6 things your doctor won’t tell you about surviving cancer treatment

Cancer treatment has one goal in mind: your survival. Life after cancer is a tightly held onto dream that many people clutch at to get through this stressful time.

Coping with cancer is one challenge, but life after cancer treatment may not be what you expect. It’s where cancer survivors commonly process their experience, worry about recurrence, deal with the physical effects of treatment, experience emotional difficulties like depression or anxiety, and wonder how they will move forward in their lives.

Does this sound like you?

Surviving cancer

If you have survived cancer then this is a momentous achievement, but the path here has not been easy.

Indeed, cancer is a very personal and confronting condition. Not only are you dealing with the shock of a cancer diagnosis, feeling anxious about what the future holds and undergoing numerous tests and doctor’s appointments, but then the treatment begins… and you have to face the various psychological and physical effects of this phase. It’s distressing and it’s exhausting.

But what happens after you’ve finished cancer treatment? This is when you’d expect to feel relieved, optimistic about the future and looking forward to getting on with your life as it were before treatment.

Only, that’s rarely the case. You have undergone an emotional and physical transformation and life isn’t quite the same anymore is it?

Often the survivorship phase is the hardest part for many people. This is something to be prepared for, and unfortunately it is the phase least talked about with patients.

Six things your doctor won’t tell you about life after cancer

You may have had an amazing treating team, but it’s unlikely they will prepare you for what to expect for life after cancer. Here are some things to consider:

1. Cancer will continue to be part of your life.

You’re done with your cancer treatment and you may no longer have the active support of your treatment team, but you will likely have ongoing follow up. The cancer may be gone, but you will continue to have tests and appointments about a possible recurrence of cancer and this is a fear that commonly haunts cancer survivors.

Friends and family may feel relieved and want to file it all away in the past, but for you, it will continue to be there. This can make it difficult for you to move on with your life and make future plans.

2. You still have to deal with the effects of cancer treatment.

While the active portion of cancer treatment is complete, your life may not resume as normal. For many cancer survivors, the physical effects are challenging. Your body may not look the same, your hair may not have grown back to its full length, or perhaps you haven’t returned to your former capacity at work, or returned at all. You may even have had to give up your employment or take a career break. This can be a difficult phase as you may feel invalidated by your employer or supports who expect you to get on with life.

3. Your outlook on life may change

You’ve been through a significant life event which has lasting emotional, psychological and physical effects. You may not know how to get back to life as it was, or maybe that’s no longer how you want to live your life. Life after cancer treatment can be a time when people try and come to grips with their diagnosis and make meaning out of it somehow. There may be a shift in your values or your goals in life. Perhaps you no longer want to work in the same role, or you’d like to try something new. You may want to reconsider your interests and how you want to spend your time. You may want to take up a new hobby or return to your studies and try something new.

If your new outlook is about slowing down and making the most of your time, then therapeutic activities such as writing, drawing, yoga and gardening may be something that is of interest. Or perhaps you’ll want to regain strength in your body through exercise or healthy eating habits. It’s normal to look at life through a different lens after such a significant life event, like a cancer diagnosis.

4. You may feel lonely

You may not know anyone else who has been through what you have been through, and even with the support of friends and family, it can be an isolating experience. Life on the other side of treatment is no different. While everyone may be happy to move on now that you’ve recovered, you may experience the sense that you are all alone. You are no longer regularly seeing your doctors and the network of support you rallied from friends and friends may begin to ease now that the treatment phase has ended. It may feel as though no one understands what you are experiencing now that you have survived cancer.

It can be helpful to connect with people who have been through similar experiences as you. You can do this by joining cancer support groups, either in person or online. It’s also important to remain connected with your family and friends who have supported you through the treatment phase and to be open with them about how you feel.

5. You may feel emotional

You have been on an emotional roller coaster now that the cancer treatment is over and your emotions may be all over the place. Everyone thinks you should be happy, right? So why are you crying all the time? Why do you feel depressed, or anxious or worried?

Depression is common for people who have undergone cancer treatment because once treatment has ended, everything slows down and it’s often the time when you will begin to process all that you have been through. Without adequate support, cancer and depression can go hand in hand.

While you may have had to hold it together to get through the treatment and be strong for your family and friends, now you may feel as though you’re a mess (and that’s okay, by the way!). Your body isn’t the same, your outlook is different and you just feel different, so what do you do with all that now?

Firstly, it’s completely normal to experience a range of emotions following cancer treatment. Now that you’ve survived, you’re faced with a whole new challenge: life after cancer. It may come as a surprise, but life after cancer is probably going to look quite different to life before cancer. It’s okay to feel down or worried at times, but if you are concerned about your mood or how you are coping, then seeking professional help can be really beneficial.

6. Professional help for life after cancer is available

You have probably received plenty of support and input from professionals following your cancer diagnosis or during the treatment phase. You may have even seen a social worker or psychologist in this time, but what about life after cancer? Once your treatment has ceased, you may feel the desire to talk about all that you’ve been through and try to figure out what you want to do next. You may have difficult feelings to process, or be trying to navigate the effects of cancer on other aspects of your life (e.g. relationships, parenting, work, health etc).

This is a time when you may want to connect with a psychologist to help you navigate this tricky time. Openness and talking about your feelings will help you process the experience and give you the space and time (that you previously weren’t granted) to think about your future. Psychologists are experienced in working with cancer survivors and can provide you with a safe space to explore your feelings, treat depression and anxiety and support you to make plans for your future.

What’s next?

Remember, it’s completely normal to feel emotional, isolated and confused about what to do next. You have undergone a momentous life event and you’re still dealing with the after effects. This all takes time. Life after cancer may be challenging, but you don’t have to figure it all out on your own. Engaging with support groups, taking care of yourself and seeking professional support can help you overcome the emotional aftermath of surviving cancer.