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How to cope with life after cancer treatment



Once cancer treatment ends you enter a new phase - sometimes described as the ‘survivorship’ stage. The changes that come with finishing up with treatment can bring up a whole range of emotions. 

You may feel relieved that treatment is over; excited for a ‘life after cancer’; grateful and determined to get the most out of life. You might also feel exhausted; anxious about what comes next; concerned about changes in your appearance; or frustrated about the impacts of treatment on your life. There are numerous other ways to feel, everyone is unique - and you may find there are many different layers to what you are thinking and feeling too. 

There may be an expectation that things will just go back to ‘normal’, that once out of treatment officially you’ll be ready to reembrace life. Often life after cancer treatment can take time to adjust to. Not only are you adjusting emotionally, but you are also adjusting physically to the significant medical treatment your body might have gone through. This can be frustrating. Being kind and patient with yourself, and taking things one step at a time, can be a tricky part of this phase. 

Coping with loss 

Learning to cope with losses is part of the process of getting back to ‘normal’. Acknowledging the things you have lost, and allowing yourself to grieve for them is an important component of coping with loss. 

Some losses, like hair or a body part, can be tough to deal with because they are the most visible to yourself and others. But you can also feel grief for the loss of ‘invisible’ but important things like: 

- Time spent away from your regular life, and opportunities you missed. 

- Experiences, like missing your year 12 formal, or a major exam. 

- Relationships and friendships. 

- A sense of identity – perhaps because you look different, or just feel less sure of yourself after everything that has happened. It can take time to figure out a new identity; and while you’re working on it you might feel a bit lost. 

- Independence – loss of mobility, being unable to do certain things on your own, having to rely on family for help, or just not being able to do things like travel or play sport. It could also be the loss of a job or financial independence. 

- Dreams you had for the future that might have shifted or changed 

- Your role in the family, or your circle of friends, or your romantic relationship may have changed.  

- While we often think of routines being boring, they’re comfortable because they give our lives structure – losing routine (even the routine you were used to with treatment) can be a loss too. You may have spent so long in hospital that you’ve become used to the security of it - surrounded by other people with cancer, and nurses and medical staff to care for you 24/7. 

Adjusting to life post cancer treatment will often involve acknowledging these losses; moving through the changes slowly; and then finding ways to make new meaning. You can’t substitute the things you’ve lost, but you may find you can make meaning and find comfort in new and different things. You might also find that what was important before treatment has changed significantly for you after treatment, and it can take time to understand these changes. 

For example, you may have missed out on starting uni with all your mates; but if you start uni later on, you can maybe feel a different type of success from achieving a goal despite the challenges. Or you may find a new pathway outside of uni that you had never imagined before. 

Some cancer survivors may feel guilty that they survived while other people with cancer didn’t. This ‘survivor guilt’ can be especially hard for young people, particularly if you formed strong friendships or connections with people in hospital or through support groups who have died. 

If you are experiencing any of these feelings, it can be really helpful to talk to your nurse, social worker or a counsellor here on Connect. 

Settling in at home 

Sometimes people may expect that once they return home, everything will go back to how it once was – and while there will be some familiar comforts, of course, so much has also changed. You might have to rely on others in new ways to help you get things done, which can be frustrating if you were previously quite independent or haven’t had to ask for help in this way before. Even when you’re surrounded by others, you might feel isolated by having a different experience to others who are at a similar age to you.  

It’s okay to take your time, ask for help, and also to need space to rest and work through the many adjustments. Try to be patient and honest with the people you share your space with, and talk to them about your feelings and needs.  

There are lots of ways to reach out to support if you’re feeling overwhelmed by this new space – including here on Connect, or by getting in touch here:  

Canteen Australia: You can refer someone here or visit Cancer Hub

Canteen Aotearoa: You can refer someone here

 By Tom B, Online Counsellor, Canteen Australia