Living Well After Treatment
People are surviving cancer and living longer than ever before. Cancer survivors can often get back to their regular routines and activities within months, even weeks, after treatment has ended. However, surviving cancer can bring new challenges.
Although the end of cancer treatment is something to celebrate, it can bring conflicting emotions. After treatment ends, it might seem like that support ends with it. Some people feel anxious about how long it’s taking to heal and recover, or worry that cancer will return.
You’ll probably be ready to get back to normal, to the life you had before your cancer diagnosis. But most say that "normal" isn’t the same as before. They see life and relationships in a new light, and things continue to change throughout recovery.
After treatment has ended, your doctor will recommend a plan for follow-up care that includes cancer screenings, lab tests, and office visits. Your follow-up care depends on the type of cancer and type of treatment you had, along with your overall health. Keeping your follow-up appointments is an important way to help ensure that your body continues to heal.
Managing long-term and late effects: Cancer survivors can have both long-term and late effects from cancer treatment. Long-term effects can be medical problems that go on for months and even years after treatment ends. A late effect is a side effect that may happen years after cancer treatment has ended.
Long-term and late effects can include infertility, impotence, and heart problems. These effects can have an impact emotionally as well as physically. Continue to get follow-up care so your doctor can find and treat any conditions that develop.
Returning to Work
Now that your treatment is behind you, you might be ready to get back to what you were doing before your diagnosis.
If you’ve been off from work, you might decide to return at reduced hours, or consider a new job. If you hired help for your at-home business or your household, you might still need some help.
Be honest with yourself and others. Think about what’s realistic for you, considering your health, energy level, and finances. Re-evaluate the situation as your recovery continues.
After treatment, patients often go into remission, with no signs or symptoms of cancer. Remission may last your whole life, or you may have a recurrence — when cancer comes back.
If cancer does return, it can come back in the same place as before, or it can show up in another place in the body. The risk of your having cancer again can depend on the type and stage of the original cancer. It’s natural for people in remission to worry that their cancer will return.
A cancer recurrence often causes strong emotions, including anger and fear. Sometimes people feel like they don’t have the strength or resources to deal with treatment again.
If this happens, you can reach out to the supports you relied upon during your first diagnosis. You can also use the techniques that helped you deal with stress and difficult emotions. The knowledge you have about the treatment process can help guide you in making decisions.
By making lifestyle changes, you can help lower the chance of certain cancers returning. Getting regular follow-up care can help identify a cancer recurrence early so treatment can begin right away.
Make sure you know the signs of recurrence and let your care team know if any appear. If needed, your care team can follow up with exams or tests to see if there’s a reason for concern.
Feeling Good About Yourself
Although treatment is over, you might still be dealing with emotional and physical changes from having had cancer.
These changes — whether they’re short lived or long term — may affect how you think of yourself and interact with others. While these changes may be uncomfortable, many people also find this an opportunity to appreciate themselves and their lives.
Creating a positive self-image: Cancer may change how a person looks or even sounds. Many people feel self-conscious or shy around others because of these changes. If you’re hesitant to interact with others because of this, take a moment to remember that how you look or sound is only part of who you are. Think about the things you value about yourself. Try writing down all the things that you do well and that make you interesting and unique. By focusing on your strengths and talents you can recover the positive sense of who you are.
Dealing with sexual problems: Cancer and cancer treatment can affect a person’s sexuality, though treatment options can help. Sexual problems can include the loss of desire, inability to get or stay sexually aroused, difficulty reaching an orgasm or with erection, and pain during sexual intercourse. It’s important to talk to your care team about any sexual problems you have. They can help diagnose sexual problems and recommend treatment options.
Seeking support: Continue seeking support from people who helped you during treatment — your family, friends, a therapist, or support group. Let them know how they can support you in your recovery.
Some people decide to start individual or family therapy at this time. Couples counseling can be useful if you’re struggling with connection, intimacy and/or sex after treatment.
Connecting with friends and family: While you were going through treatment, your relationships with friends and family might have changed. If some relationships were strained when you were going through treatment, you might reconnect now and let these people know they’re still important to you. If you’re comfortable talking about your diagnosis and treatment, let them know what you went through and how you’re doing now.
Watching for signs of depression: If you have feelings that are different than temporary feelings of anxiety or stress, last more than two weeks, or affect your ability to function normally, contact Behavioral Health Services.
Following Healthy Routines
Exercise and eating healthy are cornerstones to feeling better, both physically and mentally.
Be Active. Exercise can help you regain strength, flexibility, and balance. It can help you overcome fatigue, stress, and anxiety. You’ll sleep better and have a more positive outlook. It can be hard to get back into the swing of exercise, especially if you’re battling fatigue. Start out slowly and gradually increase as you’re ready. Consider making a weekly action plan (PDF) to help you reach your goals. Talk to your care team about the kinds of exercise, sports, or other physical activity you enjoy.
Eat Smart. A healthy eating plan is especially important for people recovering from cancer. You might get all kinds of advice about food, vitamins, and supplements. Before trying a plan that is different than general healthy eating guidelines, talk with your doctor or make an appointment to talk with a Group Health dietician. You can also ask your doctor for a referral to a nutritionist.
Complementary and Alternative Medicine
Talk with your cancer doctor about any complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) you may be using or are considering. It’s also important to let your doctor know about any vitamins, herbs, or supplements you’re taking, or if you’re following a special diet. Your Group Health coverage may include discounts for CAM. But always talk first with your doctor about other approaches you may want to try.