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Coping with cancer treatment burnout

Arpi and Natalie
Arpi Hamilton (right) credits her family, including her daughter Natalie (left), with providing her with the inspiration and support she needed to move forward with her cancer treatment.

After 16 difficult weeks that included surgery, chemotherapy and the side effects and recovery challenges that come with them, Arpi Hamilton was hopeful that she was done with her breast cancer. "I had my surgery, my hair had started to grow back, and I was told that I was done with chemo," says Hamilton, 42, a patient liaison at Cancer Treatment Centers of America® (CTCA).

Then came the phone call.

“They said they weren’t able to eliminate all of my cancer,” Hamilton says. “They asked me to come back to start chemo again. It was worse than when I was first diagnosed." 

Like many patients who have endured lengthy and difficult treatments or who have received a new or recurrent diagnosis, Hamilton stood at a crossroads. Could she muster the physical and emotional strength needed to continue to fight her cancer? Or would she forgo treatment and let the disease take its course? Hamilton was experiencing what is often referred to as treatment burnout, a common struggle among cancer patients who feel as if they can no longer move forward with the treatment plan for their disease.

“It’s very common for people to feel as if their bodies betrayed them. And they’ll tell me they don’t want to do their treatment anymore,” says Lynn Bornfriend, MD, a Clinical Psychiatrist at CTCA® Philadelphia. “One of the more common reasons I hear from patients who are thinking about ending their treatment is that they are tired. They’re tired of feeling bad. They’re tired of the pain and tired of the nausea. They’re tired of limits that cancer and cancer treatments may put on them.”

Patients struggling with treatment burnout often encounter waves of emotion and uncertainty about their future. They endure emotionally and physically exhausting treatments, often with doubts about their results. Some may have their independence stripped away, or they may feel they are a burden to others. Many ponder the common question: “Why me?”

When patients first recognize they’re dealing with burnout, they should reach out to someone to talk to, preferably a professional, Dr. Bornfriend recommends. “The first step is to speak to a professional to figure out what is causing burnout,” she says. “Sometimes, it isn’t that obvious.” By speaking out, not only are you expressing your emotions, but you're also allowing others to help you improve your overall quality of life.

Here are some other ways to deal with treatment burnout:

Talk to your doctor. Be honest with your doctor about your treatment side effects, and ask if the treatment plan can be adjusted without compromising the intended results.

Ask about integrative care. Supportive care services, such as nutritional support or talk therapy, may allow you better manage treatment side effects.

Consider palliative care. This care is intended to relieve symptoms of cancer or side effects of chronic disease, helping to improve quality of life. This is especially helpful for patients with advanced cancer.

Accept emotional support. Having a sound support system during treatment may help you manage issues not related to your cancer, or it may empower you to tackle everyday tasks so you can focus on your treatment.

Ask for help. This can be difficult for some patients, but you may be surprised by how many people are willing to help.

After the phone call, Hamilton, who was diagnosed at age 38, decided that she couldn’t physically and mentally endure any more treatment. She refused treatments for several weeks, but then started chemotherapy again after her family encouraged her to push on. She credits her oldest daughter with constantly providing her with the inspiration and support she needed to move forward with her treatment plan.

Hamilton eventually completed her treatments, and recently celebrated two years of repeated scans showing no evidence of the disease. Her advice to those moving forward with their treatments: “Take lots of pictures,” she says. “A year from now, you are going to look back and you're going to be so amazed at what you've done.”

Get answers to common questions about breast cancer.