’t function the way they used to, crippling fatigue, mood issues, hormone issues, gut issues, and the list goes on and on.
Cancer Treatment and its Consequences on the Gut
Chemotherapy and radiation devastate the gut lining, which along with gut issues has consequences that impact the entire body. A full 80% of our immunity resides in the gut and 95% of serotonin is made there. When our gut is out of balance, it has a direct impact on both, contributing to brain fog, mood issues, and overall susceptibility of cancer survivors to illness.
Stress, exhaustion, fear, and anxiety deplete the adrenals and impact our hormones, keeping us in a perpetual state of fight or flight, further impeding the body’s ability to recover. Furthermore, many survivors suffer PTSD. All of these factors also directly impact the gut.
These gut issues certainly don’t impact only cancer survivors – a far greater percentage of the population struggles with gut issues than we realize, and most of us don’t realize it ourselves. We don’t know that the brain fog, depression, joint aches, yeast infections, low libido, and skin issues such as acne and eczema originate in a compromised gut.
But for cancer patients whose guts are devastated by treatment, these issues are exacerbated and the ensuing frustration is elevated to new levels.
Why ‘Back to Normal’ is an Unattainable Goal
By the time grueling treatment finally ends, we just want things to go ‘back to normal,’ at least when it comes to our bodies. But we quickly learn that goal is equivalent to learning to run a marathon when you’ve got zero fitness experience.
And along the way there are bumps and dips in the road you didn’t see so you suffer a couple twisted ankles, a knee injury. And maybe there are some twists and turns where you run into a pole or a tree you didn’t see. Because you’re doing it all in the dark and you don’t really know how to get to the finish line. The path is neither clear nor marked.
Finally, we come to the realization that there is no such thing as ‘back to normal.’ In some was it’s a good thing. In others, it may be a completely devastating realization. Either way, going through cancer changes the game forever, in big ways and in small.
Most of us are not informed about what to expect after treatment ends, nor are we offered support or resources for the many varied consequences that may arise due to treatment – and they are not all physical.
The mental and emotional issues that crop up are in many ways more debilitating and frustrating than the physical issues. This often stems from the fact that so many people in our lives simply don’t understand what it’s like. We look fine, we look healthy, and we should be oh so grateful to be amongst the lucky who survive! We ‘can never take another day for granted!’
Then when we don’t actually feel that way, we feel almost guilty or inadequate. Once we find our tribe and realize that we are all having the same experience, we realize that no we are not crazy. But so many people in our lives still can’t relate nor understand.
Navigating ‘Life Interrupted’ and Rebuilding after Chaos and Crisis
Yes, I do feel lucky. And grateful. But that doesn’t negate the fatigue, depression, anxiety, fear, and stress that often accompanies the survival and recovery phase.
Cancer causes an entire ‘life interrupted’ situation. Career issues, financial issues, relationship issues, self-image and self-worth issues, and of course the emotional and physical brain and body issues crop up. Cancer can create a crisis in every aspect of life – life interrupted on every level.
Many of us question our life path and our purpose. We question everything.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing – for many of us it can serve as a wake-up call or a kick in the butt to do the scary thing and go after the life we dream of. To buck convention and expectation and follow the calling we’re scared to admit to or pursue. Because we are served a giant reminder that this is the one life we have.
But that doesn’t mean it’s an easy process, especially without any kind of guidebook, not to mention the additional roadblocks that might now exist in our post-cancer lives.
Moving Forward with True Awareness
In many ways, I feel healthier and more amazing than ever. But it has taken a lot of my own research, determined effort, trial and error, learning from ‘mistakes,’ and resources to get here. I love my life now, and I feel SO good about my future, but for so many of us once the ‘battle’ ends another one begins – the one to get our lives back.
Cancer research helps to improve immediate survival rates, but if you do choose to support an organization raising money for ‘cancer research’, please be aware of where your dollars are actually going. And remember the patients who are actually going through it – even if the treatment is over, reach out and offer a hand or even just an ear.
I’m doing my best in my little corner to help address some of these gaps with my upcoming books and programs and I believe more strongly than ever that there is so much hope. I’m so grateful for all the support I’ve received along the way and now my intention is to pay it forward.
Sending so much light and love to all the fighters, warriors, survivors, and thrivers out there, I love you all <3
Please reach out with any comments or questions or if you would like support.