Cancer Doesn’t End When Treatment Does
Practical Advice for Your Post-Treatment Life
by Morry Edwards, PhD
While many cancer survivors feel like celebrating after they “graduate” from cancer treatment, it can be a vulnerable time for some. The routine of going to the treatment center for scheduled chemo or radiation can be reassuring; it can make you feel like you’re actively doing something to fight your cancer. This vigilance and constant monitoring by your physician is comforting. But when you’re finished with active treatment and don’t require a follow-up appointment for several weeks or even months, you may feel neglected and defenseless. The transition from active treatment to survivorship can be scary. Here’s some practical advice to help you navigate your post-treatment life.
Listen to your body.
After treatment ends, every new ache or pain summons fears that the cancer is returning. This is why good communication with your medical team is important for your peace of mind. Learn to listen to your body to distinguish when to call your doctor about a distressing symptom and when you may have just slept wrong and gotten a muscle cramp.
Make positive lifestyle changes.
Adopting a healthy diet, exercising regularly, getting adequate sleep, managing your weight, minimizing stress, and reducing exposure to carcinogens, such as cigarette smoke, can be beneficial to your health and to your peace of mind. Developing a daily practice of relaxation or meditation may also help reduce fear, anxiety, and anger, as well as restore peacefulness, increase energy, and help you identify or clarify your needs, goals, and next courses of action.
After cancer, you will need to teach the people in your life how to treat you.
Research supports the idea that positive lifestyle changes, especially exercising regularly and eating healthy, may help to prevent cancer recurrence. While now may seem like a difficult time to make changes in your life, making a few positive, tangible alterations can help restore your sense of control.
Be direct and honest.
When someone tells you how glad you should be to finish treatment, acknowledge that finishing treatment is certainly a big relief, but the battle isn’t over yet. Let that person know you may still have lingering side effects, such as low blood counts or fatigue. When people tell you how great you look, even if you feel terrible inside, acknowledge the compliment, but let them know that you may not feel as great as you look and that it takes effort some days to put on your brave face and get out in the world.
After cancer, you will need to teach the people in your life how to treat you. Many people don’t know what to say or do that is truly supportive. You may have to let them know when a comment is hurtful or when you still need help with certain tasks. Having something they can do to help may reduce their anxiety (and yours, as well). Above all, let them know you’re the same person despite having had cancer. Or, if you have changed, let them know that you are a different person now. Either way, you have to teach others how you want to be treated.
Become as accurately informed as you can.
Learn to advocate for yourself and be appropriately assertive in collaborating with your medical team on your post-treatment plan. But don’t feel you have to become a “professional patient” and focus on cancer recovery all the time. After diagnosis, cancer becomes part of your life, but you can control to some extent how much it occupies your life once treatment is over.
Enjoy the present.
Revisit old hobbies, and pick up new activities you always wanted to try but never thought you had the talent or time to do. Not only will it shift your focus away from cancer, but you also may find you have hidden talents. Plan pleasurable activities that don’t revolve around cancer, and surround yourself with positive people. Most importantly, live, love, and enjoy your new, post-treatment life.
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Dr. Morry Edwards is a licensed psychologist who has specialized in treating people with cancer, head injuries, and other chronic illnesses for over 36 years with a patient-centered holistic approach. He currently practices at Neuropsychology Associates in Kalamazoo, MI, and he consults in several clinical settings. He is also a part-time instructor at Kalamazoo Valley Community College and author of MindBody Cancer Wellness: A Self-Help Stress Management Manual, as well as several other manuals on pain control, headache relief, maintaining motivation, cancer stress, and boosting brain function.
This article was originally published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, July/August 2013.