Life after cancer

Choose every day to take positive, purposeful steps forward in re-building your life after cancer.

Estimated read-time: 22 minutes

  1. What happens after cancer treatment is over?
  2. What to expect after completing treatment
  3. How to be a cancer survivor
  4. Recovery from cancer
  5. Post cancer anxiety
  6. How long does it take to feel better after cancer?
  7. Coping with anxiety after cancer
  8. A life-changing new perspective after cancer
  9. Moving on with your life after cancer
  10. Coping with changes to your body image after cancer
  11. Dealing with the residual side effects from cancer
  12. Ongoing follow-up medical care for cancer
  13. Living life after cancer
  14. Giving back to the cancer community

What happens after cancer treatment is over?

Finally, this day has come. The end of your treatment marks a watershed as you move from the ‘active treatment phase’1 and reach a new phase of your life.

For many, crossing the finish line brings the massive relief of realizing that you have survived. However, it is possible to experience disappointment because many aren’t prepared for the new series of challenges survivorship can bring.2

As the many hospital appointments give way to your new life post-cancer, putting the quality back into your life has to be a priority and will aid your recovery in the short-term, along with being extremely important for maintaining your overall wellbeing over the rest of your life.

Life after cancer

What to expect after completing treatment

The first challenge will be how to cope without being surrounded by the structure of your treatment plan, the schedule of medical appointments, the drug regimen and the safety net of the medical staff.

It is typical to feel cast aside and cut free after having lived such a regimented life for so long, having invested so much of your energy and focus upon achieving each mini-milestone of treatment cycle, scan result and check-up. Most survivors will experience mixed emotions and some will feel deflated, abandoned, vulnerable, mistrustful and wary without much of this support and even the thought of having to let go of the therapy which you have relied upon up until now to keep you alive can be hard.3

It is helpful to fill this void initially by putting in place a wellbeing regimen of holistic therapy appointments and re-structuring your time around soul-lifting activities such as massage, reflexology, mindfulness courses, doing art or music therapy, yoga or tai chi. This investment in yourself will help you as much mentally as well as physically to recover from the whole experience alongside helping you to better manage lasting side effects.

How to be a cancer survivor

As your experience of cancer moves from the acute diagnosis and treatment phase, you will have to manage over the long-term several competing factors, specifically the lasting physical, social, emotional4 and spiritual5 effects.

The main concerns survivors reportedly have are the psychological impact of the stress of an uncertain future, the physical issues of having to live with enduring side effects and the economic strain survivors will suffer long after their treatment has stopped.6

How well you cope will depend upon individual factors such as your own resilience, age and exact cancer diagnosis, with the passage of time since diagnosis being one factor which will help you move past the ordeal.7

Recovery from cancer

Getting your side effects under control will need to be your prime focus if you are to regain any sense of a normal life back, as you won’t just leave your last treatment feeling well.

Typically, survivors can have to live with the ongoing physical needs of multiple side effects, which each survivor will experience on an individual basis. Common issues are for example; infertility, sexual dysfunction, heart problems and memory difficulties,8 pain, fatigue and lasting changes to your body image.9 Adjusting to living life with any chronic, lasting, long-term side effects will take its toll mentally and you may need to be supported by counselling to get beyond your illness.

Yet re-building your life will not just be about focusing on your physical wellness.

You may also need continuing support to deal with the psychological impact of the emotional rollercoaster you have been on, along with help living through the uncertain future clouded by the possibility of reoccurrence.

The heightened emotions you may have experienced up until now, such as anger and blame can linger long past your diagnosis and treatment, continuing to affect you into your recovery phase. You may feel resentment because of what you have gone through, the fact that you now have to start your life again and have been forced to adjust your sails in a new direction again. Some survivors may also experience feelings of guilt that they survived whilst others they got to know around weren’t as lucky.10

You may feel a continuing sense of being mentally wounded and scarred from all the changes you still have to endure in all aspects of your life which will never be the same, for example; your energy levels and vitality, your future goals and plans, even your outlook and perspective on life.

