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Navigating Life After Cancer

By Rachael Banks (she/her)

A polaroid style photo of Rachael smiling with short brown hair and yellow earrings.

You’re Cancer-free! Now, into the abyss with you!

Dramatic, yes. However, navigating life after cancer can often feel like a form of rehabilitation. That is, into life as you knew it. That’s what makes it so overwhelming. How can you go back to normal, when you are changed?

When I got the good news, the words of remission fresh off my doctor’s tongue, I was in shock. Relieved, jubilant, yes. But, what now? Anything and everything you want, my family told me. The effective rehabilitation into normal life has very much, been a process. After all, it definitely didn’t fall apart all at once (though it may have felt like it, at times), so it won’t be put back together in as such. For those who sigh in relief at such brilliant news, usually the family who have no doubt endured at least half of the emotional turmoil, - more often than not, more - there is another, the ex-cancer patient, smiling silently; as elated as they might feel, eventually, as everything settles down they’ll have to come back down to the ground and get on with life. And that’s without writing my autobiographical debut of ‘How Cancer Changed my Life – the story of how I became a multi-billionaire entrepreneur’. Just kidding, if it wasn’t obvious.

There are lots of things to think about after treatment. For me, being a student, I had to think about going back to university. I was in my second semester of first year when I was diagnosed, and for reasons relating to my degree, I had to retake my year. Six months out of education was my reason. So, when I completed treatment and was told I was in remission in August, my first plan of action was preparing for starting uni in September. A bit soon? In retrospect, yes, but it kept me busy, and provided the distraction and mental stimulation I had been missing the last six months, with an excess of time to reflect. All my friends were in second year at this point, so I more or less had to make friends all over again. Which was great, - because believe me, I was just happy to be around people my own age – but I felt very alienated. No one knew about what I’d been through, and it was too exhausting to explain it all. I also had the feeling that I was burdening people with my trauma; an interaction with an old friend confirmed my insecurity; they more or less said they felt uncomfortable talking about it with me, and that I was being a ‘Negative Nancy’. Something for people to remember is that if you feel uncomfortable, try and imagine the discomfort of having to actually experience it; be there for your friend, listen to them. If you can’t do that, then that’s your problem. Behaviour like that only adds to the alienation they might feel.

Because I was only a month out of treatment, I wasn’t allowed to drink more than two pints, due to my liver being extra sensitive. With fresher’s looming ever nearer, I didn’t participate as much as I would have. That was okay, I’d already experienced Fresher’s and I think most people who have done Fresher’s week will tell you it’s never as good as it’s hyped up to be. Besides that, I was incredibly bald. No eyelashes or eyebrows, either. In my opinion, I resembled that of something between a female Voldemort and Gollum. Gorgeous. I had to commit the highest form of trickery I could, to pass as a normal student and not scare off all the freshers. I had a wig, that I had hardly worn during treatment because, let’s be honest, I didn’t really care what I looked like in those six months. Everyone knew I had cancer, so that was the one time I could look a state and people couldn’t say anything. However, starting back at uni, I wanted a fresh start, and I wanted to blend in. Normality was exciting for me, having been the epitome of a ‘special case’ in the year prior. I went to my hairdressers and got a new ‘wig-cut’, got my hairdresser to teach me how to put on fake eyelashes, do eyebrows and eyeliner. My everyday routine would be to put on eyebrows - as a person with naturally very thick eyebrows, I looked like a bit of an alien without them-, do a cat-eye with eyeliner to mimic eyelashes, because I didn’t have time to put on fake lashes every day before classes, and to put on my wig. I got very used to wearing my wig after a while and I put it on as easily as one would a hat. The wig itself was great, and no-one suspected a thing.

Naturally, I didn’t tell anyone what I had been through until we became friends. People were shocked when I told them I was wearing a wig. I would’ve been an excellent spy. Then as my hair started to grow in and I was in between an edgy skinhead and a pixie cut, I decided to ditch the wig; which, by the way, was becoming increasingly itchy and irritating. One day I walked into uni without my wig and barely an inch of hair and everyone complimented my new haircut. I couldn’t stop laughing it was so funny to me. I think the people that didn’t acknowledge my very drastic change in hairstyle, thought I’d done a ‘Britney Spears’ halfway through the semester, what with exams approaching. But it was a surprisingly smooth transition. I was obviously very nervous at first, but the benefit of being bald when I was, was it had become trendy. It was fine at uni - people didn’t look at me twice.

Outside, however, on the street, I would get stares. Some people even thought it was appropriate to comment audibly on my shaved head. I heard a few disdainful comments, sniggers, and disapproving stares followed me around for a bit. This was particularly interesting to me, as though I’m sure I felt much more self-conscious anyways, people’s perceptions of others are always misinformed one way or another, and despite knowing this, it made me uncomfortable with my appearance for a while. It surprised me; how ignorant some people are. Some people gave me knowing, friendly smiles, others looked at me as if I was something on the bottom of their shoe.

I was told by my uni that I could get help from Disability Support, but at the time I was too embarrassed to make contact. I wanted to get back to normal.

This meant that a lot of the time I would rush in late to classes, on the verge of dehydration, as the hills and paths around my uni, partnered with back to back classes in faraway buildings, weren’t the most forgiving on someone who has mostly been napping and recovering from the effects of chemotherapy the past 6 months. It was a bit embarrassing at first, especially because I thought my eyebrows would melt off and my wig was very hot and itchy. But it got easier. It’s getting easier. Navigating life after cancer isn’t easy, but it sure is a privilege.

(Originally published 20/07/20)

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