The Surprising Challenges of Life in Remission
“Being a survivor never goes away, hopefully,” says Dr. Jamie Stern, an ENT-otolaryngologist in Plainview, New York, who underwent treatment for Stage 1 breast cancer in 2001. “Even for those of us who don’t wear it on our sleeve, t-shirt, tattoo, march in rallies, or post about it to the general public on Facebook, it’s always there.”
The number of people surviving a cancer diagnosis reached just under 15.5 million in 2016 and is estimated to grow to about 20.3 million by 2026. What’s more, the overall cancer death rate for men fell 1.8% annually from 2006 to 2015 and 1.4% annually for women.1
Jenna Schnuer is one of a growing number of survivors. After being diagnosed with breast cancer that spread to her lymph nodes in August 2014, Schnuer, 44, underwent 9 months of treatment that included a lumpectomy, chemotherapy, and radiation.
“Cancer changes things for a long time, and sometimes forever,” she says. “It becomes part of your identity.”
While beating cancer is something that anyone can be proud of, there are some psychological challenges that come along with the territory as well.
Coping with follow-ups
While learning you’re in remission is generally a happy time for most, patients who have survived cancer live with the fear that their cancer could come back. For example, Schnuer dreads mammograms because that’s how her cancer was discovered. The time it takes to get her results can be excruciating.
“You find out kind of late that cancer hits your head,” she said. “Cancer screws with your emotions. You have to relearn how to handle your emotions.”
Jamie Stern tackled that by researching radiology centers that deliver immediate exam results.
“Everyone worries before going for their mammogram,” she says. “That fear is multiplied when you’ve had cancer. Health insurance laws have changed so that a radiologist isn’t required to be present to read films at the time of the exam. That often means a call days later for more films. After 2 years of callbacks for repeat films, as well as a biopsy 3 years ago, I’ve changed where I go for my mammograms and sonograms so that a radiologist is present at the time of my exam.”
Communicating with friends and family
Rachael Yahne, a lifestyle blogger, underwent treatment for Stage 4B Hodgkin’s lymphoma when she was 17. After undergoing what she calls “intense chemotherapy,” she says engaging with friends, family, and colleagues post-treatment who didn’t quite know what to say to her was difficult.
“It’s only been years after treatment that I’ve learned to truly own my experience and ask directly for what I want from other people when I share my cancer story, and that is allowing some wiggle room for empathy, but never pity or sympathy, always with more encouragement and joy than sadness,” she says.
“I simply do not allow people in my inner circle to express fear or worry about whether it will come back or any negative emotions surrounding any of it. That kind of response and energy does me no good, and while it took me a long time to set that boundary about how my cancer–my story–will be approached, once I did set that boundary it made all the difference in my remission and my life.”
Changing your mindset
Jenna Schnuer adopted her dog, Finch, the day after she finished treatment. While some people don’t recommend this kind of life change so soon after cancer treatment, “that was the smartest thing I could have done,” she says.
As a single woman who is self-employed, having Finch helps Jenna take the focus off of herself, giving her something else to nurture.
“I was so tired of myself at the end of the cancer [treatment],” she says. “I’m not a self-focused person, and to be focused on myself for that long is so boring.”
She also made some close friends with people she calls her “cancer friends.” These are people she may not have met otherwise, and they’re able to talk about cancer-related concerns more than she can do with others.
And for Stern, her diagnosis was a so-called “a-ha” moment. She began reframing daily life struggles.
“It definitely has put life’s other travails into perspective,” she says.
1. Cancer statistics. National Cancer Institute. https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/understanding/statistics. Accessed May 1, 2020.
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