Andrea and Rosehip,
When I got my histology results, people expected me to be jumping through hoops. Several people told me I could 'get back to normal' now. Others remarked what a relief it must be to be able to 'put all that behind' me. The reality is I felt pretty flat, actually. Just a sort of 'ok' was my response. That is not to say I wasn't relieved - I was - but cancer is far more complex than that and nothing had properly sunk in at that time.
People tend to think of grieving as being something that is to do with bereavement. But actually, it is just to do with loss. Even if you survive cancer, there is a great deal of loss involved and it really isn't unusual at all once you've got the 'all clear' to enter into a grieving process. I know I have been and still am, grieving. This is not to say I am miserable - I am genuinely positive and excited about the future, and I certainly have those moments where I am filled with utter joy and gratitude at simply being alive (I had one yesterday morning when I was sitting at my desk at home and I could hear the birds singing outside and it was amazing to me), but other times I am tired, irritable, have difficulty sleeping, anxious, worried, cross, have difficulty making decisions, can be forgetful and very teary. I also have days where I don't want to be on my own and other days where the last thing I want to do is see another human being because I'm fed up with all of them!! Haha! Grieving is difficult and complicated and everyone experiences it slightly differently, but it's a completely natural and normal part of having cancer. Also, when we enter the grieving process - for whatever reason - it brings up other things from the past that we haven't resolved. So, for example, if someone has suffered a close bereavement ten years ago and never allowed themselves to grieve, then something happens to them (such as cancer) which triggers the grieving process, the unresolved grief also makes itself known and demands to be thought about. I've heard of lots of cases of people finding that cancer is making them think about all sorts of things from the past that seem on the surface to be completely unrelated, but actually it's the feelings surrounding these things that are similar, rather than the things themselves.
As far as other people's reactions go, the fact is that people who haven't had cancer, simply don't know what it's like to have cancer. I think it really is as simple as that. I let people off the hook for this because before I had cancer, I didn't know what it was like either - and I am someone who has known several people who've had cancer and I nursed my father through it, who eventually died in my arms, but I know now that I still had no idea what it was like to be the person who had it. In order to cope with life on a day to day basis we allow ourselves the illusion of concrete beliefs - "I will retire to France when I'm 60," or "I will get my Ph.D," or "I will grow old with my husband and he will grow old with me," for example - cancer challenges our belief in all of these things and we are faced with the reality that actually, there is only one thing in life that is absolutely concrete, and that thing can happen just like that, at any time, irrespective or who we are or what plans we've got. It makes us realise that there are lots of things in life over which we have no control, and that can be frightening and takes time to adjust to. This new perspective can also change parts of who you are, and you may find that people around you take time to catch up - this has certainly happened with me - lots of things about me changed very very quickly after getting a cancer diagnosis. You might even need time to catch up with yourself (if that makes sense!) because as we often say on here, cancer is a roller coaster and when you've got it, you're dealing with all the 'stuff' of it, you're frightened, and you don't really have the time or space to think about how it's actually changing you as a person. You start to realise this a bit more, afterwards, I think.
It's certainly true that there will be people who now expect you to be full of the joys of Spring, skipping through pretty meadows with a renewed zest for the life you are ever so grateful for, completely happy just not to be dead. There is a really romanticised view of cancer in society that really doesn't help with this. We're expected to be good little cancer patients and be a good example of how precious life is by always being happy, grateful and never complaining. Set against the backdrop of a very real and serious threat to one's life, often being left with lifelong physical issues as a result of the cancer and/or the treatment and the massive changes it can bring to how someone feels about themselves, their own body and a number of their relationships, this view seems nothing short of ridiculous to me. Life is not a Hollywood movie. Society is also intolerent of uncomfortable or inconvenient feelings and I think one of the reasons other people sometimes don't like you not fitting in with the received stereotype of a 'cancer survivor' is because it makes them very uncomfortable and would make them have to think about things that might scare them. Just as cancer challenges our concrete ideas of the world, being confronted by someone telling you that actually, it's not as clear cut being 'cured' and that it's a lot more complicated than that, is just too scary for some people.
There's a lot to come to terms with around cancer. It's bound to take time. Received clinical opinion is not to make any major decisions within the first two years of grief (major decisions are regarded as things like divorce, moving to another country, all of those sorts of things) simply because grieving is so complicated and emotions can be so wide ranging. I think the best chance we have of coming to terms with what's happened to us is to allow ourselves the time, space, patience and compassion to feel however we feel, to look after ourselves with kindness and not martyr ourselves to what other people expect us to be, and to spend gentle and kind time with those who mean the most to us and won't judge us for our feelings. There is a lot of talk about 'strength' and 'bravery' around cancer and unfortuately this is often associated with someone being eternally 'up' in the face of difficulty, rather than someone bursting into tears in the sanitary towel aisle in Tesco and being sick of spending 50% of the day trying to go to the loo. Actually I think the strongest thing you can do is to just let yourself be you.
With much love,