This post was originally published on the author's blog and reprinted with her consent.
A year ago, I was undergoing cancer treatment. This month, I am celebrating my one-year survivorship. It is a big milestone on many levels. I underwent so much pain and so many sorrows. I am grateful for life, even though the hardships are not over. I enjoy the present moment a lot more than I did before cancer. I find joy in simpler things. I notice beauty more frequently. In nature. In people’s hearts. In my own heart.
Being a survivor is not easy. Those who’ve never had cancer may be tempted to think that once treatment is over –– surgery, radiation, chemotherapy –– survivors happily go back to their old lives. It is not the case. The years following treatment ares still strenuous for most cancer patients. My schedule remains filled with medical and cancer therapies appointments. I’ve faced unremitting health challenges. They call these “side effects” in medical jargon. My body was violently shaken by cancer treatment. The cancer cells were destroyed, thankfully, but the treatment left substantial physical and emotional damage. Even though the cancer was found in my breast, I’ve had ensuing problems in many organs and body parts, as well as autonomic system disorders, and other ailments. I found myself in the ER multiple times. I’ve struggled through the post-treatment depression all cancer patients experience when treatment ends. My emotional resilience, which got overexerted during treatment, became completely depleted, leaving me feeling like a five-year-old in a middle-aged body –– with the societal expectation to behave like a mature woman.
In addition, facing such devastating losses in all areas of one’s life –– physical, emotional, financial, social –– has consequential repercussions. I felt depressed and overwhelmed at first. Then overtime an insight shined through the devastation. I realized that I could sink or rise. I realized that these losses gave me an opportunity to start my life anew, at a much wiser age. To rediscover myself and my relationship to the world. To rethink my sense of self and identity. To rethink my livelihood. To rethink my friendships. To rethink my values. To rethink my purpose. I realized I had the choice to build a more meaningful and satisfying life this time around. I am working through this now, as I am slowly re-emerging into the wider landscape of life.
Suffering changed me. I became more compassionate towards my pain and the pain of others. My cancer journey gave rise to deep compassion for all patients suffering from devastating illnesses. I feel compelled to help them. To give voice to their suffering –– which is not all visible externally (contrary to what most people think). To bring to light their unseen needs, so they can be addressed and their pain alleviated. More than anything in life, cancer made me understand how little of human suffering is visible from the outside. Many people judge suffering from the cover. As a cancer patient, I’ve had to endure endless “I am so happy you are well”, while feeling devastated and depleted inside. My dream, as a cancer survivor, is to help medical caregivers, and everyone who interacts with cancer patients, understand the unseen suffering of cancer patients, so we can collectively as a society offer better support to patients suffering from devastating illnesses.
Sylvie Leotin is an entrepreneur, writer, and patient advocate, with a broad multidisciplinary background in technology, the arts, and the humanities. A cancer survivor since 2018, Sylvie serves on the board of the Stanford Cancer Center Patient and Family Advisory Council and writes a widely-read blog on the cancer experience. Visit www.sylvieleotin.com for more information and to read her latest posts.