Your social needs may now be different as your roles within your family and society have now changed. You may have to adapt to your new everyday life and changes to your working life. After cancer some survivors may choose to take time off from work, have to stop working or perhaps you are still employed but working less, doing a different job or working from home.

Any childcare arrangements may now need to be altered, and your financial position will probably also have changed.11

The cumulative changes and losses cancer has brought to your life will force you to confront these issues long past your last treatment session. Accepting that your recovery from all that was and is still to come will take time and is important to acknowledge this on a personal level and for others around you to do the same.

Post cancer anxiety

Depending on your personality, outlook and mental flexibility to be able to cope in the face of a major life change, you will probably still need to time process what has happened to you.

For a long while you feel stuck in the process of adjustment. You may still feel as if you are reeling from the shock of diagnosis, still wondering how and why this happened to you and still recovering from the whole experience that cancer has been.

Recovering from cancer

Your family and those who surround you can be left feeling deeply affected by what has happened and forever changed in many ways.

In the wake of recovery, you will feel the impact of overwhelming relief that you came through cancer and saw the other side. You are a survivor, shell-shocked, fragile in many ways, but alive. Having overcome a trauma, your sense of well-being and gratitude of finally being well may increase.

A rush of exuberant love of life can consume you as you look around you, seeing clearly what matters most in your life, you will feel privileged to still be here to enjoy it. Living life and creating purpose in your life can take on an intensity which was never there to the same extent before.

To be released from many of the shackles your treatment regimen imposed is a wonderful freedom. To experience many of your devastating side effects ease and slowly get better along such as; mouth ulcers, nausea, muscle wasting and hair loss along with not having to be injected, tested or even take lots of daily medications will leave you with a sense of joyful relief.12

Pause and take a moment to reflect on everything. Looking back at all that you had to go through and overcome, you must give yourself some credit for surviving all that you have.

Appreciate the wealth of inner strength and resilience you have discovered within yourself which helped you to achieve this positive outcome. This is the attitude which you need to harness and use to your advantage in the active way you approach your recovery and life beyond cancer.

How long does it take to feel better after cancer?

After cancer expect to need a long period of time13 to get overthis, an old-fashioned period of convalescence14 just to rest and only then can you start to work towards rebalancing and re-building your life as you learn to adjust and adapt to life as you now know it.

Everyone’s experience of cancer is so different, just as every cancer is so different. You will have received treatment and responded on an individual basis, so how quickly you can heal both mentally15 and physically is not something which can be compared with others.

You not only have to recover from the illness itself but also from the treatment16 which some can find the more challenging side to getting well. The physical and mental scars will take time to heal. It can be a slow process and the experience of cancer can take many months or even years to get over.

There will be always be those people surrounding the patient and caregiver who will expect you to move on at a much greater pace than is possible and they can become frustrated by the slow nature of the process, but healing cannot be rushed. Don’t be unnecessarily hard on yourself as no one else can ever appreciate all that you have been through.

Don’t expect immediately to get back to the same levels of responsibility, work and fitness that you enjoyed before as everything will take time to regain that sense of normality. For many people, resuming working, resuming the roles you used to and getting back into the business of life as soon as possible can be a positive step which can be motivating and lead to personal satisfaction.

Looking to the future

For other survivors, time out from the pressures of life is required to be able to fully process the entirety of what has happened and to discover their best way forward.

You must be realistic in your expectations and perhaps challenge your perception of what is possible to now achieve.

Recovery will not always a straightforward and you will need a certain flexibility to overcome the challenges you face from side effects or the major changes in your life you must adapt to. No one can tell you when it is best for this to happen and only you can know deep down what is the best path and time frame which will be best for you.

By building upon small successes, achieving small goals of recovery and slowly regaining back a semblance of your previous life, your confidence will grow as your strength and happiness build.

