Not knowing how to cope with life after cancer treatment is common. Sometimes we have seen too much, gone through too much, fear too much to relax into “remission.” It can feel like our life has turned into one big uncertainty. What to do?
Treatment side effects may reduce or disappear altogether; physical energy can start to rebuild, and some people return to work. Cancer becomes a less frequent topic of conversation.
Sometimes people try to continue with their lives where they left off, in the hope those weeks and months of trauma, panic, chaos and fear turn into vague memories of a distant past.
However, it is not always as simple and straightforward as that.
Cancer is a life-changing disease, and this includes life post-treatment.
While every person with cancer will have a different experience and different way of coping with the emotional impact of treatment and having (had) the condition, there can be common post-treatment realities:
Delayed reaction to the trauma of diagnosis and treatment: often everything happens so fast that there isn’t time to digest the enormity of what is happening.
The ending of regular medical care and appointments: you may only have check-up appointments, which might make you feel vulnerable without regular medical attention.
Life around continues “as normal” in the world, at home, at work, with friends, while you have undergone one of the most life-changing experiences: You cannot be expected to go back to “normal” and pretend your cancer never happened.
Perhaps the most potent issue of all is that of uncertainty over whether the cancer is coming back, or not. Most people will have been told the symptoms of secondary cancer, which depend on the nature of the initial cancer. This might result in a heightened sensitivity and alertness to any sign of discomfort. At least that is my experience — some days are easier than others.
Some people will have experienced financial hardship during their cancer treatment due to their inability to work and pay bills, rent or a mortgage. Others are still not well enough to return to work, may never be able to return or proactively decide against returning to their previous work schedule.
Some people will have had less supportive relational experiences during their treatment from family and friends. It is not uncommon for some (for reasons of their own) to find it difficult to be around people with serious and terminal diseases.
Fear, uncertainty, anger, anxiety and depression can be associated with these experiences, which can lead to emotional exhaustion. This is why the emotional impact of cancer does not disappear post-treatment.
This can be a common occurrence, and it does not mean the person finding himself or herself in this position has done anything wrong or failed, or has not done other things well enough.
The key issue is what are you going to do about it. Some of this requires a mental shift, a slightly different way of looking at things.
1. What you are experiencing is normal, which does not make it less easy — but you are not alone in feeling this way.
2. You are entitled to your anger and outrage about having (had) cancer — the pain, loss and uncertainty you are facing.
3. You have options and choices of how to manage your life and relationships. Often a cancer diagnosis and treatment can change your perspective.
4. You might find yourself emotionally and physically more fragile than you may have been before. Looking after yourself and avoiding stressful situations is essential. This can range from small things like avoiding a packed bus or going shopping at less busy times, or reviewing your work and domestic arrangements.
5. Take regular (even small) breaks throughout the day, where you focus on yourself.
6. Self-care can include a healthy diet, regular (not necessarily energetic) exercise and fresh air to help reduce stress and assist your physical and emotional well-being.
7. Be aware of what triggers your anxiety and stress, such as an upcoming check-up or arguments at home.
8. Follow your intuition and start saying “no” when you want or need to.
9. Remind yourself how much you have endured and how well you have done so far.
10. Dealing with cancer is more complex than a “10-point to-do list” could ever attempt to tackle. Your cancer experience is as individual as you. Design your own “10-point list” and update it from time to time as you continue to change and move through your life as best as you can.
Counseling can also assist in digesting and working through the emotional impact of a cancer diagnosis, treatment, life with and beyond cancer. Talking to someone who is independent can help release difficult emotions, free up space for renewed thinking and making positive choices.
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