How to Take Charge of Your Life after Cancer Treatment
by Carolyn Vachani, RN, MSN
“Congratulations! We’ll see you in six months.”
These are the words you’ve been waiting to hear since the moment you were diagnosed with cancer. But all these months later, after you’ve grown accustomed to weekly phone calls and visits with your medical team, this once anticipated proclamation might evoke an unexpected emotional response.
You would think the end of treatment would make you want to celebrate, but when the time comes, you may be surprised to find yourself overwhelmed with feelings of fear, uncertainty, and vulnerability, not to mention lingering treatment-related side effects. To make matters worse, your friends and family may not understand why you feel this way. You’re finished with treatment; you’ll soon be getting back to work, family responsibilities, and life as it used to be. But things have changed. Your life will never be like it used to be. You’re now a cancer survivor.
You’ll be glad to know that many cancer survivors come through treatment with a feeling of accomplishment, a renewed sense of purpose, or a new outlook on life. This may translate into a new career, a commitment to spending more time with the ones you love, or a charge to give back to others taking this cancer journey. Other survivors are eager to pick back up where they left off when cancer came calling.
While everyone will have to work through their own process of settling into life after cancer, there are some things you can do to make the transition a little easier.
• Face your fears. One of the most common fears experienced by people who’ve completed cancer treatment is the fear that the cancer will return. Unfortunately, this fear may never completely go away. However, that’s not to say that it doesn’t get easier to manage.
Think of fear as a passenger in your car. It may ride up front with you for a while, but as time goes by and you find ways to manage your fear, it moves to the backseat, and then eventually it becomes just a reflection in your rearview mirror. Fear may jump back into the front seat when it comes time for your yearly checkup or when you have a symptom that worries you. That’s OK – and normal – just don’t let it take control of the steering wheel.
Find outlets that help you release some of the fear. Meditation, exercise, and doing something you enjoy (like knitting or gardening) can all help take your mind off your fears by allowing you to focus on something positive instead. And remember that your oncology team is only a phone call away if you need reassurance.
• Follow your survivorship care plan. Talk with your oncology team about receiving a survivorship care plan to help guide you in post-treatment concerns. Whether it’s long-term hormonal therapy or annual screenings, sticking with the follow-up plan prescribed by your oncology team will help keep you on the path to wellness. If side effects of hormonal therapies are interfering with your ability to take the medications as prescribed, talk with your healthcare team. They can help you find ways to manage these side effects so you can continue receiving treatment.
• Make your health a priority. Research has shown that healthy behaviors – such as eating a balanced diet, exercising regularly, and maintaining a healthy weight – can reduce the risk of cancer coming back. Use the transition to survivorship as a time to make your health a priority and implement a healthier lifestyle, including having regular cancer screenings. Get the whole family involved with eating healthier meals and incorporating exercise into your daily routines. After treatment, you may have to start slow when it comes to exercise. A daily walk through the neighborhood is a great jumping-off point. As you get stronger, push yourself to do a little more each week.
• Find a way to give back. Many survivors find it helpful to use their cancer experience to pay it forward. If this idea sounds appealing to you, first give yourself time to heal both physically and emotionally, and when you are ready, get involved in a way that is meaningful to you. Join a buddy program to mentor someone newly diagnosed with cancer, help raise money or awareness for a cancer charity, or volunteer at your local cancer center. Giving back in this way may help you find meaning in your cancer journey and move forward with your life after cancer.
The transition from active treatment to survivorship isn’t always an easy one. However, with the right tools and a survivorship care plan in place, you can embrace your survivorship with a renewed sense of purpose and a new outlook on life.
Carolyn Vachani is an oncology advanced practice nurse at Penn Medicine in Philadelphia, PA. She is the managing editor of OncoLink (oncolink.org) and the creator of the OncoLife Survivorship Care Plan.
If you’re nearing the end of active treatment for cancer, ask your doctor for a survivorship care plan, or create one at oncolife.oncolink.org.
This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, January/February 2019.