Post-Cancer Diagnosis, You Can't Go Back

You Can’t Go Back

December 2nd marks the one year anniversary of my tissue expander-implant exchange surgery. This means it’s also been exactly eighteen months to the day since my bilateral mastectomy. Which in turn means it’s been a little more than eighteen months since I heard the words, you have cancer.

One reminder often seems to lead to another. There is always a trail of sorts taking me back to previous stops along the way on this cancer gig.

Then, on top of my own personal trail of cancer dates/ anniversaries/reminders, there is also my mother’s trail.

No wonder it’s so hard to forget about cancer for long. It’s down-right impossible. There are simply too many reminders.

It’s like cancer has penciled itself in over and over again, taking up way too many dates and times in my planner for the past eight years.

Eighteen months have passed since my diagnosis, but it cancer still has a way of continuing to intrude even when I’m supposed to be done.

And I’m supposed to be done.

I’m supposed to have moved on. I’m supposed to have found and embraced my new normal. I’m supposed to have taken my life back.

On top of all that moving on and taking back, sometimes it seems I am also now expected to be a better person because I had cancer. It’s almost like I’m supposed to be a “new and improved version” of my former self.


Maybe I should be, but I know I’m not.

And the truth, at least for me, is that you are never done with cancer. Not completely. There are too many reminders that don’t allow you to forget, at least not for very long.

Along with all those dates “jumping out at me” in nearly every month it seems, there are all the physical reminders like continuing fatigue, new physical limitations, reconstructed body parts, lymphedema worries, new or lingering aches/pains, chemo-brain, chemo-induced neuropathy, sleep issues and little white pills to take every day to name a few.

And then there are all those ongoing follow-up doctor appointments.

But more than the physical changes, it’s the changes cancer makes to one’s mind-set that leave a profound lasting effect.

Cancer changes the psyche; it just does.

People who have not been personally affected by cancer sometimes have difficulty understanding this.

I hesitate to make such a statement because it insinuates an “I know something you don’t know” mentality. That’s not my intent at all.

I’m just trying to share two basic cancer truths. Well, they’re my truths anyway. The truth about how cancer changes you. For good. And not necessarily in any good sort of way. The other truth is that it’s never really over. Ever.

One evening during this past Thanksgiving weekend, I watched the third installment of the Lord of the Rings trilogy with son #2. At the conclusion of the movie, Frodo returns home to the Shire after destroying the ring. He’s feeling fidgety and unsettled upon his return and says, “Sometimes no matter how hard you try to pick up the pieces and return to your old life, it’s just not possible to go back. Sometimes the changes run too deep. You can’t go back.”

It’s funny, I’ve seen that movie numerous times, and I never “heard” that statement before.

Now it’s what I remember most.

It’s true.

After a cancer diagnosis, you can’t go back.

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Have you experienced a life-changing event and found yourself unable to “go back?”

Post-Cancer Diagnosis, You Can't Go Back

28 thoughts to “You Can’t Go Back”

  1. Very true, Nancy. We spent ages waiting and longing to ‘go back’ to the life we had before (Being) Sarah’s breast cancer diagnosis. But you never can, we now know. On diagnosis day the future starts, and it’s a different future. As Frodo says ‘Sometimes the changes run too deep’.

    1. Ronnie, You do just have to let it go don’t you? Your old life I mean, at least parts of it. It is a very different future now somehow for a lot of reasons. Thanks for commenting, Ronnie.

  2. Great post Nancy! Been thinking the same thing. I am making major lifestyle changes…but, due to cancer. You are so right it doesn’t go away, and unfortunately people don’t understand. And I’m so sick & tired of people saying I just want you to get back to “normal”!!! What does that mean!! I was never normal, did not want to be normal, and am never going to be normal! If anything I am a bigger goofball than ever. Normal sucks!! Excellent post!

    1. Laura, Thank you, I’m glad you liked this post. I appreciate your feedback! I know what you mean about the normal thing. That whole “new normal” concept is one I’ve never really understood. I’m not entirely sure what it even means. And nothing much about post-cancer life is normal. As you alluded to though, maybe normal isn’t all it’s cracked up to be anyway. Except maybe “normal” healthwise, that’s always nice. Thanks so much for commenting.

  3. Love this posting, Nancy. It so speaks to me, and you are right. Cancer changes one’s life FOREVER!! It’s strange because in many ways my life was changed for the better after cancer, but in many ways, there have been complications — to the mind, spirit, and psyche.

    I know exactly what you mean. I totally get it.

    You and I always seem to be on the same pathway in the blogosphere. I just wrote about my major double mastectomy with reconstruction anniversary, which is today. Like you say, great minds think alike, heh heh….

