There are many definitions of a cancer survivor but most agree that an individual is considered a cancer survivor from the time of diagnosis through the balance of his or her life.
Life is different after cancer. Yes, there’s the relief of no more cancer treatments, but there’s also the discovery of new challenges that cancer survivorship can bring. These challenges are often referred to as adjusting to a “new normal.”
For many cancer survivors, this new normal takes some getting used to. For starters, you may be filled with thoughts of uncertainty about the future and experiencing a wide range of emotions you’re not used to dealing with. You may find that you need to negotiate roles with families, friends and employers, making lifestyle modifications and coping with fluctuating emotions. At the same time, you may be recognizing that life has a different meaning now that you’re moving past the cancer treatment phase.
The challenge isn’t so much getting back to the way things were before receiving a cancer diagnosis. Rather it’s about figuring out what is normal for you now that you’re done with cancer treatment.
This type of adjustment is unique for each survivor. Whatever your new normal may be, remember that it’s okay to take time for yourself until you’ve become comfortable with the changes. Take it one day at a time.
Your new normal may include:
- A change in diet and physical activity
- New or different sources of support
- Accepting body changes caused by cancer treatment
- Limited ability to do things as easily as you used to - fatigue is one of the most common, lasting side effects of cancer treatment
- Emotional turmoil and anxiety based on what you’ve been through and concern for what could happen
Your cancer care team is still here for you during this transition, so be sure to talk openly with them about any struggles or concerns you have. They will be able to provide you with tips on how to cope or refer you to other sources of support.
Dealing with Fear of Cancer Reoccurrence
While a variety of emotions present themselves after cancer treatment, the most common one among survivors is probably the fear that the cancer will come back (cancer reoccurrence). This is a completely normal emotional reaction and one that usually lessens over time. Still, the fear is real and often takes time to cope with it.
Some important steps you can take to help lessen the fear of cancer reoccurrence may include:
- Identifying your triggers. Lingering symptoms, follow-up visits, the illness of a loved one, or a cancerversary® are some of the things that can stir up old worries and concerns that had once subsided. Learn what your triggers are and then create a plan to help you cope. This might include scheduling activities to distract you from certain triggers or simply reaching out to a loved one for emotional support.
- Talking with your cancer care team. Your healthcare team can be a valuable tool when it comes to managing your fear of cancer reoccurrence. Ask them questions about your type of cancer and signs to look for. Knowing this can help calm your concerns and allow you to move forward.
- Talking with a professional counselor. If you can’t seem to gain control over your thoughts, talking with a counselor can be helpful, especially if your fears interfere with your daily life.
- Getting a follow-up care plan put in place. All cancer survivors should have follow-up care. Meet with one of your cancer care specialists to discuss a specific follow-up plan and actions that you can take at home to begin to adjust to your new normal. Knowing what to expect after treatment can help give you a sense of control in regards to your health.
- Cancer Screening Recommendations. It is imperative that survivors continue to follow cancer screening recommendations, practice healthy habits, and meet regularly with their primary care physician.
- Taking care of your mind and body. Focusing on your overall wellness is an important part of managing stress effectively. Exercising, eating healthy foods, journaling, volunteering, socializing with family and friends, and prayer and/or meditation are all effective techniques that can help ease your anxieties.
Dealing with Physical Changes
Some cancer survivors may have physical changes to cope with once treatment is done, which may include changes to the way you look, feel, and perform regular activities. Depending on the type of treatment given, some changes may be temporary, while others are permanent. Some treatments have no lingering effect at all.
Common physical changes that cancer survivors experience after treatment may include:
- Bone, nerve, and/or soft tissue pain that is typically caused by the tumor pressing on these areas (sometimes pain is due to cancer treatment)
- Memory and concentration changes (sometimes known as “chemo brain”)
- Nervous system changes (neuropathy) that causes tingling or numbness, especially in the hands and feet
- Mouth or teeth problems
- Changes in sexual drive
- Changes in weight or eating habits
- Menopause symptoms
- Bladder or bowel control problems
It is important to remember that you may experience changes that are very different from someone else, and that adjusting to the effects of cancer treatment takes time. If you have questions or concerns about any of the changes in your body, be sure to talk with your oncologist or oncology nurse.