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Survivorship: Part 1

What Cancer Survivors Can Teach Us About Picking Up The Pieces And What Surviving Cancer Taught Me About Normalcy

You can’t ignore the parallels, as we collectively spend time in survival mode, isolated in uncertainty, but joined together in the experience of battling COVID-19.  Like when you hear the words, “cancer free”, the impact of this pandemic doesn’t just end when we flatten the curve and the lockdown lifts.

“Survivorship,” is the health and well-being of the whole person, from the onset of something to the end of their life.  It is pertinent that we recognize and accept the reality of the existence of survivorship, and the responsibility we each have as it relates to everyone and the COVID-19 pandemic. It is easy to ignore what we cannot see, but the truth is, there are no quick fixes or short term stimulus offers in “Survivorship.“ 

Is this the end, or just another beginning? 

This is the question I asked myself 10 years ago, as I fell to my knees in the hospital parking garage, tears rolling down my cheeks, only moments after my final round of chemo.

To the world and my oncologists I was finished.  The veil had been lifted, and I was free to go back into society and live my life.  Or at least this is what I was told. Everybody gears you up for the beginning and the middle, but nobody tells you how to prepare for what comes after.

I started a blog to share what I thought were my experiences, but it turned into an outlet to explore the thoughts,feelings and emotions I didn’t quite know how to express.  Ironically, the most difficult entries turned out to be the ones written after treatments had ended, and I was so desperately trying to assimilate back into the world.  Life beyond the diagnosis and treatment is in many ways the most complex part of the journey. 

“Life has been a blur these past 6 months.  I have been in combat mode, recoiling from diagnosis and armouring up for chemotherapy.  So much has changed while I was away, and upon my return I am a different person.  I have a bag of mixed emotions, from excitement, determination and strength, to fear, anger and frustration.  Most days I feel refreshed at my “new” take on life and the world, but I am also dealing with some feelings of seeing things and people through eyes I never knew existed.  Here you stand facing the fact that the old life is gone, and a new life has begun without your consent. Am I just another number, another statistic, another survivor, expected to re-enter life as if nothing has happened?  What about the guilt and fear I have? How do I move forward and live this life feeling sorry that I have lost the old and have to face the new?  That no matter how hard I try or want it, I will never again feel the innocence and freedom of the old life again. That each and everyday, even if only for a split second, I will be reminded of this journey, and the frailty of life here on earth.” [Entry from blog April 2010]

The degree of fallout from this around the world will vary greatly over many years, but no one will go unaffected.  No one will be able to just pick up where they left off, and return to the life they once knew.  Life for many will get harder before it gets easier.  

Like with cancer, thousands of individuals will walk away “pandemic free”, meaning they may have experienced some inconvenience and change in their lives caused by the social distancing, isolation, economic impact etc, but they will easily pick up and be able to move forward, despite their struggles, while others will spend the rest of their lives deeply affected by the continuous cancers or residual side effects of COVID-19. 

The masks and gloves, like the bald head of a cancer survivor, will be the immediate reminder of change, as we await a return to normal, but this too will quickly pass. 

So how then as both individuals, and as a collective society that has experienced this together, but will each be affected differently, do we create awareness and provide an action plan, with support tools and a direction that go beyond the “upstream survival mode”, and focus on the key to unlocking the success of the long-term survival of both individuals and society’s downstream survivorship?

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