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Life On The Other Side

C.B. Gavant

There’s a lot of rejoicing when treatment ends. But then the next challenge begins: returning to “normal life.” Survivors speak about what it’s like to return to their old lives when they’re no longer the same people.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

“It sounds crazy, but at the time I almost wished the cancer wasn’t over, because I didn’t know where to go next,” says Tzipi Caton, who was sixteen when she was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

“Of course, I was happy that I was better, but I didn’t know what to do with myself. I went back to school after being sick for six months, and found that the world had gone right on without me. I couldn’t follow the classes. The other girls were talking about sales and shopping — everything seemed so shallow. I couldn’t bring myself to get back into the trivialities my classmates were obsessed with, but on the other hand I was very lonely.”

Tzipi, who wrote about her experiences in the book Miracle Ride, was fortunate that Hodgkin’s is a very treatable form of cancer that left her system eight months after the initial diagnosis. Yet the repercussions of the disease still affect her. Even today, seven years later, she is reminded of her battle with cancer on a daily basis.

 

What Am I Living For?

There are over ten million cancer survivors in the United States today, according to the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies. Over half of these people have been cancer-free for more than five years. With increased medical knowledge and better treatments and detection in place, survival rates are up by almost 15 percent. Yet, as many former cancer patients will tell you, surviving cancer is just the beginning. Then comes the next challenge: trying to return to your old life, but as an entirely different person.

“Once a person has been diagnosed, her life is transformed,” says Dvora Corn, a family therapist specializing in loss and bereavement and executive director of Tishkofet, an organization devoted to supporting families dealing with end-of-life issues. She also works for Ma’agan, an organization that offers group support for coping with illness. “She won’t ever go ‘back’ to regular life. Life will be different even when a person passes the five- or ten-year mark. The person isn’t the same as someone who has never been diagnosed.”

Cancer patients may go through two stages of self-transformation: the first, when they’re in treatment and are facing a life-threatening situation; the second, when they survive and have to face those “Now what?” soul-searching questions.

“When you’re sick, you’re busy running from doctor to doctor, and there’s no time to think,” Tzipi says about her experience. “But once it’s done, you have time to think again, and you realize that you were fighting to live. And suddenly it hits you —What was I fighting for? What’s life about?

“I fought and fought and fought … and then what did I come back to? Since I was a teen when I got cancer, I think I had a much harder time than an adult would. I hadn’t developed my real life yet.”

Batya Neumann,* another teen cancer survivor, also faced existential questions when her medical treatments ended. She spent a lot of time thinking about her future and wondered if she should change her major at college: “I thought, Maybe I should study medicine? I felt such overwhelming hakaras hatov to Hashem, and I wasn’t sure how to channel and express my exuberance.”

Surviving cancer also led her to investigate the role of G-d in her life. “I wasn’t raised in a religious home, but I had felt very close to G-d throughout my illness. I talked to Him constantly. Once I was well again, I thought, Should I just stop talking to Him? That didn’t make sense. I had to find a way to keep up the strong connection,” says Batya, who eventually became a baalas teshuvah.

 

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