Survivorship – this word itself is loaded. I always thought that to survive meant that you “fought” something and you “made” it. You are now living and existing, despite facing a difficulty. On some level, to me, the word survive itself implies that you are not living your life to its full potential. My core belief has always been that life is meant to be lived fully. I have always tried to enrich my life by exploring, growing, learning, enquiring.
And now, here I am talking about the challenges in survivorship. Which makes me ask myself: how did my life go from thriving to surviving?
I am a 35-year-old woman who was diagnosed with thyroid cancer around 20 months ago, and life has never been the same since then. I decided to give a shot at writing this article in the hopes of being able to process my own feelings, but before I can get into the unseen challenges, I am faced with a major roadblock. How do I know if I have even “survived” in the strictest sense of the word?
A year after the diagnosis, which was also six months after being declared “cancer-free,” my cancer markers started showing some movement. While I deal with this news and what it could mean, it has planted a new seed in my head… have I really survived? Have I really left the “difficulty” behind? And will I ever fully “survive?” Will I ever truly know that cancer is done with me? And it pains me to say this: the most realistic answer to this is a resounding NO.
What are the core challenges I am facing today before I can even fully start to survive?
The first and foremost challenge for me has been to accept that survivorship now has an altered meaning for me. There are days when I am filled with gratitude to be given a chance to live this life, there are days when I am consumed by a huge wave of unexplainable grief and then there are days where I have mood swings and can go from a happy singing (more like croaking) woman to someone who is bawling on the floor while curled into a ball (my therapist is definitely happy to know that I have finally started crying!). My understanding that being a survivor means that you have managed to leave something fully behind you has been challenged. I know that for the rest of my life, I now have a target on my back. And whatever I do, this target has been etched there, and no amount of effort can undo it… similar to the pair of wings I had got tattooed on my back many years ago (yup I have heard of laser surgery, but let’s not go there). In my lowest points, maybe it is my lovely expansive tattooed wings that are carrying the burden of this target and granting me moments of respite.
This target on my back, brings me to the second challenge… which is that in all probability, people around me will never get me fully. I am blessed to have a wonderful family and friends who are family. They have gone above and beyond in their capacity to take care of me as well as they could. But dealing with this has been a lonely journey, where I have shrunk myself considerably because I know that despite their best efforts, my loved ones will never get the pain of living under the constant threat of a relapse. They are probably, and rightfully so, relieved that the worst is over (Is it really? For sure?). I pray every day that none of my loved ones have to ever understand my pain, but it does make my journey very lonely. It has been a challenge to behave “normally.”
I also feel like an imposter all the time. So many people go through way worse than what I have gone through. One of the radiologists once told me last year that I was “lucky” since I got a “kind” cancer in the form of thyroid cancer. I am sure she didn’t mean to belittle my situation and maybe was just trying to make me feel better. But since then, I have found it tough to accept that I am allowed to feel the fear and pain since I am relatively lucky. Who am I to even complain or claim that I understand what a cancer patient goes through since I never underwent chemotherapy? Am I an imposter?
On the other hand, I think my conversations are too intense. I have managed to scare off potential relationships, because who would want to knowingly be a part of a messy situation? It is all hunky dory till I behave “normally,” but the moment I talk about my perspective, either it is brushed off or ignored. I guess I can sum up this challenge as “I make people uncomfortable.” I don’t think anyone in their right mind would want to date me because who would want to enter a landmine willingly?
Let’s also talk about family plans. While growing up, I always wanted to adopt a baby instead of having a biological child because every time I saw a child at an orphanage, my heart broke into pieces. I also know that medical science advance has made a lot of progress, but now it seems that even thinking of having my own biological child would be irresponsible. What if I pass on this dreadful disease to my little one? Is it fair to the baby?
In all of this, I feel like a misfit. I am worried my presence is an unhappy reminder to people that maybe not everything is alright in this world at all times. I am constantly worried that if I am having a bad day, I cannot show it to anyone because who will want to be around someone who is so broken and lost?
Add to this, the layer of constant intense guilt. Even though I don’t believe I have “survived” in the strictest sense of the word, am I making enough of this second lease of life? This constant pressure of making the most of this life, to give back more than I receive, to take care of people who have it worse than me—all of this without losing my sanity and taking care of myself. Am I doing enough? Am I doing the right things? The constant fear that what if I forget the lessons I have learned? Am I grateful enough? Am I doing a disservice to everyone who helped me get better and somehow taking away this chance at life from someone who probably could have done it better than me?
And in all of this, I still need to pay my bills. I still need to go to work, while there are days I am just on autopilot, wondering if I will ever feel that ownership towards my work again. Granted that I don’t have a “dream job,” but I still derived a lot of pride and self-worth in my ability in my work. I do not know if anything will ever light me up like that again. I feel like a fake, artificial version of myself. How many more sabbaticals, breaks, and sick leaves will I need before any of this makes sense ever again? Is it alright to once again let go of that promotion and feel like a loser who does not have her shit together?
To sum up, I know that I have a lot to be thankful for, but that does not negate any of the challenges I go through daily. It is also tough for me to accept my emotional, mental, and physical limitations; to accept the reality of where I am today. I have gone into overdrive trying to fix myself to become “normal” again. But as I am writing this, I am realizing that this is the new normal for me. Maybe there is nothing to fix. Maybe at some point in my life, I will look back on this piece and feel proud and amazed at how far I have come. Maybe.
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Priyanka, thank you for your essay.
At age 32, I was diagnosed with Stage IV, metastatic stomach cancer, against all odds. I had none of the risk factors. I went through 13 rounds of chemo, then a full gastrectomy and another 12 rounds of chemo. I have been in remission since February 2021. Although I am no longer under treatment, I still consider myself in recovery and trying to find my – or any kind – of balance. Its been way harder to “get back to normal life” than I have expected.
I still dont trust my body, I feel weak and tired most of the time.
And the survivor’s guilt is very real.
The obligation to be grateful all the time is exhausting.
I wish you all the best.
Dear Priyanka, your writing was beautiful and honest and I ached with every word of it. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and your fragility and your strength. <3 Emily
Your emotions of feeling like an imposter, under-confident at work, and letting go of potential relationships all resonate very well with me. I am in early 30s as well, and have similar thoughts everyday after surviving Hodgkin lymphoma. But I also believe that some day we will snap out of it and be more confident and strong than ever.