Making the Transition
From Patient to Survivor
by Patrice Rancour, MS, RN, PMHCNS-BC
You have just finished your last chemotherapy or radiation treatment. Your doctor has given you the “all clear” signal. You are now ready for take-off, back into the mainstream of life. Then why do you feel so unprepared? Haven’t you been waiting for this day for months? So where did all this glumness come from?
If it’s any consolation, you have plenty of company. Many people who have finished with active treatment report that they feel a bit lost and bewildered once treatments conclude – even when they get the outcome they worked so hard for. Ironically, they also report feeling vulnerable without the safety net of their treatment team crawling all over them. So, no, you have not lost your mind; rather, you are starting yet another transition.
Just as you transitioned from life before “all this” into the role of a cancer patient, you are now moving forward through another transition period as you continue your healing journey. Remember that even what we consider “good” transitions (marriage, job promotion, graduation) often come with a fair amount of discomfort. In his book on the subject, William Bridges identifies three normal stages of moving through transitions: endings, the neutral zone, and the new beginning.
This particular ending is all about relinquishing your role as a patient in active treatment. While it has been difficult, it has also become a familiar role and has put you in touch, I hope, with a supportive community of caring people during a period of intense crisis. You finally mastered all this, and now that you know the drill, you are being asked to move on. The normal response to all loss is grief, so don’t be too surprised if some unexpected feelings associated with letting go bubble up from the depths to the surface. Feel reassured that any grief you experience is normal, temporary, and is part of your healing. Get support and go with it.
Perhaps, the old life begins to seem less relevant now; people and activities that were so important before seem less vital.
The middle stage of any transition is called the neutral zone. Bridges likens it to being in “no man’s land.” Having let go of the former identity despite all its painfulness, the illness and treatment experience has changed you in so many ways that you may not be able to clearly identify all of them yet. Certainly, the changes serve to transform your previous identity, and that means – for better or for worse – that you will never be the person you were before this happened – even if you have been cured.
But who is this new person emerging back into the world from the separation of illness and treatment? This period, often filled with paralyzing uncertainty, can feel destabilizing. Give yourself some solitude to meditate, pray, engage in those rituals that restore your sense of balance. Surround yourself with people who love you and want what is in your highest good. Once again, remember, it will not always feel like this; but when you are in the middle of the neutral zone, it can feel like it is taking forever. Breathe, write, paint, listen to music that makes your heart sing, move your body, eat healthy, delicious food.
The third and final stage is that of new beginnings. Perhaps, the old life begins to seem less relevant now; people and activities that were so important before seem less vital. You might begin to feel the urge to try something new, perhaps something you have always wanted to try but did not feel free to do in the past. Trust your instincts as a new life purpose takes shape. You will know you are entering the last stage of this transition – the new beginning – when you can say, “A new chapter in my life started when …”
However, this takes time. We Americans are generally an impatient lot, so be gentle with yourself. Consider that you are on a hero’s journey. You have slain a dragon. You may feel weary. But you have learned something new about yourself that you may not have understood before: there is more to life than mere survival. As you continue on your hero’s quest, and as you are ready, teachers will appear to help you not merely survive, but thrive. And this happens, not in spite of your illness, but because of it.
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Patrice Rancour is a mental health clinical nurse specialist and author of Tales from the Pager Chronicles and The Pager Chronicles, Vol. Two. More information about Patrice can be found at PatriceRancour.com.
This article was originally published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, May/June 2011.