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The After-Treatment Blahs

by Bob Riter

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When treatment ends, there’s an expectation that everything in your life will suddenly revert to normal, but everything doesn’t return to normal right away.

For many people, the months following cancer treatment are more difficult than the treatment itself. During treatment, your “job” is to be in treatment. You’re busy with appointments, and you see the same doctors and nurses almost every week. At the same time, friends bring you meals, family members take on extra duties, and you’re left to focus on getting better.

Then you have your last radiation treatment or chemotherapy session. You get hugs and congratulatory handshakes. There’s an expectation that everything in your life will suddenly revert to normal.

Let me pop that bubble: everything doesn’t return to normal right away. You might even wonder, “Is my new normal the same as my old normal?” Your body is tired. Your brain is muddled. You’re worried that the cancer will come back. And you miss the safe cocoon of your chemo nurses and radiation therapists.

What makes it especially hard is that the people around you sometimes expect you to bounce back almost immediately. While they were happy to help you during treatment, they may now see you as recovered and expect you to carry your old load. “C’mon, Bob. You finished chemo on Friday. We need you as linebacker against the Giants on Sunday.” (Maybe I’m fantasizing just a little, but hey, it’s my article.)

Realize that recovery is not a straight line. You may feel better one day but worse the next. That’s normal.

Author of Article photo

Bob Riter

The post-treatment blahs are so common that I try to prepare people for them in advance. This is what I suggest:

Expect a post-treatment slump. Rather than being a time of celebration, the last treatment is sometimes the beginning of a funk. If you expect that funk, it won’t be so difficult.

Realize that recovery is not a straight line. You may feel better one day but worse the next. That’s normal.

Expect recovery to take several months. Some people say that the recovery phase takes as long as the treatment phase. It took me a full year following chemotherapy to really feel like myself again.

Expect to be acutely aware of every ache and pain and to immediately think the worst. Every headache seems like an ominous sign of a brain tumor instead of just a normal headache. Every cough is feared to be a lung metastasis instead of a normal cold. These worries become even more pronounced before doctor visits and tests. You scan your body for the slightest indication of anything bad. Everyone goes through this.

Realize that cancer will continue to be front and center in your life for several more months. It’s what you think about in the morning, at night, and throughout the day. But this fades with time. The second year after treatment is much easier than the first year after treatment.

Expect your family and friends to have less time to listen to your concerns about living with cancer. Though they’re eager to get back to normal as quickly as possible, there’s a good chance that you still want to process what you’ve been through. Joining a support group or speaking with a therapist can be especially helpful during this transition phase.

Most importantly, be patient with those around you, and especially with yourself.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

Bob Riter is a breast cancer survivor and the executive director of the Cancer Resource Center of the Finger Lakes, an organization that provides support, information, and community to people affected by cancer in and around Ithaca, NY. Bob also writes a regular column about living with cancer for the Ithaca Journal.

Excerpted with permission from When Your Life Is Touched by Cancer: Practical Advice and Insights for Patients, Professionals, and Those Who Care, by Bob Riter, copyright © 2013, Hunter House Inc. Publishers.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, March/April 2013.