Now Reading
The Unchecked Boxes

The Unchecked Boxes

Eager to get back to her old life, cW columnist Jessica Walker comes to terms with the fact that life is rarely the same post-cancer.

I’m the kind of person who loves making lists. I love the feeling of completing a task and checking it off. Task finished? Check! Never think about it again? Check!

I can have a one-track mind in my quest to complete a goal. I do not like to rest until a project is finished in every way, meaning all the boxes on my list are checked.

Cancer, however, is not like that. It was and is enormously frustrating that I can’t check it off my set of lists.

When we began this journey, I was rooted in the “check off” mindset. PET scan? Check. Chemo? Check. Radiation? Check. Surgery? Check. In my quest to “finish” the cancer task and complete the checklist (laughable, I know), I frequently found myself discouraged and disappointed.

Truthfully, I genuinely expected us to drop back into the “newlywed” storyline we had embarked upon before Tommy’s diagnosis, but that storyline no longer “fit.” We had our lives back in our own hands, but trying to have the relationship we had before cancer didn’t feel authentic.

If the past few years of ups and downs have shown us anything, it’s that we may never be able to fully “check off” cancer. Will we be tracking and wondering for the rest of our lives? Will we forever have the permanent marks, the fears, and the “what ifs”?

Last summer, my husband and I experienced what it would be like to be “done.” Tommy had no evidence of disease, and despite a few preventative treatments here and there, he was finished with active treatment. The relief was unbelievable. We had made it through the hardest year of our lives. We were on the other side—cancer checklist completed!  

We could move on, and get back to our “regularly scheduled programming.” We spent a summer with an exciting new sense of freedom which gave us the time to process and realize what the heck we had just experienced the past year. When you are moving from appointment to appointment and treatment to treatment, you don’t have a lot of time to process the fear, anger, and uncertainty that come along with it, and it hit me like a brick.

Truthfully, I genuinely expected us to drop back into the “newlywed” storyline we had embarked upon before Tommy’s diagnosis, but that storyline no longer “fit.” We had our lives back in our own hands, but trying to have the relationship we had before cancer didn’t feel authentic. This came as somewhat of a shock to me.

Why doesn’t this fit? I thought. We were the same people we were before cancer. We had all of this time back. We were ecstatic. The checked boxes were all there, but I couldn’t understand why I wasn’t getting the satisfaction I usually get from finishing a task.

I’ve noticed, through the highs and the lows, that joy and grief often go hand in hand—cancer makes joy confusing. Joy is there, gratitude is bountiful, but there’s something else in the mix. Some experience this “something else” as survivor’s guilt. Personally, I was feeling a massive amount of guilt about the guilt itself—a guilt rollercoaster!

We stretch and grow whether we want to or not. Change is inevitable, but the direction is up to us. We are changed, but we are stronger.

Despite the incredible results and news, we had experienced trauma—mentally, emotionally, and in Tommy’s case, physically. You can’t just flip a switch and make trauma disappear. It takes time and a different sort of healing to move through this.

I knew cancer had changed so much of our lives, but I think I was clinging to the hope that it hadn’t changed me as a person. A few months earlier, I told my therapist I didn’t want cancer to change me. I am a generally happy person, but I was becoming worried that the weight of this ongoing fight would close off my heart, and make me inherently darker and less happy. I expected her to respond with reassurances like, “You will always be who you are” and “Nothing can change that,” but instead, she said, “It’s going to change you.”

I was shocked. It was completely unfair.

“It’s going to change you, and it already has changed you. It doesn’t mean it has to change you in ways that don’t serve you,” she said.

We stretch and grow whether we want to or not. Change is inevitable, but the direction is up to us. We are changed, but we are stronger.

See Also

How do you let cancer into your story or identity, but not let it be the only thing that defines you? Even when it feels like cancer has taken over so many aspects of your life, how do you sort out your own identity? Who was I before cancer entered our lives? What is it now? Do I feel more “me” now or before? Is there any “before me” left?

Letting the fears sit with me, and allowing cancer to be a part of my identity, showed me that strength comes from understanding, and forgiveness opens the door to courage.

I went through seasons of exploration. I tried pushing cancer out of our identities completely. We didn’t need to talk about it, or think about it. I didn’t want to give it more power or control over our lives, and I didn’t want it to take any more time from us than it already had, so I pushed. Cancer and I were in a stalemate. I wouldn’t let it “win,” it wouldn’t let me leave, and I couldn’t ignore it.

As Tommy healed, and there was more space created from the lack of appointments and treatments, we stretched and explored with a new sense of purpose. What were our days going to look like without cancer with us for every step?

As we explored this, I knew that something inside me needed to stretch as well. I needed to let cancer in. I needed to let the fears and thoughts break through my walls and rest with my heart. I needed to feel what it felt like to let cancer be a part of me, part of our story, and part of our relationship.

I cracked, little by little, and quickly found that allowing myself to feel these very valid fears and negative emotions led to the beginning of acceptance and understanding. Letting the fears sit with me, and allowing cancer to be a part of my identity, showed me that strength comes from understanding, and forgiveness opens the door to courage.  When I changed my mindset, and no longer looked for a finish line, for that final tick mark, life felt lighter.

Our relationship is now beautifully grounded in the love we have for each other, and the knowledge that we can do anything as partners. We are still “Tommy and Jessie,” but we know more about who those people are now. We know what “Tommy and Jessie” look like when they are pushed, tried, and scared. We also know what they look like when they hope, believe, and persevere.

I do not have to “complete cancer.” I do not need a check mark to prove I am a good caregiver and wife. I do not need a clean bill of health to live a fulfilling and happy life. Life has its chapters, and this one is stretching and molding me in ways I never could have imagined. I am still “me,” but I am living in a more honest place. There is room for cancer, there is room for laughter, there is room for love and acceptance and doubt. As Walt Whitman once said, “I am large—I contain multitudes.” Becoming grateful for the struggle is no easy task, but I hope it’s one box I can eventually check off.

View Comments (0)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

312-734-1466 | 401 N Michigan Ave., Ste. 325, Chicago, IL 60611
Cancer Wellness LLC © Copyright 2021. All rights reserved.
Terms & Conditions | Privacy Policy | Shipping Policy | Return Policy

Scroll To Top