Recuperation versus recovery

You survived. You’re not dead yet. So why didn’t you just snap back into your life like nothing happened?

The truth is there’s a big difference between recuperation – physically getting better from cancer and the effects of your treatment – and recovery, which is about getting yourself completely back together physically, mentally and emotionally.

Recovery takes far longer than many people expect. It can be painful, confusing and just as difficult as the treatment itself. Not only that, but you are trying to recover against a backdrop of hypochondria on the one hand and illness denial on the other:

  • some people insist they have flu when they actually have a cold and will run to the doctor with the most mild of illnesses. This creates intolerance and disbelief in illness and an expectation that people will recover fast (because these people miraculously recover quickly despite the ‘seriousness’ of their illnesses)
  • some people insist they’re well or ‘not that bad’ even when they’re dying. This minimisation of how they actually feel means that people around them may not fully appreciate the extent of their illness and their suffering. It leads to expectations that people can carry on or shrug off illnesses easily – that doing so is what tough people do.

Today it’s fashionable to go to work even if you’re ill – to ‘soldier on’ and refuse to submit to illness. Many workplaces expect you to rush back to work as quickly as possible, and many sympathetic friends assume that since the worst is over they no longer need to pay attention now you’re ‘on the mend’. They genuinely don’t realise that you probably need them just as much, if not more, now that you have finished treatment.

Recovery took me by surprise. I weathered my shock diagnosis, my operation and its aftermath pretty well. For two months after the operation I functioned pretty normally. And then I quietly fell apart. I doubt that many people realised how hard I was finding it to cope. I couldn’t talk to people. I didn’t want to leave the house. I felt uncharacteristically anxious. I also felt the weight of their expectations. You’re such a brave person, they said. That made me feel like I had to be brave even though I didn’t feel brave and was somewhat ashamed of my quiet meltdown.

For me the hardest thing was having to deal with how cancer affected my sense of self. Of who I am and what I want to do with my life. It shook me to the core and, upon reflection, there is a silver lining to that. I now realise I can’t take anything for granted; I shouldn’t waste precious time; I have to live a life that’s true to me. As such, cancer reminded me before it was too late that I have one life and I need to live it.

But at the time, the emotional aftermath of cancer was devastating. I did a lot of knitting, which I found strangely soothing. I watched a lot of box sets. I tried counselling, which didn’t work for me and just made me more unhappy and less able to cope. What did work was a Mindfulness course run by MacMillan. This is administered by a nurse who has trained in Mindfulness and has tailored the course to be suitable for cancer patients and their relatives.

I was sceptical when I began, but quickly became an aficionado. It gave me a reason to leave the house. It helped me to start reconnecting with the world, and it reminded me that there was joy and happiness once I was ready to accept that back into my life.

Mindfulness didn’t heal me emotionally, but it showed me how to heal. I realised that I couldn’t carry on as if nothing had happened because I was delaying my recovery. I remember not being able to do simple things – like speak to someone on the phone or pay bills. I couldn’t bring myself to care about money or work. My mind which was usually so busy and active had become a blank.

Only when I accepted that cancer was going to change my life, did I start the process of recovery. It made me question everything I was doing. It made me focus on what was really important to me and asked me a very difficult question: if these are the things that are important to you then why aren’t you prioritising them? Why are you spending most of your time on things that don’t actually matter to you?
What I learnt is that cancer isn’t something that you just bounce back from like the common cold. Its emotional after-effects can hit you like a ton of bricks immediately, or it has a sneaky way of cropping up some time down the line. You don’t have to pretend to be indestructible, brave or try and fit some mould of heroics. However you feel is okay. But be aware that there are people out there who can help you when you’re ready. That might be your GP, or a close friend, or an organisation like MacMillan. For me, the tea and cake at MacMillan did more good than formal counselling or medication.
The important thing is to realise that recovery isn’t instant and there are as many routes to recovery as there are people. It is normal to feel emotional, numb, unable to cope, tearful, distancing, angry, upset and a whole host of other things. The very first step in recovery though is to learn to accept what’s happened and to love and be kind to yourself.

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