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A New Normal

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The end of cancer treatment is often a time to rejoice. Most likely you're relieved to be finished with the demands of treatment. You may be ready to put the experience behind you and have life return to the way it used to be. Or you may be ready to have a fresh start at something new.

Yet at the same time, it's okay to feel sad and worried. It can take time to recover. Many are uncertain about how to move forward, feeling anxious about the future. It's very common to be thinking about whether the cancer will come back and what happens now. Often this time is called adjusting to a "new normal." You will have many different emotions during this time.

One of the hardest things after treatment is not knowing what happens next. Those who have gone through cancer treatment describe the first few months as a time of change. It's not so much "getting back to normal" as it is finding out what's normal for you now. People often say that life has new meaning or that they look at things differently.

Your new normal may include:

  • making changes in the way you eat and what you do
  • new or different sources of support
  • permanent scars on your body
  • not be able to do some things you used to do more easily
  • new routines than you had before
  • emotional scars from going through so much

You may see yourself in a different way, or find that others think of you differently now. Whatever your new normal may be, give yourself time to adapt to the changes. Take it one day at a time.

Coping with Fear of Cancer Recurrence

When cancer treatment is over, patients are often faced with mixed emotions. While there is happiness and relief that come with the end of treatment, survivors may also feel fear and anxiety. Probably the most common fear is that the cancer will come back (a cancer recurrence).

Fear of recurrence is normal and often lessens over time. However, even years after treatment, some events may cause you to become worried. Follow-up visits, certain symptoms, the illness of a loved one, or the anniversary date of the date you were diagnosed can all trigger concern.

One step you can take is to be informed. Understand what you can do for your health now, and find out about the services available to you. Doing so can give you a greater sense of control.

Even though you can’t control whether or not your cancer recurs, there are steps you can take to help cope with your fears.

Talk to your health care team

  • Let your health care team know your concerns. Be honest about the fears of your cancer coming back so they can address your worries. The risk of recurrence differs in each patient. Your health care team can give you the facts about your type of cancer and the chances of recurrence. They can assure you that they’re looking out for you.
  • Know that it’s common for cancer survivors to have fears about every ache and pain. Talk to your health care team if you’re having a symptom that worries you. You can get advice about whether or not to schedule an appointment. Just having a conversation with them about your symptoms may help calm your fears. And, over time, you may start to recognize certain feelings in your body as normal.
  • Keep notes about any symptoms you have. Also take notes about any anxiety you feel. Write down questions for your health care team before follow-up visits so you can be prepared to tell them what you’ve been going through since your last check-up or conversation.
  • Talk to a counselor. If you find that your fears are more than you can handle, ask for a referral for someone to talk to. If thoughts about cancer recurrence interfere with your daily life, you might feel better seeing a counselor or therapist. A professional may help you put your concerns in perspective.
  • Ask for a follow-up care plan. A follow-up care plan is a summary of your cancer treatment, along with next steps for your care. Having a plan may give you a sense of control with your health after treatment. See Follow-up Medical Care to learn about your plan and ways to be proactive with your cancer care and health.

Take care of your mind and body

Even though you can’t control whether or not your cancer recurs, you can use your energy to focus on wellness and manage stress. Below are some things you can do to take care of your mind and body.

  • Find ways to help yourself relax. Relaxation exercises have been proven to help people with stress and may help you relax when you feel worried. Meditation and yoga also help reduce stress.
  • Talk to others. Sharing your feelings with friends and family may help you feel better and realize that you’re not alone. You can also join a support group to talk to others who are having the same fears.
  • Exercise. Moderate exercise (examples: walking, biking, swimming) can help reduce anxiety and depression. It also may improve your mood and boost your self-esteem.
  • Eat a healthy diet. Talk to a dietician or nutritionist about the foods you should eat to stay healthy and maintain your strength.
  • Write your feelings down. It may help you to express your feelings by writing in a journal or a notebook. Many people find that getting their thoughts on paper helps them to let go of worries and fears.
  • Seek comfort from spirituality. Many survivors have found their faith, religion, or sense of spirituality to be a source of strength.
  • Give back. Some people like to channel their energy by volunteering and helping others. Being productive in this way gives them a sense of meaning and lets them turn their attention on others. See the NCI booklet, Facing Forward: Making a Difference for ways to give back.
  • Take part in clubs, classes, or social gatherings. Getting out of the house may help you focus on other things besides cancer and the worries it brings.