This may be surprising, but it is common for cancer survivors to struggle with depression after being declared cancer free. Now you might wonder, “They had their prayers answered, so what could possibly be the problem?” Many people expect survivors to be all chirpy. In the last three decades, the number of cancer survivors in the United States has tripled and is growing by 2% each year. In 2004, there were an estimated 10.7 million cancer survivors, representing 3.5% of the United States population. But oncologists and psychologists are only now becoming aware that mild to moderate depression in survivors is common.
Drawing from my own experience and also other warriors we’ve encountered, I’d like to offer reasons happiness can elude the survivor. Then I’d like to suggest some biblical pointers on how to handle these post-war blues.
1) Fear. Immediately after being declared cancer free, the thought that the cancer could recur is never far from consciousness. Fear lies in wait and rears up at the first sign of a new or old pain.
2) Adrenaline letdown. For many, there is a sort of post-traumatic stress syndrome after their cancer battle. Returning to “civilian life” is not as easy as one might think. Many patients literally fought for their life. They were all jacked up and on guard constantly. After the battle, it is truly difficult to relax, and recovery takes time.
3) Literal battle scars. Surgeries, chemo and radiation all take their toll and leave a mark. The potential list of scars is lengthy: neuropathy from chemo (painful tingling of nerves in fingers and toes and feet), burns from radiation, loss of limb function, weight gain and lasting medication side effects. Withdrawal from mood altering pain management drugs can be another factor in being down. For privacy reasons, some scars may never be shared by survivors, such as issues pertaining to sexual matters.
4) Figurative battle scars. Battle fatigue is often rampant for survivors. Chemo and other drugs depress the immune and nervous systems, it is no wonder they also depress the emotions. The grieving of lost time and opportunities with loved ones is very common. Pain-filled flashback memories can haunt the survivor at first. Often sadness due to continued or new tensions in relationships impacts the survivor as well. Normalizing relationships is never easy.
5) Purposelessness. The survivor often is paralyzed by big picture questions, “What does this all mean? How should I live now?” Life after cancer can prove so mundane, empty, boring and vacant. Priorities now must be realigned back to normal, and the survivor is often uncertain as to how to define “the new normal.”
6) Support system changes. Often supporters move on, leaving the survivor to process the aftermath of cancer on their own. I really needed to talk, but I soon realized that not everyone wanted to listen. Expectations from work, spouse and life often return like a flood, making it clear to the survivor that the kid gloves are off. He or she must pull it together and look to contribute fully again.
So what advice does the Bible give?
1) Pray and Trust. The Bible says to cast our anxiety on the Lord (1 Peter 5:17). Jesus said we can’t add even one day to our lives, so we should trust Him completely with our longevity.
2) Number your days. Moses said, “Teach us to number our days, that we may present to You a heart of wisdom” (Psalm 90:12). Moses suggests we make each day count for God. Following the Lord on a daily, even a moment by moment basis, is wise living advice for all. The martyred missionary, Jim Elliot, once said, “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep, to gain what he can never lose.”
3) Talk or write it out. Find a support group or some other survivors and talk it over. One of the most healing steps for me was to write a book. Many people journal and write prayers to the Lord. These activities can help to make sense of the entire experience. Reading others stories still helps me today. If you are a survivor, write us and I will send you my book – My Stronghold, maybe it will help you.
4) Practice the Presence of God. There is no one who can heal our hurts and memories like the Lord. He can “restore the years the locusts have eaten” (Joel 2:25). In other words, He can make up for our losses and lost time. I think the best way He does this is by making each moment special with Him and others. So the Lord, who was our Stronghold in the midst of the storm, can continually hold us up and heal us as we live out full lives for Him.
The “new normal” for the survivor and all of us should be living moment by moment in dependence and closeness to the Lord. Every moment is sacred, whether we are doing some good deed or raking leaves. That is the sheer excitement of walking with Christ. We get to live each day with Him and through Him!