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Finding a Good Life After Cancer

by Roger Granet, MD

Wellness image

You are in remission, perhaps even cured – congratulations! Your cancer treatment has been a success. Yes, it was emotionally and physically depleting, but now it’s all over, and you can just go ahead and live your life and forget about the past. Wait a minute. It’s not quite that simple.

The process of life after cancer can be a stressful experience. The consequences of surviving include a number of physical and psychological obstacles that one must face. While hoping that the cancer experience is largely over once remission is achieved and treatment has finished, survivors must deal with a host of unexpected issues. Fortunately, with awareness, sensitivity, and acceptance, these stressors can be handled effectively.

The physical consequences of cancer treatment manifest in a variety of ways. Physical effects of aggressive therapy often include chronic fatigue, neuropathy, impotence, and infertility, to name a few. Many survivors experience what has been called “chemo brain,” which is characterized by cognitive difficulties affecting memory, focus, and concentration.

The emotional repercussions of survivorship can include “The Damocles Syndrome,” where the individual is wondering if the “sword” might fall and cancer might return. A person’s body image is often greatly affected because of physical changes that may result from treatment, such as mastectomy or hair loss. In addition, a sort of “aftershock” may accompany the density of illness and treatment.

In time, you will heal.

Author of Article photo

Dr. Roger Granet

People who once dreaded visits to the doctor or the hospital may actually have feelings of abandonment when they are told to come back in six months. The absence of the vigilance and consideration that was provided by frequent medical visits may trigger fear. Moreover, relationships with family and friends will need to be renegotiated as you enter a new phase of your illness.

Yet despite all these potential challenges, cancer is still a manageable life event that gets easier with time. Here are some suggestions to help you find a good life after cancer.

  • Know that a state of uncertainty lasts for a while.
    For weeks and even months, this state of limbo may persist, and the direction of how to proceed seems cloudy. It is important that you not judge yourself or pressure the process. It will end in time.
  • Embrace that you will be experiencing many emotions.
    Early on in the recovery process, especially, you may feel pulled in many directions. The new freedom of “normalcy” will be mixed with the concern of recurrence, and their coexistence may leave you feeling confused as to how to feel and act.
  • Many will ask, “How are you feeling?”
    Although the sentiment is thoughtful, this question may be bothersome because it comes at a time when you are trying to put distance between yourself and the cancer. Don’t criticize yourself for being annoyed, and don’t take the question personally.
  • And then they will forget to ask how you are doing.
    Inevitably, the question will stop being asked. Again, don’t take it personally; it’s a natural consequence of time.
  • You will be tired.
    Then expect your strength to return. Initially, don’t demand too much of yourself or feel guilty about difficulties you may have resuming activities or responsibilities. Eventually you will find that your stamina will return.
  • Exercise and play.
    Start out small with a movie or a short walk and then increase activities as your stamina returns.
  • Look in the rearview mirror.
    Survivors and loved ones should talk about how the experience felt for all parties involved. The discussion is easier after the crisis has passed, and it provides a great opportunity for everyone to share their feelings and gain perspective.
  • Take time to reflect.
    Through objective reflection, you will likely realize that you coped more effectively and had more emotional strength than previously imagined. This realization will give you a new emotional strength and confidence.
  • Use relaxation techniques.
    Practice techniques such as guided imagery, progressive muscle relaxation, meditation, and yoga.
  • Seek a consult as needed.
    If the emotional toll of the survivorship process is becoming too troubling, seek assistance. Utilize professional services, support groups, clergy members, or other outlets to have your needs met.

Most importantly, be aware of your feelings without reacting to them with guilt or shame. In time, you will heal emotionally, physically, and spiritually. And you will ultimately discover just how resilient the human spirit is.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

Dr. Roger Granet is a clinical professor of Psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College and consulting psychiatrist at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, both in New York, NY. He is the medical director of The Center for Psychiatry and Psycho-Oncology in Morristown, NJ, and the author of Surviving Cancer Emotionally: Learning How to Heal (John Wiley & Sons).

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, September/October 2010.