December 13, 2022
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Photography by Lucas Ottone/Stocksy United
Being immunocompromised due to chemo can make getting outside and being around others feel daunting. Here are some tips for getting back out into the world post-treatment.
I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2018, a little over a year before COVID-19 restrictions and social distancing took over the world.
At the time, wearing a mask wasn’t the hip thing to do. As I walked through the grocery store with a mask on my face, I couldn’t help but look forward to the day that I’d have the ability to shed that extra layer of protection that saved me from illnesses while undergoing chemotherapy.
I was dreaming about the days when I didn’t have to explain why I was wearing a mask in the store. Then the pandemic happened. What should’ve been a few months isolated to keep myself safe became a few years. Everyone else donned matching masks.
With little contact for so long, leaving the house became difficult. I had reoccurring panic attacks and consistently stumbled on my words. Getting back out into the world should’ve been a normal thing, but anxiety made it tough, and I had become socially awkward.
If you’re in the post-treatment phase where getting back outside around other people seems impossible, then pull up a chair. Here are a few simple ways to help you socialize after a long-term illness or isolation.
I’ve heard in the past that it takes roughly 66 days to create a habit that is instinctual to the body, so I started there. I started with day 1, and I started small.
The first thing I did was simply go outside and walk. I set aside 15 minutes a day to do laps around the street as I waved to neighbors and cars that passed by. After 1 week of nodding hello, I chose to move the location to a parking lot rather than my neighborhood.
Simply walking around a smaller parking lot with moving cars and people around gave me much more social interaction, but it was limited. Saying hello to strangers or making small talk when I ran into people I used to previously see regularly didn’t come naturally at that point. I felt socially awkward, and even that 15 minutes a day left me emotionally exhausted. I tried to keep conversations short and restrict topics, since I was still experiencing brain fog.
After 2 weeks of walking around, it started to become easier. Small talk may not have seemed like a monumental feat, but I was once a conversationalist. I reveled in deep conversations about a variety of topics, and that’s where I wanted to be again.
This simple interaction made me feel so much more like myself in such a big way.
I decided the only way to have a real conversation was to initiate it. I used questions as my next bridge back into society. I began asking strangers in the grocery store or a department store about recipes, the time, things they would bring camping, or how old their kids were. I complimented people’s attire and asked where they purchased items, which opened up small conversations about fashion or shopping.
Small talk became more natural, and subjects would flow freely. This simple interaction made me feel so much more like myself in such a big way. It was incredibly important to be honest with those around me when I felt weird or needed to head home. Not everyone will understand that to an introvert, a small conversation can be trying on the mind. But small talk still wasn’t enough after a while, and I realized it was time to interact on a more deliberate basis.
I did some research to find small events in my area that weren’t too overwhelming. For example, I signed up for a monthly book club.
As an avid reader, having a deliberate topic at hand made talking effortless. I took notes on the book I read, so I got better at not tripping over my words. It helped the fog lift and made it easier not to stray off topic.
This was the version of myself I missed the most and I couldn’t fathom how far I had come.
Not only did joining a book club help me have an actual topic to speak on, but it made my brain love reading again. I began to fly through books and share them on my social media pages, which opened up more one-on-one conversations with others.
I began to plan coffee dates at the local coffee shop just to talk about books, which then led to normal talks about everyday life. This was the version of myself I missed the most, and I couldn’t fathom how far I had come. At this point, it had only been 45 days, and it felt “normal” again.
The trick to socializing isn’t just having people around you but making people want to be around you. I found that building up my self-confidence slowly and being honest about how I was feeling made others more receptive and understanding.
I began picking up my phone to call others and talk again. I accepted the invitations to events that I thought I could handle and respectfully told the ones I had to decline why, and they understood without hard feelings.
When we become ill, all we want to do is get better, and that process can completely rework a person into a shell of who they once were. That shell can be filled, though, and with time, it will.
It took me a while to realize it, but it’s OK to be an introverted extrovert. If you feel anxious or nervous about going out in public and talking to others after breast cancer treatment, you’re not alone.
Once you get out and surround yourself with those you care about, things will be OK. While getting out of the house can be the hardest part, I believe in you.
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