Life after cancer treatment
Delores, cancer survivor: “Your last day of treatment is a day to celebrate! When treatment is over it can be difficult sometimes to get back to your normal pre-cancer life. The diagnosis of cancer dominates your life for so long, when treatment is over it takes a while to get back into your regular routine. I think I find my anniversary of being diagnosed a time of mixed emotions. You are thrilled to have made it another year of being cancer-free, yet you are also reminded of the anguish you went through.”
When treatment ends, people begin a new chapter in their lives, one that can bring hope, happiness, and maybe fear. The fear of cancer coming back is common among cancer survivors and can sometimes be quite intense.
Delores, cancer survivor: “The most difficult thing for me as a survivor is having a ‘history.’ Any aches or pains I have result in numerous tests. I am a runner and I was having pain in my hip. I went to the doctor and after a couple of appointments I had a bone scan followed by an MRI. I was very fortunate that it was not cancer and I just needed a new pair of shoes!”
Follow-up appointments with your doctor and anniversaries of your cancer diagnosis can bring mixed emotions.
Kay, cancer survivor: “I have regular follow-up tests to be sure that I’m cancer-free, which gives me peace of mind. Even though my dermatologist tells me that she would be comfortable checking me out every 6 months or even annually, she was also very agreeable to seeing me every 3 months at my request—for my own comfort level. I admit that for the first few years, every time my anniversary came around my anxiety level increased, mostly because I went through a battery of tests. To help me through this, I always had someone go with me to the tests. However, the anniversary of my diagnosis is not a special date to be recognized or feared any more. I feel fortunate to be a survivor of many years and I’m grateful for each morning I awake and am able to get out of bed.”
Returning to everyday life
Each person with cancer looks forward to getting back to a more normal life, but the process can be challenging. Everyone deals with these challenges in their own way.
Kay, cancer survivor: “Getting back to the normal activities of life, especially playing sports, was the greatest therapy for me. When I was diagnosed, I just wanted to get the operation and treatment behind me so that I could get on with my life. Although I never dwell on my situation or the possible outcomes, the reality that this disease could come and take me at any time is always present. I can’t keep myself from thinking these thoughts. Still, I do make a conscious effort to think positive, make plans for the future, make sure to have regular follow-up testing for early detection, eat a healthy diet, and get regular exercise.”
Relationships outside the family
Cancer can change the pattern of relationships outside the family as well as those within. Friends may not keep in touch for a variety of reasons. They may not know how to respond to a change in how you look or may avoid you so they don’t have to think about the possibility of your death or be reminded that we all must die someday. Your cancer may also bring back memories of a loss or death they had in the past. Some people may shy away from you and not know how to talk to you.
Still, the fact that your friends don’t know how to talk to you right now doesn’t lessen the hurt and frustration of being isolated or singled out. Some people may say things that sound insincere, trite, or hurtful. Remind yourself that they are probably trying their best. If you are open to talking about your experience with cancer, they may relax too.
If your career is an important part of your life, going back to work as soon as you are physically able is one way to return stability to your life. If treatment has made you unable to go back to your previous job, look into rehabilitation and retraining programs in your community.
When you do go back to work you may find that your relationships with your co-workers have changed. You may feel “back to your old self,” but they may not be as comfortable around you as they were before. Some may act like you didn’t have cancer, and not talk about that part of your life. Or, they may see that you look well and are able to function and underestimate the seriousness of what you’ve been through. Co-workers may be unsure of what to do or say or may try to protect your feelings. For more information on this topic, please see our document called When Someone You Work With Has Cancer.
Questions about future employment and health insurance may also come up. There are resources available to help answer these questions. Organizations like the Job Accommodation Network, the National Coalition for Cancer Survivorship, and the Patient Advocate Foundation provide much-needed resources for cancer survivors.
If you feel you have been discriminated against, either on the job or in dealing with insurance, find out about state laws where you live and the Americans with Disabilities Act. Many people are able to keep their jobs during cancer treatment through the provisions of this law. Others may need help with time off from work, which the Family and Medical Leave Act can make easier for some people.
See the “To learn more” section to get more information, as well as phone numbers and Web site addresses for these organizations and others that offer valuable services for people affected by cancer.
Today cancer is not a death sentence. Cure rates continue to improve as new medicines and treatments are discovered. Some types of cancer have better prognoses (outlooks) than others, but overall, people with cancer are living longer.
Doctors cannot predict how long a person will live. They can only make an educated guess based on what they have seen in other patients in similar situations. Even when a person’s outlook is poor, encouraging test results, new research discoveries, and treatments that can control the disease can give hope. If a loved one has cancer, your continued love and support can also provide hope.
Regardless of the prognosis, this time is a chance to do things you’ve always wanted to do and spend quality time with family and friends.
Kay, cancer survivor: “My children have been my greatest motivation for staying healthy. I think they are more compassionate and sensitive individuals from having to deal with my cancer. I pray that they have learned to take care of their own health and take preventive actions to ensure their own survival. I am a 13-year survivor of breast cancer …. I’ve had doctors tell me how lucky I am to be alive, considering how extensive my cancer was. I have to admit that my immediate thought was that I was going to die—and soon. I would like every person who hears this dreaded information to know that they don’t have to be a statistic. Just because the statistics say something, there are always exceptions. I’ve also had basal, squamous, and melanoma skin cancers and cervical cancer. I’m still here to watch my children grow, and I plan on seeing my 6 year-old have children of his own.”
Keep the focus on what you can do rather than what you can’t. Lead an active life and have a sense of purpose. These things help most people cope with cancer. It’s not always possible to do things you did in the past, but there are usually ways to make each day count.
Cheng, cancer survivor: “Always carry a good laugh inside, as humor is the foundation for successfully facing life’s challenges. Funny things do happen in the most desperate circumstances. We just have to take the blinders off. Of course this does not mean that cancer is a laugh-a-minute experience because it certainly is not. We just need to be receptive to all parts of our life and not only the bad.”
Last Medical Review: 07/18/2012
Last Revised: 07/18/2012