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Your cancer treatment has ended and it’s time to rejoice. Right? Yet, the feeling that follows once you leave the oncology clinic may not be what you expected. Until now, your focus has probably been on finding a health care team, choosing among your treatment options, and just trying to get through treatment one step at a time.
Now that your treatments are over, you may find yourself in a strange place. You may have new questions and concerns about what is going to happen next. Is the cancer gone for good? Will I face more side effects of past treatment or disease? The realm of survivorship after treatment seems to have whole new meaning.
Common Emotions You May Experience After Treatment
Cancer treatment can be an emotional roller coaster, with some up days and some down days. Now that your treatment is over, new emotions may surface. You may feel relieved to be finished with treatment, and, at the same time, worried about the future. These feelings are a normal part of cancer survivorship.
The following are common emotions cancer survivors experience after treatment:
Fear of Recurrence
One of the biggest challenges after treatment is not knowing what will happen next. Fear of the cancer coming back (recurrence) is common and understandable. The fact that you are no longer actively receiving treatments, or that your medical status is not being watched as closely by your healthcare team, can leave you feeling vulnerable.
Every survivor handles fear of recurrence differently. There may be certain moments during your survivorship when you are more worried about the cancer coming back than others. You may also find that your fears of recurrence diminish as time passes. It is important to remember that even if the cancer comes back, there may be new treatment options available to you that were not available before.
NOTE: AFTER CANCER TREATMENT, IT IS NORMAL TO EXPERIENCE STRONG EMOTIONS. HOWEVER, IT IS IMPORTANT TO KEEP YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER INFORMED ABOUT HOW YOU ARE FEELING.
Your "New Normal"
Now that you have gone through treatment, you can focus your energies on getting your life back to "normal." But, what is normal? The idea that you can pick up where you left off before cancer seems difficult.
It can take time to recover from cancer, not just physically, but mentally and emotionally as well. And although life may not return to exactly the way it was before you were diagnosed, you can find ways to move forward. Instead of trying to “get back to normal,” try to find out what is normal for you now. Your “new normal" may include making changes in your diet, lifestyle and relationships with others.
Tips for Moving on After Cancer Treatment
Accept your fears. It is important to remember that you can control how much you let the fear of recurrence impact your life. Accept that you are going to experience some uncertainty and focus on finding ways to manage these feelings. Don’t be afraid to move on with your life because of fear that you might get cancer again.
- Don't over-react to every ache and pain. You may be more likely to notice symptoms like aches and pains in your body than you did before cancer. Remember that even though you had cancer, you can still get common illnesses like a cough or cold. However, you should communicate any concerns you have regarding your current health status with your doctor.
- Foster your relationships with others. Now that your treatment is over, some family and friends may expect you to get on with your life, while others may be overly attentive, constantly asking you how you feel. Talking about it may help you feel better, or, you may not want to be reminded of the cancer at all. It is important that you express your preferences to others.
- Try to maintain a positive self-image. After treatment, you may have to adjust to changes in your physical appearance and/or abilities. Remember you are still the same person on the inside, and there are resources that can help, such as a rehabilitation therapist and/or an image consultant.
- Nurture your emotional and spiritual well-being. It is not uncommon to experience emotional or spiritual distress at diagnosis and after cancer treatment is over. Some cancer survivors even develop post-traumatic stress disorder. A counselor/therapist and/or a spiritual advisor can help you learn ways to cope with your feelings.
- Find ways to enjoy life. Consider trying a new hobby or activity. Creative outlets, such as drawing, painting, music, and poetry can help you express yourself and relieve stress. Keeping a journal, reading a book, watching a funny movie, and spending time with family and friends can also be rewarding activities.
- Join a support group with other survivors. You may discover that while you had a lot of support as a cancer patient, now that your treatment has ended, you are left alone. Aside from family and friends, you may find strength in sharing your feelings and concerns with other survivors who have had similar experiences.
- Face forward. Now that your treatment is finished, the process of moving on with life begins. This is your opportunity to re-focus on the things that matter most to you. You may have learned how to take better care of yourself. You may also value your relationships with others in a new way. Although you can't change having had cancer, you can change how you live the rest of your life.
Tips for Follow-Up Care Once Cancer Treatment Ends
- Schedule follow-up visits with your doctor. Follow-up care allows your doctor to identify any changes in your medical condition and provide recommendations for maintaining a healthy lifestyle. Your specific aftercare regime, including how often you should see your doctor and what to expect from these visits, will depend on a number of factors, including your cancer type and stage, the treatments you had, and your age and general health.
- Become an active participant in your wellness plan. Work with your doctor to develop a wellness plan that includes ways you can take care of your physical, emotional, social, and spiritual needs. Include other professionals in your care plan as needed, such as counselors. Being an active participant in your aftercare plan will help you feel more in control of your health and well-being.
- Eat a nutritious, healthful diet. Eating well can help you regain your strength, rebuild tissue, and feel better overall. Choose fruits, vegetables, beans, and whole grain foods, and avoid foods high in fat and salt. Also, you should avoid smoking and limit your alcohol consumption. A dietitian can help you design nutritious meal plans.
- Stay physically active. Maintaining light exercise/physical activity can help you relax, relieve stress, and reduce fatigue. If you have physical limitations, even activities like stretching can help you feel better. However, it is also important to pace yourself and get plenty of rest. A rehabilitation therapist can help you develop an appropriate exercise program.
- Maintain open communication with your healthcare team. Be sure to tell your doctor if you are experiencing pain, fatigue, difficulty sleeping, or any other symptoms after treatment. Remember that every symptom does not necessarily indicate that the cancer is returning. Your healthcare team can help provide ways to manage your symptoms.
NOTE: THIS INFORMATION IS NOT INTENDED NOR IMPLIED TO BE A SUBSTITUTE FOR PROFESSIONAL MEDICAL ADVICE. ALWAYS SEEK THE ADVICE OF YOUR PHYSICIAN OR OTHER QUALIFIED HEALTHCARE PROVIDER REGARDING YOUR FOLLOW-UP CARE.
After Care at CTCA
At Cancer Treatment Centers of America (CTCA), we are here for you throughout your entire cancer journey. We understand that after your treatment has ended, the cancer therapies you received may affect your health for some time, or increase your risk of developing other conditions later. We also understand that your emotional and spiritual well-being needs attention as well.
The After Care Program at CTCA is designed to help you maintain your health and improve your quality of life once your hospital treatment is complete. Led by a registered aftercare nurse, the program offers comprehensive follow-up care to address your needs on many levels—body, mind and spirit.
How the program works is, after your treatment is complete, your CTCA aftercare nurse will work with you to assess your health and identify potential late or long-term effects of treatment. Then, you will receive an individualized wellness plan that includes help with managing medications, symptoms and pain, as well as nutritional, physical and emotional education and support.
At CTCA, we support, encourage and empower you throughout your treatment and beyond. In fact, when you reach your five-year anniversary after completing treatment, we celebrate with you. We plant a tree in your honor in our Cancer Survivors’ Arboretum, and we recognize you at our annual “Celebrate Life” event. We also add your name to our “Tree of Life,” which hangs on the walls of each of our hospitals.
At CTCA, we understand your journey goes beyond cancer treatment. It is an ongoing life journey of hope, healing, and new beginnings with family and friends. And, we are here to support you every step of the way.
I hope this information has helped you in some way. I will check in with you again next month. In the meantime, stay strong and hopeful.