    1. Beth, Thanks for your kind words. You always seem to understand where I’m coming from. I just read your post and it totally exemplifies what I’m trying to say. Here you are all this time later and you are still very much living with cancer’s aftermath. It doesn’t ever just end does it? (Maybe great minds do work alike! ha ha!) Thanks for commenting.

  4. Nancy..
    This is so wonderfully worded and EASY to understand. “We” all get it…. and we “get it” from perhaps the instant we are dealt The C Card. Often, it takes those closest to us many YEARS to come to terms that we can’t just pick up our marbles and quit the club. Relationships can become strained which is why I value YOU and all of the others who live with the full understanding that sometimes, you can’t just go back home….. that we need to find comfort in our new home.

    OK… apparently, I’m in metaphor monday mode….. (maybe that will be my ongoing theme for my monday blog entries…. I LIKE that…. haha….) See how my brain can’t stay in a straight line. I’m zigging and zagging…. and THAT is The New Normal!

    Love to you….

    1. AnnMarie, You’re so right, we can’t just “pick up our marbles and quit the club” can we? Love that phrase by the way. Some relationships do suffer and likewise some grow stronger. I am grateful to you and so many others who do get it. Thanks again for sharing your thoughts – and a lilttle zigging and zagging just makes them all that much better!

  5. Hello Nancy,

    As always, a post that gets right to the heart of what so many feel. Thank you.

    I would just add that this feeling of “you can’t go back” is not limited to cancer.

    I have a friend whose wife, up and out of the blue with absolutely no heart or health issues beforehand or after, had a heart attack. The docs could only say that once in while, there’s just a split second mishap in electrical signaling, and wham – a heart attack can occur. Now, even though every test shows her heart is perfectly healthy and sound, her mental and emotional life is forever changed. She’s afraid to be alone, as if the next one is one heartbeat away.

    Imagine being a victim of violence (war, rape, on and on…) – would you come out of it the same person? I imagine life is forever changed.

    As you know, I just had a whipple due to a “mass” in my pancreas. My father died from pancreatic cancer. Mom has lymphoma and is a 25 yr breast cancer survivor. Now 2 sisters (both breast cancer survivors) have found masses in their pancreas, one of them confirmed to be a tumor. So I would be last to argue that cancer doesn’t change lives, and I find myself gritting my teeth when I read those stories about cancer changing life for the better. And yet, I find too many cancer stories are told in a vacuum, cut off from all those other human stories of suffering and healing, possibly to our loss (“our” referring to those of us changed by cancer).

    I’m sharing this because I believe that we may have an easier time rebuilding our relationships with our bodies and our lives post-cancer diagnosis if we can see cancer as one of many many causes of human suffering.

    What do you think?

    1. Susan, I think you are absolutely right. There are certainly many other causes of human suffering that do indeed also change lives forever. We shouldn’t turn a blind eye toward any of them. Thanks for sharing your stories. I can only imagine what the day-to-day fear of your friend’s wife must be like. Once again, her case illustrates how fragile life is and how quickly things can change. And then there is your own family that has been dealing with so much cancer and cancer risk. I’m so glad your recent surgery turned out ok. Anyway, like you said, many of us face life-altering challenges. In my view, it helps to share about them so others can see they are not alone, whatever situation they might be in. Thanks for your insights, Susan.

  6. So many times I have felt like Frodo. It’s not the same, you leave one way and return home different not just because of the loss of a breast(s). “IT” changes you and we can’t quite decipher what “IT” really is or what it’s suppose to mean. Or to do about it. Since I am post cancer I feel very unsettled.I want to run away far from here never come back, maybe there’s room for one more on that ship Frodo left on…. Alli xx

    1. Alli, It is hard to put your finger on some of the ways one finds herself/himself changed isn’t it? I know what you mean. It is all quite unsettling to say the least. I think all of us want to run away at times, and not just those with cancer. Everyone it seems is dealing with something or will be at some point. We don’t have the option of leaving on a ship like Frodo do we? Thanks for commenting.

  7. Oh Nancy, once again you are on the same wavelength as me. I have been trying to come to terms with this feeling that nothing will ever be the same again, including me. Frodo (and you) are so right, we just can’t go back. We can pretend that everything is back to “normal” again but it is really exhausting to do that and I for one, do not even want to. I am tired of putting on that “smiley face” and acting like everything is just peachy. I think I may have hit the grumbling stage….wonder how long that will last…
    I was just telling boyfriend tonight that I would love to have the “option” of deciding what I wanted to do with my life, where to work, etc. I guess I do have an option to discontinue treatment, but I don’t think that is a smart option. I get the complaints from boyfriend that he is so busy and doesn’t have time or energy for things we used to do or even to talk about our situation…I hate cancer.

