This Is The Post-Cancer Elephant In The Room

by Marla Khan-Schwartz
Heidi Sain / EyeEm / Getty

I’d be lying if I said that 5 years later, I don’t feel it. It’s something that I only talk about with a very select group of people. My social media posts often reflect the positive side of everything — my happiness to still be in remission, my gratefulness that I am here for my family, and my drive to live for a very long time.

There often continues to be another presence that plagues me. That presence comes and goes and can strike at any moment. It’s often triggered by stories of others that are currently going through treatment or have not had the same success with their cancer prognosis that I was lucky to have. It can keep me up at night, or greatly distract me during the day. It can turn a regular cold or some common back pain, into an unrealistic dire situation. That presence can certainly be the biggest mind fuck.

The holidays can bring this feeling to the surface. Booking plane tickets, guests staying at my house, flying with children, cooking an immaculate meal, and buying gifts can all cause just the right amount of stress that can most certainly steer my mind in another direction. It messes with you because the way that your mind copes with the above stressors, manifests into the worst demon a post cancer person can encounter: anxiety.

When I talk about anxiety, it often comes in waves and ebbs and flows depending on stress. Five years ago it was a bit more consistent as the wounds were a bit fresher, but now it seems a bit more daunting as I can sometimes handle stress without post-cancer anxiety and sometimes I cannot. I just never know when my mind will start to walk a path littered with thoughts of reoccurrence, more chemo, radiation or even death.

The worst times of post-cancer anxiety can lead me to think about my children and either not being able to see them grow up, or imagining another mom who will get to see them grow up. I think about my sweet husband who I would literally die for, but realize that I may not be far off from that reality. I think about dying before my parents and the sadness they may feel when they realize they have outlived their own child. I think about how much I love and appreciate my job and everything I did to make the life that I lead. I think about my friends and how much I enjoy their presence in my life. I think about time. Not enough time…

Tick, tock, tick tock.

I think about how beautiful the littlest things are now and situations that used to annoy me, no longer do. I think about needing more time to travel the world because I want to see different cultures and experience different ways of life. I want to learn new things because you are never too old right?

Tick tock, tick tock.

There are many ways to cope with post-cancer anxiety. For me, it’s talking through it — finding that person who you can trust and letting your emotions loose without regret. It’s about not feeling bad for being scared because, in all reality, your anxiety is not that unfounded once you’ve experienced cancer. It’s going to be an ongoing health issue with the most immaculate surveillance and always on your mind depending on triggers. Coping also includes doing things for yourself that will create peace of mind. If I have an ache that I unrealistically know is probably nothing, I find no shame in calling my doctor and getting the reassurance that will help me move on with my day. I run a women’s cancer group and although I am a group facilitator, I benefit from the discussions and guest speakers. It’s healing.

Post-cancer anxiety is common and something that is present, to some extent, in most post-cancer patients. If you have been through a cancer process or know someone who has, my best advice is to be open about the reality of the anxiety that more than likely exists and help yourself or someone else cope by simply providing an ear.

The elephant in the room will continue to try and plague me, but I won’t let it get the best of me. I have too many things to do and see.

Tick, tock, tick, tock.