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Life After Cancer Treatment

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People who have completed treatment often say that although they were relieved when it ended, they struggled with the transition to a new way of life after cancer treatment. It was like entering another world where they had to adjust to new feelings, changes in support, and different ways of looking at their life.

For some cancer survivors, even after treatment ends, they continue to have physical problems or emotional issues. And some must have careful monitoring with tests and check-ups to make sure the cancer isn’t returning.

Coping with your new normal after cancer

Getting used to life after cancer treatment takes time. Some people feel a little lost, not knowing what to do next. Dealing with the emotions can feel like a roller coaster. You may feel relief, but also feel anxious and worried. Some people feel sad or even have depression. It can take time to recover from treatment.

It can also be tough when others think you’re ready to move on when you’re not. You may still:

  • feel tired and not want to do too much
  • be healing from treatment and side effects
  • feel nervous about seeing your oncologist less often
  • feel uncertain about how to move forward
  • have anxiety about the future
  • are worried that the cancer will come back

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. Some think of this as getting used to a "new normal." 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:

  • different plans or goals than ones you made before your cancer diagnosis
  • changes in the way you eat
  • new or different sources of support
  • permanent scars on your body
  • having a hard time doing things that used to be easier for you
  • new routines than you had before
  • emotional scars from going through so much
  • concerns about your body image or sexuality

You may see yourself in a new way or find that others don't act the same towards you 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

Although the end of cancer treatment may bring some happiness and relief, it may also bring fear and anxiety. Probably the most common fear is that the cancer will come back (a cancer recurrence).

This fear is a big source of distress for many people who have had cancer treatment. Getting scans or other follow-up medical tests can make them feel very anxious. Some cancer survivors call this feeling “scanxiety.”

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, screenings, certain symptoms, the illness of a loved one, or the anniversary of the date you were diagnosed can all trigger concern.

Below are some steps you can take that may help you manage your fears.

  • 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 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. Ask your health care team how long certain side effects might last. Let them know 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.
  • Take notes about any symptoms you have. Keep a diary or notebook of symptoms and side effects as they occur. Also take notes about any emotional issues you are having. Write down questions for your health care team before follow-up visits. Be prepared to tell them what you’ve been going through since your last check-up or conversation.
  • 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.
  • 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. A counselor or therapist may be able to help you address your anxiety and worries. They will also know if medication could be an option for you. Online or in-person support groups may also be helpful.
  • Know what services are there for you. Always take steps to be informed about the services in the hospital and the community that are available for you. Many of the same resources and people that were there for you during treatment are still there for you now. 
  • Look at what you can control. Some people say that being organized and having plans helps them feel more in control of their lives. Staying involved in your health care, asking questions, keeping your appointments, and making changes in your lifestyle are among the things you can control. Even setting a daily schedule can give you a sense of control.

While no one can control every thought, some say that they try not to dwell on the fearful ones but instead do what they can to enjoy the positive parts of life. If you can, try to use your energy to focus on what makes you feel better and what you can do now to stay as healthy as possible. 

Take care of your mind and body

If you can, try to 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. (See How to Relax Your Mind and Body.)
  • Talk to others. Sharing your feelings with friends and family may help you feel better and realize that you’re not alone.
  • Join a peer support group. Some people say that talking to other cancer survivors with the same kind of cancer has helped them cope with their stress. Check with your hospital social worker to learn about local groups. Or do an online search for groups in your area or for online groups. See Cancer Support Groups for more tips.
  • Exercise. Moderate exercise (examples: walking, biking, swimming) can help reduce anxiety and depression. It also may improve your mood.
  • 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. Writing in a journal or notebook may help you to express your feelings. 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. If you would like to help with a cancer-related cause, see the NCI booklet, Facing Forward: Making a Difference.
  • Take part in clubs, classes, or social gatherings. Being with others may help you focus on things besides cancer and the worries it brings.