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 are still strenuous for most cancer patients. My schedule remains filled with medical and cancer therapy 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.

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17 thoughts on “One-Year Survivor: The Good, the Bad, the Hope

  1. Thank you for such words Sylvie. They are always so thought provoking.
    I am thinking of you from France now—not sure yet when I will return to SF.
    In the meantime, may you receive the best care and many cancerversary cheers to you!

  2. Wishing you many more “cancerversary”!
    Your insights are profound and will help many people understand what survivors go through. Thank you for sharing so eloquently.

  3. Congratulations on your one-year survivorship and in being able to find a way to turn your suffering into jewels that can be used to help others. I also love that your new picture includes the beauty of nature.

  4. Hi Sylvie,
    Wow, what an article you wrote! Beautiful, deep, touching, and educational. We need this and we need YOU! I am glad that you are now past the worst part of cancer treatment, but enlightened by your experience there are so many deep and prolonged after effects.

    I just taught Tai Chi to cancer survivors at the Annual Seeds of Hope Kaiser Permanente Event last Sunday. If you would be interested, I can introduce you to the coordinator who can connect you with some oncological medical contacts who might be very interested in what you are delivering as a cancer survivor and advocate. Let me know…

    Kind regards,
    Louise La Fosse

    1. Thank you, Louise, for your insipiring comment. And thank you for your work teaching Tai Chi to cancer patients. It is much needed.
      I’d love an introduction to Kaiser. Thank you so much for offering!

  5. Dear Sylvie,
    Your reflection is touching and powerful. In a way, the snapshot photo is an expression of your cancer journey also. In the midst of pain and sorrow, there is an uprightness, expressed in your posture, a smile on your face, and facing up towards something bigger (maybe the space or the sky), something bigger than oneself, which is the powerful and heartfelt message you shared in the post. May this transformation bring much vibrancy into your life, like the background of the photo, maple, green and flowers. May you contribute to the benefits of many people.

    1. Dear Yin, you are very perceptive. The photo was taken by my friend Pamela Davis Kivelson, who is a very talented portrait artist. She loves my posts and wanted to take a photo that matched my writing and vision. I will share your comment with her. She will be delighted.

  6. Sylvie, I’m very touched by your personal and thoughtful post. I’m hearing from you that so much of human suffering is invisible. I think that’s true. Thank you for making it more visible. The photo of you is so vibrant and beautiful! I appreciate very much your sharing.

  7. Thank you for sharing your experience, Sylvie, and helping me understand what the recovery process is like. You’re so right that to those on the “outside,” there is little awareness of the internal suffering and true process. I wish you all the best.

    1. Thank you, Maria, for your thoughtful comment. It touched me deeply. This is the whole reason why I am writing and sharing so openly. To help those who’ve never had cancer understand the human experience of cancer. And to bridge the gap between “cancerland” and the “outside” world. Thank you!

  8. Sylvie,
    Once again, you’ve illuminated many facets of your cancer experience with grace, power, and precision. I love many words, phrases and sentences in this piece, but this especially resonated with me: “I realized that I could sink or rise.” Thank you, Congratulations on your cancerversary.

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