    1. Laura, I understand how you feel. I’m sorry you have to deal with so much crap. Pretending all is back to normal and wearing that smiley face can be exhausting at times can’t it? I think you are allowed to be in that grumbling stage from time to time. You don’t ever have to apologize here! I welcome all your thoughts anytime. I hate cancer too. Thanks for stopping by. I know you have lots going on.

  8. Perfect post, Nancy. Funny, the only people who understand we can’t go back are those that have been through the experience. We all know something others just can’t fathom. My guess is it’s just easier to believe life will return to “normal,” precancer days. There’s just too much to deal with when in the whole moment. Thinking we’ll be changed is simply beyond us. I know it was for me. I keep looking for some kind of return to those days. Still waiting. And annoyed by those that expect us to be “just fine.” Thanks for writing this.

    1. Stacey, I like to think others can understand where we’re coming from. I don’t know, maybe you’re right though, perhaps it’s just possible unless you’ve been through it. Like Susan said in her comment, there are many other life-changing events others go through too, so I certainly think there can be shared empathy. I don’t really look for the return of the old days anymore or life as it used to be. Like you, I get annoyed too with the expectation that we should just be done. That’s not really possible since the chance for recurrence is always there. Thanks so much for commenting, Stacey. I always appreciate your thoughts.

  9. Great post Nancy. You obviously struck a chord that resonates with so many of us regarding what comprises normalcy and can we every really get back there. In my woeful lay-person’s understanding, in the grand pecking order of cancer hideousness, breast cancer is every so slightly on the less hideous side simply because it can have a high non-relapse rate (notice I didn’t say “cure”). The interesting thing is, for those patients unfortunate enough to be afflicted with a “worse” cancer, if they can just make it past the five-year mark, they can be declared CURED. But with breast cancer, because it is such a sneaky bastard and can come back even 20 years later, we can really never be declared “cured.” So there’s the trade-off: we get diagnosed with a potentially less lethal cancer that may never threaten us again after treatment, but we also never get to hear the words “you are cured.”

    1. Jean, You raise an interesting point and you’re right, breast cancer is a “sneaky bastard.” Even many years later it can and does resurface, hence the never being done thing… Plus, I’m finding that so many of us are trying to live with never-ending side effects from treatment that don’t allow us to forget. Are there cancers that are considered cured after a certain amount of time has passed? I hope there are. Regardless, in my mind, all cancer is hideous. Thanks so much for adding to this discussion, Jean. I really appreciate it.

  10. Nancy, your post brings up all kinds of emotions within me. Just like the whole “hair” affair, I want acknowledgement that I have experienced something horrible and yet I want to be treated “normally”. The same thing with the post cancer treatment time period: I want to have recognition that “it ain’t over yet, it could come back any time” and yet I don’t want to be typecast as a “cancer survivor”. I’m so difficult, right?! There’s something so cavalier when (well meaning) acquaintences want to say, “they got it all, right? You’re done with treatment. Etc” It makes them feel better ’cause they want us to feel better. But the sad fact of the matter is, we don’t know that’s the case. And I certainly don’t relish in being morbid, but bear in mind: I thought I was the picture of health 18 months ago. A calcification on my mammogram said otherwise. So for me, it’s always felt profilactic that I had to go through mastectomy/chemo/radiation/reconstruction ’cause I never saw or felt a lump. So naturally, I feel skittish about my future. Just can’t be trusted. I certainly don’t walk around all day feeling dismal but every now and then, I I do expect the other shoe to fall. At some point. It happened once before…..And how to express this forboding to someone who has’t experienced this betrayal? I agree, it’s something you can understand only once you’ve gone through it. And so it goes…..mary

    1. Mary, Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts. It is a fine line to walk. I don’t want to go around with a sense of doom and gloom either and I don’t, however, like you I am not blind to the possibility of “the other shoe dropping.” That is our new reality isn’t it? It just is.

  11. Nancy – I am approaching my five year mark from diagnosis (early in 2012). And there are still many reminders for me too. Sometimes I think back to D-day, diagnosis day, and I remember how serious everyone was, I know that sounds obvious really, but in a way your medical team know, in that moment, how much this day changes your life – forever. And in a way, you don’t, at least I didn’t realise it at the time. There’s that feeling that you will ‘return’ or ‘go back’… and over time you realise you won’t. You’ve really captured exactly how that feels.
    Thanks, Sarah

    1. Being Sarah, You make an interesting observation here about your D-day. I don’t believe I was thinking about the future at all back then on my D-day. I was so in the moment, just trying to cope with the time and decisions at hand. I guess having experienced bc with my mom, I knew life would never be the same, there would be no “going back.” Thanks so much for commenting.

    1. Philippa, I remember you said in one of your posts you are a “date remembering” sort of gal too. It’s hard to forget when there are so many reminders. You’re right, we do move forward, but we never return to that place or that person we were before. Thanks for your comments.

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