When Treatment Ends
Focusing on Your Emotional Recovery from Cancer
by Jolene Rowe, LCSW
For many cancer survivors, the challenges of a cancer diagnosis don’t end with treatment. Emotional recovery is sometimes a longer and even more difficult process than physical recovery. This can be exacerbated by the expectation from family, friends, and coworkers that the day treatment ends will be the day you are back to normal. As a cancer survivor, you know this is far from the truth.
Coupled with the joy and relief of completing treatment, you may experience fear of recurrence, worries about long-term effects of treatment, and a general uncertainty about the future. You may feel sad or even develop depression. Many changes and losses have occurred, and with loss comes the need to grieve in order to move on.
Whatever your unique experience, all survivors share a common desire to return to normalcy. They want a “prescription” to feel less like cancer patients and more like themselves again.
The first step is acknowledging and accepting your new normal. It’s OK to not feel like yourself after treatment. It’s OK to never be the same again. You need time to recover and regain your emotional equilibrium. Give that to yourself without guilt. Allow yourself time to reflect on your experience, take stock of how cancer has affected your life, and reevaluate how you view the world. Putting cancer in perspective and attaching some meaning to what you have been through can enhance your sense of control over your life, as well as your sense of well-being as a survivor.
Be kind to yourself, allow time for healing, and allow those around you to support you in this endeavor.
Cancer is a transformative experience that may cause you to question and rethink your priorities. It’s a time of transition and, like any transition, requires adjustments. Let go of what is unnecessary and focus on what is most important; it can be both empowering and liberating. Cancer has a way of helping you redefine your priorities and recognize what you value most.
Try to deal with the expectations, behaviors, and emotions of others in a way that does not cause you distress. Don’t feel as if you have to live up to everyone’s expectations, but do try to have compassion for those close to you who may be uncertain of what to say or how to act now that your treatment is over. Seek out the company and support of the people in your life who have been understanding, helpful, and comforting. Learn to ask for what you need and to communicate honestly, clearly, and assertively what you do not. Anticipate questions about your illness while choosing what you wish to share about your experience.
Be proactive in setting your new priorities as a survivor. Decide how or if you plan to return to work, school, and social activities, and determine when the time is right for you. Find ways to comfort yourself, relieve stress, and cope with the fear of recurrence. Learn what the late effects of treatment are, what to expect from them, and how to manage them. Knowledge can help reduce your anxiety.
Seek out other survivors who share a common experience to reduce the sense of isolation that comes from being a cancer survivor reentering life. Explore mind-body strategies and other wellness activities. If you are a spiritual person, seek comfort in those activities that nourish your spirit. Find things that make you happy, and pursue them.
As you embark on this phase of your recovery, with the tasks and challenges that lie ahead, find ways to be hopeful. Get involved in life. Enter new relationships and experience new things. Make plans for the future. Try to think less about what could happen and more about what needs to happen. Accept help and support when needed. If you find that over time and with attention you don’t feel better, seek out help from a mental health professional. Just as you wouldn’t ignore a physical symptom that doesn’t go away, don’t ignore ongoing distress that doesn’t go away despite your best efforts.
Commit to your own emotional recovery. Be kind to yourself, allow time for healing, and allow those around you to support you in this endeavor.
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Jolene Rowe is a licensed clinical social worker and social work supervisor at H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center and Research Institute in Tampa, FL.
This article was originally published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, November/December 2012.