Moving on and finding some semblance of normalcy is much more difficult than advertised.

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Illustration by Maya Chastain

I’d just closed my eyes for a nap when the trill of the phone ringing snapped me back to consciousness. Gingerly reaching for the receiver, I answered hesitantly, nervous as to who might be on the other end.

It was my surgeon, calling with the results of my mastectomy pathology.

“The tissue from your breasts was totally clear,” he said with a smile I could literally hear in his voice. “And your lymph nodes were all normal, too. There was no evidence of disease.”

These are the four magical words every cancer patient longs to hear: no evidence of disease.

They’re the goal — the best possible result of months of grueling treatment. They mean you get to live.

Months earlier, I wasn’t sure I’d ever hear those words. After finding a lump in my left breast, I was diagnosed with stage 2 invasive ductal carcinoma, along with the BRCA2 gene mutation.

I faced a gauntlet of chemotherapy followed by a bilateral mastectomy with reconstruction.

There were bumps in the road along the way — an emergency room visit and an allergic reaction to one of my chemo drugs — but I’d finally reached the end.

I could finally relax and get back to my “normal” life.

The first clue that this would be easier said than done came a few weeks later, when I found myself in tears after being released by my surgeon for annual visits instead of the every few weeks I’d been seeing him up to that point.

Driving home that day, wiping away the tears suddenly spilling down my cheeks, I couldn’t figure out why I was so sad. Shouldn’t I be happy?

What I would soon learn is that this is a common occurrence among cancer survivors.

Once treatment ends and we get the all clear, the world expects us to move on, find our “new normal,” and become those smiling survivors we see in marketing campaigns.

The reality is, moving on and finding some semblance of normalcy is much more difficult than advertised.

In the days and months after completing treatment, I dealt with an array of unexpected emotions.

Sadness at the end of a comfortable routine with my doctors, whom I’d become very attached to during the months they stood alongside me, trying to save my life.

Fear that every little pain or cough could be a sign of new cancer or cancer that spread.

And grief over all I’d lost — my breasts, my hair, and trust in my own body.

As time wore on, I realized instead of becoming happier and less afraid, my anxiety was reaching new levels.

Fearful — often irrational — thoughts about cancer recurring or metastasizing began to disrupt my daily life.

Instead of paying attention to my son and husband, I was often distracted, Googling symptoms on my phone.

Even happy moments like birthdays and vacations were marred by my irrational fears that a headache was a brain tumor, or my backache was more than simply a pulled muscle.

I knew I had to do something to get my anxiety under control.

Though I’d resisted asking for help, pridefully insisting I could handle it myself, I realized the time had come to seek professional assistance.

I scheduled a therapy appointment with a counselor specializing in the needs of cancer patients and survivors.

Even though she couldn’t personally understand what I was going through, her training and experience gave her a level of empathy and insight that made talking to her about my anxiety calming and productive.

During those sessions, she taught me another valuable tool to help quell my anxiety: meditation.

Through basic mindfulness techniques like focusing on my breath and learning to acknowledge and then dismiss negative thoughts, I became better able to manage my anxiety on a daily basis.

Using a guided meditation app before bed began to replace my nightly symptom Googling, leading to easier sleep.

While working on my mental health, I also started focusing on improving my physical health.

Cancer treatment left me weaker and more sedentary, so I started incorporating walks into my daily routine to rebuild my strength. Whether it was a quick jaunt on my lunch break or a treadmill workout in the evening, adding vigorous-yet-gentle physical activity helped me feel stronger and more energetic.

I also began paying more attention to what I ate. While I certainly still indulge in my beloved sweets, I also try to eat more fruits and vegetables daily.

These manageable changes to my diet and exercise may not prevent my cancer from returning, but they will help me build a body that’s strong enough to endure treatment again.

While all these new things certainly helped me adjust to life after cancer, I knew I needed something else to help manage my anxiety. After talking with my doctor, I made the decision to give a mild antidepressant a try.

I’d been resistant to adding another medication to my daily regimen, but I also reminded myself that I didn’t question taking a pill that might prevent my cancer from returning. So why was I so reluctant to take something that could help me with the anxiety that had taken over my life?

For those of us who’ve survived cancer, there’s a great deal of pressure to live up to the persona of strength that gets bestowed upon us during treatment.

We’re treated as though we’re almost super-human — the ones who beat death.

But the truth is, that fortitude is often a facade, masking the fear and pain that cancer survivors live with after treatment ends.

The process of working through those emotions to achieve a sense of normalcy in our lives is an ongoing, personal journey.

While what worked for me might not work for everyone, finding my own formula has allowed me to regain something I thought I’d lost after cancer — happiness.


Jennifer Bringle has written for Glamour, Good Housekeeping, and Parents, among other outlets. She’s working on a memoir about her post-cancer experience. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.