Settling Into Life After Cancer
Tips for Making the Transition from Active Treatment to Cancer Survivorship
by Carolyn Vachani, RN, MSN
“Congratulations! We’ll see you in six months.”
You’ve been looking forward to this announcement since you first heard the words “You have cancer.” But all these months later, after you’ve grown accustomed to weekly phone calls and visits with your medical team, this once anticipated moment might elicit an unexpected emotional response.
You would think the end of treatment would have you celebrating. But when the time comes, you may be surprised to feel overwhelmed with 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 are finished with treatment; you’ll soon be getting back to work, family responsibilities, and life as it used to be. But things have changed. Often, that change is for the better – but it can still be scary.
When you were first diagnosed with cancer, you may have thought, How will I get through this? But you did. 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 people you love, or a desire to give back to others taking this cancer journey. Other cancer survivors are simply eager to pick back up where they left off when cancer showed up.
While each person 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 people have after cancer treatment is 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. That fear may ride up front with you for a while, but as time goes by and you find ways to cope with your fear, it moves to the backseat. Eventually, it becomes just a reflection in your rearview mirror. Your 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. But that’s OK – those feelings are normal – just don’t let your fear take control of the steering wheel.
Find outlets that help you release some of your fears. Things like meditation, exercise, or just doing something
you enjoy (like knitting or gardening) can all help take your mind off your fears by shifting your focus onto something positive instead. And remember that your oncology team is only a phone call away if you need reassurance.
Stick with the plan
Whether it’s long-term hormonal therapy or annual cancer screening, sticking with the follow-up care 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.
As the years pass, that annual mammogram – or any other cancer screening – can drop down the priority list. Don’t let that happen. Talk with your oncology team about putting together a survivorship care plan to address post-treatment concerns, help guide you through survivorship, and ensure you continue to receive optimal healthcare from all your medical providers.
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 implement a healthier lifestyle. 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. Then, as you get stronger, push yourself to do a little more each week.
Turn lemons into lemonade
Many survivors find it beneficial to use their cancer experience to help others. If this idea appeals 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 can help you find meaning in your cancer journey and move forward with your life as a cancer survivor.
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 healthcare provider for a survivorship care plan, or create one for yourself at oncolife.oncolink.org.
This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, May/June 2022.