Coping with your feelings after treatment finishes
It's common for people to feel excited and anxious when treatment finishes. During your cancer treatment it may have been hard to imagine that it would come to an end. You and your family may have focused on just getting through each day: getting to hospital appointments on time, having tests and dealing with side effects of treatment. You may have coped with many emotions and not thought much about life after treatment.
"It took me a long time to feel more like myself." Anne
Common feelings and questions
You may have thought life would return to normal once treatment was over. For many people who finish their cancer treatment, it isn't that simple. You may no longer feel as unwell as you did during treatment but you might not feel that great either. Knowing what to expect after treatment can help you and your family.
"As soon as the treatment finished, that was more of a shock. All of a sudden you're on your own. Having spoken to quite a few other people, they felt the same. Not that people have left you: I could call on anyone, I could call on the hospital, I could call on my doctors — but it wasn't the same, there wasn't active treatment going on." Patricia
Most people go through a mixture of good and bad feelings after their treatment is over. Perhaps you feel relief and happiness that you have made it this far and your treatment seems to have been successful. But it isn't uncommon to feel unsure during the first few months. You no longer have regular attention and support from your nurses and doctors. Even if they have told you to call them if you are worried, you might not want to do that. Your family and friends may not visit or call you as much. You may get the feeling that the people around you are assuming that you are doing okay. Many people who have had cancer say they can feel very lonely and angry about this. But, at the same time, you may think that you should be able to cope, now your cancer has gone. It can become confusing.
After completing treatment, it is normal to have concerns about your future and how you will cope. Like many people after cancer, you may feel:
- uncertain, not daring to believe that your treatment really has worked. Has the cancer really gone? How can you be sure? Will the cancer come back?
- in limbo and unsure how to start your life again or even if it is what you want right now: nothing feels secure or stable
- anxious about how you will be followed up: What tests will you need? How often will you have a check-up?
- worried about possible long-term side effects and how these may affect your work, social life and relationships
- lacking in confidence: How will you cope with the changes in your body image and sexuality that your cancer and its treatment may have caused?
- you don't trust your body like you used to.
Some people feel they need to make huge changes in their life. Others are happy with the way things were before their cancer diagnosis. This is okay. You don't have to make life changes.
"[Following treatment] I felt very scared in a lot of ways, very nervous about what the future held for me." Kerry
Understanding your feelings
Some people adjust fairly quickly after their treatment finishes. But for many people their problems and fears won't just go away. You may need a lot of love and support: maybe even more than you did during your treatment.
"Every day brings a new challenge. I think it's been both a curse and a blessing, when I look back on it." Neil
Be kind to yourself during this time. Don't expect to feel great about everything. Go slowly so you can come to terms with all you have been through.
You may have days when you feel very down. Other days you may feel angry, fearful or frustrated. This is okay. Try to 'listen' to your feelings and accept them as they happen. It is better not to ignore negative thoughts. Most people who have had cancer say that they do feel better with time. But it usually doesn't happen overnight. Also, don't be surprised if, some time after your treatment (sometimes a few years), you have periods of feeling down. This is not uncommon.
Friends and colleagues may keep advising you to 'think positively'. This is very difficult when you are dealing with what has happened and how your life has changed. There is no scientific evidence that 'being positive' has any effect on surviving cancer although many people who have had cancer say that being positive helped them to cope through their illness.
If family and friends think you should be doing more and feeling happier, let them know that you still have a lot to deal with. You may get sick of others telling you that you look so well. It's normal to feel like this. Remember, go at your own pace.
If you feel very low for long periods of time, see your doctor (GP). You may have depression. This is different from the sadness and low moods many people have soon after their treatment. There is more about depression and its symptoms in the section ‘Side effects of cancer treatment'.
Similarly, if you are experiencing ongoing health issues, it is important to speak to your doctor (GP). For more about long-term side effects see ‘Side effects of cancer treatment’.
If you don't feel like talking to those close to you about your feelings, there are several other services and people you can contact. These include:
- your GP and practice nurse
- experienced cancer nurses on the Cancer Information Helpline 0800 CANCER (226 237)
- a counsellor or a counselling service in your area (ask your local Cancer Society)
- Cancer Connect NZ arranges telephone peer support calls for people living with cancer and their caregivers. Call the Cancer Information Helpline 0800 CANCER (226 237) for more information
- Cancer Chat (www.cancerchatnz.org.nz) is an online support and information forum to join.
"People did shy away from it. I had to look after everyone else's emotions." Mike
As well as talking to others about how you feel there are other things you can do for yourself. For example, try:
- being active and getting daily exercise (like walking) to help improve your mood
- eating a balanced, nutritious diet (see the section “What I can do to help myself” for more information)
- to stop or limit alcohol
- some form of relaxation, such as meditation, visualisation, yoga, massage or deep breathing
- reading about other people's experiences
- writing about your feelings in a journal or blogging or using Facebook.