Coping with anxiety after cancer

The build-up of stress, pain, emotional turmoil whilst living under the threat of the unknown all bring a level of anxiety to your body which needs to be attended to for you to properly heal and be able to move on. It is therefore crucial that you surround yourself by a supportive network and move on doing what you want to do, living life in the most positive way as possible.

In the period of recovery, many people initially focus upon improving their overall health and wellbeing, then try to find ways to put back the enjoyment into their lives. After cancer, a new realization and appreciation of life dawns. Discovering a newfound respect and appreciation for your body is common as you realize that your good health is not a given and cannot be taken for granted.

You now see that in order to keep well, an effort to actively live better, to look after you mind, body and soul is now required. Every aspect should be considered, from nutrition, exercise, relationships, work, stress, interests, hopes and areas of joy and fulfilment. It is important, now more than ever, to listen to your body, sleep if you need to sleep and take time out of your day just to relax.17 Rebuild your vitality by eating a supplemented, whole food diet and getting some exercise.

Focusing on healing your body from the physical scars and regain your bodily strength whilst also trying to spend time looking after your mental wellbeing will become a new essential in your life after cancer.

A life-changing new perspective after cancer

Surviving cancer not only leaves the cancer patient and their caregiver fundamentally and forever changed. It also gives them with a new perspective on life and often leads you to take a new direction in life as well.

Having experienced and lived through this traumatic illness, the way in which you see the world will have dramatically changed. Your core beliefs will even have been tested and will have undoubtedly evolved.

After cancer you may find that certain aspects of your life are toxic and need to improve. It is a time when the re-evaluation of life with relationships, work and attitudes towards health can all be re-assessed. This is your opportunity, your moment of clarity in which you have every excuse to reassess it all, to put yourself first and to listen to your needs in order to find happiness in your present moment and be able to look towards an encouraging future.

Moving on with your life after cancer

It is time now to acknowledge your past, the traumatic period of your life and look towards successfully reshaping your life, being the master of your own destiny.

The realization will also dawn that cancer is no longer an empty threat in life, this can happen, even to you. This knowledge leaves you a little more wary of all eventualities in life, a bit more vulnerable and exposed than you have ever felt before.

You now don’t want anything more to test your resilience, cancer has been enough. However, you now have a hard-earnt wealth of resilience at your disposal, to draw upon from now on. Life’s teachings have gifted you such strength beyond what you ever realized possible. Once you have had a taste of the real tests in life, the small things don’t bother you or entertain you, not much can phase you these days.

There is a freedom which comes from having everything so close to being taken away. You have been forced to take a major step back from life and examine exactly what your priorities are and what you now want from life will be more apparent. You also have be gifted the hard-earnt and well-deserved space to figure out how to move forward in your life, only now, with purpose.

Freedom after cancer

Looking back to the person you were before the trauma, the old you who was blissfully unaware of what was to come, is surreal. The truth is that you will never be that person again, but you will now life wiser and stronger than you have ever been.

You now know that in life you are not alone, things will get better and it can still be good, if not great again. Draw inspiration from all that you once were, build upon what you have gone through and find strength from the changes you have experienced and survived.

Coping with changes to your body image after cancer

Cancer not only can take away your health, time, future and trust but it can also have a damaging impact upon your confidence and body image.18 The fallout from having cancer and resulting changes to your body can often dent in your self-esteem and your self-worth.

A mastectomy, scars from surgery, hair loss, weight changes, a visible difference in your complexion, nails or teeth can leave you feeling distressed and with a loss of confidence. Lasting differences can be a constant reminder of the losses and changes cancer has brought to your life.

If you are not feeling physically or mentally well and not on top of life it is easy to neglect your appearance, some may even use this outward neglect as a form of self-protection and a way of retreating into themselves.

The changes in your body you see in the mirror may be very difficult to come to terms with, often provoking an emotional grief response, which can affect some more than others. For example, if you have placed much value and self-worth upon your body and your self-image previously to cancer, you will undoubtedly feel a significant loss.

