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The Post-Cancer Reality Check

When I was going through cancer, I took every opportunity that was presented to me to find the lesson in whatever terrible thing I was facing at the time.

When it was over, I promised myself that I'd never go back to the way things were, now that I'd seen firsthand how fleeting life is. I now knew what was important in life: time with my family, meditation, eating well, exercise, and simply having space to enjoy my life.

I am a year and a half post-treatment now, and I'm coming up against a wall that I didn't expect to.

As a cancer survivor — heck, as a human — there are a lot of "shoulds." You should avoid stress. You should eat mostly vegetables. You should exercise a minimum of thirty minutes a day. The list goes on and on. But after having cancer, these "shoulds" now have the added pressure of feeling like "musts." What happens if you DON'T eat well and exercise and keep your stress level down? Well, the insinuation is that if you don't, your cancer will come back.

The wall I'm running up against is called "reality."

Reality is, I am more privileged than most people and I still cannot make this stuff happen. I am lucky to have a well-paying job that I really enjoy, a supportive family and partner I adore, excellent health insurance, and a great amount of community support.

However, a full-time job 30 minutes away and two kids in the house means that a lot of the things I felt like I needed to do are simply not possible. I don't have enough time off to volunteer in my daughter's classroom every week — or really at all. I don't have enough energy or time during the day to exercise on a daily basis, or meditate, or have the spaciousness to not run from one thing to the next. No matter how hard I try, I can't seem to lower my stress level — life keeps happening.

Earlier this week I called my parents because reality was really upsetting me. I'm not getting home until it's dark, I'm falling asleep at 8:30 p.m. because I'm exhausted, and I keep getting stressed and exhausted by life. Something has to change! My dad listened quietly and then said, "you know, this is what I dealt with the vast majority of my working career. Sometimes you just have to put one foot in front of the other and do what needs to be done."

I was surprised by how much I hated what he said — it terrified me. And then I realized that I'd been telling myself a very scary story: If you don't change your life, your cancer will metastasize and you will die. Life as it was, before cancer, is what gave me cancer.

When I really evaluate that statement, though, I don't think I believe it.

The people I know who died from cancer — especially the young people — lived healthy lives and died anyway. Some people who live straight-up unhealthy lives either don't get cancer at all or don't have it come back despite drinking, smoking, and being overweight. To tell myself that I will die from cancer if I don't exercise daily and eat 90% vegetables is unrealistic and is adding more stress. I can't do all the "shoulds" and do what needs to be done to keep life going. And the truth is, I could do everything "right" and still have it come back.

When you've had cancer, there are all sorts of emotional things to deal with after its all "over." As time has gone on, I think about cancer less and less. I haven't convinced myself I have cancer in random body parts in quite awhile, for example. But every once in awhile, I realize that the trauma is still alive and well, hiding somewhere and affecting how I live my life.

Sometimes (maybe most of the time), life is hard and complicated. I truly believe that the source of most emotional suffering is wanting things to be different than they are. Some things are worth attempting to change — for example, a job you hate or people who don't treat you well. But some things are just part of life, and acceptance of your circumstances is the difference between being thankful for what you have, and always feeling dissatisfied.

I'm trying to find the balance.