Life after a diagnosis of cancer

Now what | Will my body ever be the same as it was? | Sex? After having cervical cancer??? | Can I have a baby after cancer? | Will my cancer come back? | Am I the only one who is scared of dying? | What do I do if I’m told my cancer is terminal? | Who can I talk to about everything?

Now what?

One day you may get the message: You’re in remission or they think you’re cured.

You’ve waited forever for that time. And now that it’s here, you’re a cancer survivor. After the initial elation you won’t be the first to find you’re feeling a bit strange, empty, moody, unsure.

You’re in a transition period. Absolutely no one in the world can know what you’ll be transitioning to.

But here are some guideposts along the way.

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Will my body ever be the same as it was?

Your body will take a long time to recover. And how it recovers can be unexpected. You may sleep longer than usual or less. You may eat more than usual or less. You may be more social or less. And just when you think you’ve got these changes under control, they may change again.

Simple things may become difficult. Things you never thought you could do suddenly are quite possible. Your memory may play tricks. You can’t remember some things. Or old memories – good and bad – may come flooding back.

You may be in pain. From surgery, radiation, chemotherapy, medication, and the memory of your pain. Your body might tingle, swell, feel numb, or just ache. You may look different than you used to. It may be hard to see those changes in the eyes of your friends and family.

You may be considering exercise – yoga, Pilates, swimming, massages, acupuncture, morning walks, the Boston Marathon. Talk it over with your healthcare practitioner so you can pace yourself.

Your body is different now. The trick is to find ways to gently wrap your mind around it.

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Sex? After having cervical cancer???

Cancer isn’t sexy, whether you’re in a lifelong relationship or on a first date.

On a practical level, after cervical cancer many women experience some or all of the following: vaginal dryness, vaginal tightness, and/or painful intercourse due to a shortened vagina. If your treatment altered your hormones, you may experience a decrease in or absence of libido (the desire to have sex). Your healthcare provider can provide you with information and medication to help cope with this.

But the root problem of course, isn’t in the plumbing. There’s always a workaround to the changes you’ve experienced in your body. Sex really happens in the mind and heart, and when the mind and heart are wounded, desire can be hard to come by.

  • If you’re in a committed relationship, you and your partner are going to have to commit to some heavy-duty communication. Your partner may have been your caregiver for a while – it’s not easy to tenderly slide back into “normal” life as a “normal” couple. There will be unspoken fear, sadness, loneliness, and anger. You’ll both need to give each other permission to voice these feelings as you move back to an intimate life.
  • If you’re single, there will also be the issue of when to drop the C bomb. On a first date? Fifth date? The first time you have sex? At some vague future point in a few months or years? Do you think you can get away with never?

Cancer, disfiguration, death: This is tough stuff, and we’d be lying to you if we said everyone who cares about you can deal with it. Cancer tested you, and it will test them. We’d be fools to tell you not to take rejection personally. It is personal. You can be rejected for having survived a disease that terrifies everyone. You can be rejected because your very existence reminds us that some day every single one of us will die.

If you have to, you will leave some people behind – and find better ones. We’ve met some of the better ones. For sure there are others.

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Can I have a baby after cancer?

Whether or not you can have a successful pregnancy will depend on your stage of cancer and your treatment.

If you are thinking about pregnancy in the future, before beginning treatment you’ll want to ask your healthcare provider questions such as these:

  • Am I a candidate for RVT (radical vaginal trachelectomy)?
  • Will I be able to keep my uterus?
  • Will I be able to keep my ovaries?
  • Can I harvest eggs before or after my treatment?
  • I don't have a partner. Can I freeze unfertilized eggs?
  • If I keep my ovaries and have radiation, will I be able to harvest eggs afterwards? Can my ovaries be moved up higher for protection from the radiation?
  • Can you recommend a reproductive endocrinologist?

If you are able to have your eggs harvested, they can be frozen unfertilized for future insemination. Or they can be inseminated with sperm and the embryos frozen for future use.

If you have had a hysterectomy, when you’re ready to become a parent a surrogate mother carries the child to term. If you follow the headlines, you’ll know that your relationship with the surrogate mother is new legal territory. You’ll need to research this thoroughly.

Even if you can’t have a successful pregnancy or harvest eggs, adoption can be a wonderful option – there aren’t enough homes for children who need them.

For some background on adoption, go to en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Adoption. For more specific information go to www.adoptuskids.org/ Please keep in mind there are many types of adoption agencies out there – research them carefully.

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Will my cancer come back?

It’d be insane to not have the thought that the cancer might come back. There’s no way to really know.

Some women are consumed by fear. Others are terrified only when they get a cold, cough, or ordinary ache. For some, anxiety spikes only in the waiting room for follow-up checkups.

The fear of recurrence is certainly understandable. However, we think that as time goes by you can begin to see time as your friend. You have been cancer-free or in remission for this amount of time; and the odds are that when you wake up tomorrow that will continue to be true.

If you find your fears aren’t moderating, you could try therapy to help you handle these feelings.

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Am I the only one who is scared of dying?

Let’s be clear. We’re not advocating that you run around like a sunbeam and say everything is great. Everything is not great. Indulge yourself: Spend a day in bed eating ice cream, watching reality television, and feeling really sorry for yourself. You’ve earned it. But don’t make it a habit.

Fear of dying is useful. If we didn’t have it we’d all have done enough stupid things to be dead a thousand times over. But fear of living, that’s no use at all. Please join Tamika & Friends in living.

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What do I do if I’m told my cancer is terminal?

If it’s terminal cancer you still fight like hell.

One of our survivors is a “terminal” cancer patient. In October she had one foot in the grave. In January she had two. Its months later and she’s still here and she’s doing better than most “healthy” people you meet every day. She balances her moods between peaceful and pissed-off.

Do you think you have to keep a grin on your face? We don’t think so! Get on your fighting face. Fight. And know that you are not fighting this fight alone! Take a look at Survivor’s Voices.

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Who can I talk to about everything?

If you need support beyond the medical nuts-and-bolts, here are some other people you can consider also talking with:

  • Your healthcare provider’s support network
    Often a large medical practice will have people on staff who can give you more counseling than your primary caregiver. Don’t be afraid to ask if others are available.
  • A professional therapist such as a psychologist, psychiatrist, counselor, or social worker
    Licensed therapists also are required by law to keep their conservations with you private. (Keep in mind, though, that if you bill to an insurance company, the company may access your records.)
  • A member of your faith community
  • Family and friends
    Pick the right people. If you want to keep conversations private, be sure to establish those boundaries from the start. And remember, there are people who may love you very much, but who are not the best people to help you in this kind of crisis. Choose family members and friends who not only care, but can take care of themselves while they help you. Both your and your loved ones may want to look at Help Me. I Don't Know How to Talk With Someone Who has Cancer.
  • Tamika & Friends
    That’s why we’re here. Browse through all our web pages. And don’t forget to take a look at Get Support.

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Tamika & Friends is supported by an unrestricted educational grant from QIAGEN.