Negativity about your body image often comes from within and you will need to work on improving your inner talk by slowly re-building your confidence focusing upon healing your body and mind long after the treatment for cancer is over. You need to be able to freely acknowledge these losses and allow yourself to be sad in order to be able to move on and feel good about yourself in the future.19

If you think that you could benefit from counselling, ask to be referred to a psychologist who deals with body image issues for support.

Body image after cancer

Dealing with the residual side effects from cancer

Your life after cancer can be altered over the long-term as a result of lasting or late side effects. All types of anti-cancer treatment such as; surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, hormone therapy and immunotherapy can relate to such lingering side effects. Many of which cannot yet be predicted when dealing with the newer therapies such as immunotherapy.20

The lasting and noticeable legacy of such effects will be on the ability to perform and function both physically and mentally21 within your family, social circle and workplace which ultimately will affect your overall quality of life as a cancer survivor.

Everyone will have a different experience of side effects and survivors will have to live with their own set of cancer-related health problems, often on top of any existing issues such as diabetes. On an individual basis, survivors will also have their own personal set of coping abilities which will help them deal with all the subsequent challenges they will face their post-cancer lives.

Typical lasting or chronic side effects amongst others may include; fatigue, pain, cognitive changes, insomnia and incontinence.

Late side effects are defined as side effects which upon the completion of treatment may not initially be visible to either the patient or the medical team, but the damage caused by either the cancer itself or the anti-cancer therapy can lie dormant only to become a problem over time.

Significant issues such as heart problems, kidney disease or a secondary cancers forming can occur a long time after your initial diagnosis. It is therefore essential that you talk to your oncologist about these possibilities.

Firstly, ask how best to prevent or delay any of these late side effects occurring through healthy lifestyle choices and secondly, how best to spot any early signs so that combative treatment can start as early as possible.

Ongoing follow-up medical care for cancer

Your ongoing medical care of regular scans, blood tests or treatment for lasting side effects could continue for several years past the completion of your treatment. The aim of these check-ups is; to manage any long-term side effects, to prevent any late side effects occurring, to be vigilant of any recurrence of your cancer or any new secondary cancers forming, and to support your healthy lifestyle and mental wellbeing going forward.22,23

The number and frequency of which will depend on many factors. You doctor will base the schedule upon how your cancer has responded to the type of treatment you had and what chronic side effects you are currently experiencing, along with considering what type and stage of your cancer you had.

In survivorship you will have continued access to your medical team for support and check-ups. Your specialist nurse will be there to contact if you need support and don’t hesitate to contact your oncologist to set your mind at ease if you are at all worried about any changes to your body you notice or challenges you have with lasting side effects.

Once treatment has finished, the initial consultations about your Follow-up Plan have occurred and your contact with your medical team has slowed down, it is an idea to reconnect with your Primary Care Doctor or GP.

Primary physician

The threat of cancer returning is ever-present, certainly as far as the eye can see. As every check-up appointment draws near, with every wait for scan results, all your feelings of anxiety and stress can surface again24 as you experience ‘scanxiety’ as a true phenomenon.

It is normal for the feelings of uncertainty and of being out of control to dominate your thoughts and linger until enough time passes and you can be confident of the likelihood of remaining in remission.

As the regular check-ups become spaced that little bit further apart, the longer you go into remission. A growing, quiet, hopeful confidence will burn in the background as life regains a semblance of normality, or at least the ‘new normal’.

As the months and years pass, you start to dare to believe that this could be it and that you have escaped and slipped the net, yet you still feel unsure of when the actual celebrations can start in your subconscious.

With cancer there are no guarantees for cure or even long-term remission but a well patient who is not suffering any symptoms has every chance of staying well. You will know your body and the new changes cancer has brought more than anyone25 and this awareness will help you to detect any possible developments.26

There can be anxiety27 surrounding any pain or even a niggle in the body and a patient recovering from cancer and its treatment can become hyper-vigilant.28 You can become very concerned about any difference in your body and find yourself constantly monitoring, scanning and checking your body.29 It is a daily reality for some that this behaviour can become frenzied as you imagine every ache and pain as threat to your life.

