“Now you’re done, right?”

How to Not Be a Dick to Your Friends Who Have Cancer

Cancer treatment isn’t medicine. With most illness, you take medicine to feel better. You have flu so you drink some theraflu, and soon you feel better. This is the general expectation of medicine, that it will improve health.

Just under 2 months ago I completed 9 months of cancer treatment. I had a surgery to remove a breast and lymph nodes under my arm, then I had 8 rounds of chemotherapy, and finally had 25 doses of radiation over 5 weeks. Then they started me on medication (with plenty of debilitating side-effects) that I’ll take for the next decade to try and prevent a reoccurrence. This is pretty standard treatment for the type of cancer I had. It was and is extremely difficult, but it was necessary to kill the cancer. (Hopefully it worked and is working, but we won’t know unless the cancer doesn’t come back and unfortunately this type of cancer could come back at any point in my life, but that’s another can of worms.)

When the active treatment of chemo and radiation ended, it was not the end of my healing but the beginning. Now is when I start to learn to walk and drive again, slowly get back to work, try to stay awake past 9pm and maybe get through a movie or lunch without pain.

Doctors don’t tell you how long it takes to recover from cancer treatment, they talk vaguely. There is no book or website to look it up either, because no one knows how long it takes. A lot depends on the type of chemotherapy. There are various types and some have much worse side-effects than others. Those are the ones I had to take. But all of them are poison and what is important to remember is that they are intended to work that way. There is no point in plaintively asking a cancer patient why they aren’t feeling “better” yet, because cancer treatment is not supposed to feel good. Why would systematically poisoning someone and then burning them feel good? Think about it logically; of course we feel horrible for months and even years later because we’re recovering from poison and radiation burns as well as cancer!

People keep asking me why I don’t feel well and other women who’ve had cancer treatment tell me this is a common problem. That would indicate that people don’t understand how cancer treatment works, but it is essential to know how it works because being pushed and chided for ill health during recovery is unacceptable and at such a point of weakness, pretty unbearable.

Breast cancer didn’t make me feel bad, that’s why I didn’t know I had it for a couple of years. If there hadn’t been a massive lump in my breast I never would have got it checked and it certainly would have killed me. It made me a little bit weak and depressed, but life does that sometimes so it was hard to spot for a while. That is literally the only side effect I experienced from breast cancer, no “illness” feeling to speak of. Surgery, chemotherapy and radiation on the other hand are brutal. And that is what they’re meant to be. I experienced extremes of every kind of pain and sickness you can imagine… I was going to list them but it was an entire paragraph of really disgusting stuff so just trust me, you get very sick.

Most people seem to assume that the cancer is the sickness and the treatment is “medicine” which makes it better. It is not and it does not. Cancer treatment is designed to kill things, (not killing the parts of you as quickly as it kills the cancer, but it does) and that does not feel good. And once that treatment is over it can take a very long time to recover, there is muscle to regrow and tissue to repair, it all takes a lot of strength. And some of the treatment continues to work after it has been applied, like radiation which will continue to shrink and warp my chest muscles for the next 6 months or the 10 years of medication to try to prevent a reoccurrence which cause joint pain, weakness and depression. And just around now the nerves that were cut during surgery 9 months ago are regrowing, flooding my chest with pain. Meanwhile my stomach still hurts, my muscles still ache, my joints still give way, my spatial awareness is faulty, my vision is impaired, and of course I’m very weak and tired most of the time.

All this is to say that when you meet a friend who has completed the intense therapy of their chemo treatment, please remember that their own lengthy process of regrowing their body and strength is only just beginning. Be considerate of the fact that they still need your support because they are still sick, and won’t have the strength they had before treatment for a long time. Do not ask them to push themselves beyond what they know they say they can do because they don’t have the reserves of energy that you do, that was all used up by treatment. Be aware that this healing is an ongoing process that can only begin once cancer treatment is finished, because now we’re healing from treatment and that is a long and unknown road with very few signposts.

Remember that very few people want to stay sick, this is not our choice and we are doing our best to heal as fast as we can. ♥


My patterns from this essay can be found here.