Instead of living in this unhealthy state of dwelling upon what you cannot control, try to make small steps towards bolstering your mental health and building your resilience by getting professional help.

Then make it your goal to improving your diet, exercise and sleep regimens which will support your recovery in every way. This focus upon your self-care will help you find a way to regain some control and hopefully improve your chances of living well for a long time after cancer.

When your life does start to move on, you can feel a certain sense of resentment having to go to follow-up checks which chain you to the past and only serve to remind you of your illness and current status. However, it is wise to not neglect scheduled follow-up visits and there will come a day when you will see the hospital as a positive place where you can seek reassurance, see familiar places and have a support network should you need help with the long-term management of any side effects.

Also, by finding out all the information you need on your individual cancer and its treatment means that you can be aware of any signs that you may want to get checked immediately. This knowledge will permit you to relax and move away from anxiety and depression, diffuse your stress and permit you to live well beyond cancer.

Researching

Living life after cancer

Cancer, whether you are clear from it or not is a huge experience to have had to endure, the mental and physical scars of which will say with you for a long time.

The easiest option is to inhabit your newfound identity, to remain embodied as the ‘cancer patient’ and to play the role everyone now expects of you. Yet, you are still alive, many are not, and you have the extended life after cancer they could only dream of.

It may have taken you a long time to accept cancer being in your life but once your treatment comes to an end however, there comes a point in anyone’s journey through any traumatic event in which you must let go and try as best you can to find the energy to move on to a new phase of life after cancer.

The inability to let things go and to ultimately move on can only hold us in an internal feeling of unsettledness, which is detrimental to not just our mental but also our physical health as well. It is therefore so important to try to take a holistic approach to your healing and not have anything hold you back from living well and having more of that good quality life you deserve.

The benefits and areas of personal growth which can come from having had cancer all depend upon the person’s individual ability to find the positive despite all the negative.

It is now time to let go of any defeatist attitudes and put one foot in front of the other with the goal of reclaiming as much life as you can. It is time to live a little, on your terms, despite cancer and all that it has put you through and move from being the ‘sufferer’ to the ‘survivor’.

Giving back to the cancer community

There will come a time, not initially, but in time, when perhaps you will feel strong enough to look beyond your own personal experience and you will want to give back to others facing the same situation.

Many survivors who have experienced a serious illness, especially those who have survived against stacked odds, discover a strong commitment to give the love and support they received back to humanity through supporting the cancer community. You have experienced the true impact cancer can have and will probably feel a continued gratitude for all the support work the charities do for people like yourself.

Modern society has placed a heavy burden upon yourselves to cope as individuals. Everyone’s lives are so full, so busy that there is little time to look beyond your day to day and your own problems to help others around you, in your community.

By donating your time and energy back to the cancer community during your life after cancer, you are able to give back more than a token gesture, your invaluable experience and knowledge can be a lifeline to those in current need of the support.30 Having had a disease which affects so many, you now have an intimate appreciation of what a cancer patient has to go through both physically and mentally.

Cancer community

Most survivors will feel a stronger connection and greater empathy for others who are currently struggling down a similar path.

Working for the benefit of others is in fact a win-win situation as helping others serves to support your own mental health as well. This so-called ‘altruism’, unselfishly using your energy to do what you feel is the right thing can help you to build inner strength.31

It also provides you with a renewed purpose and meaning to your life, which in turn not only gives you courage and resilience32 but it also boosts your sense of wellbeing, vitality33 and happiness.34

Giving back to the cancer community is something tangible that you can do for others once you and your family are through your difficult time, which can offer you a sense of comfort and pride in being there for those who have taken your place.

If you think the information on this new website would be helpful to others, please like and share the word.

Recommend to others facing cancer, on support forums, social media, in person or by email. Thank you.

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