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After Cancer Treatment

Amy Johnson, Phd
by Amy Johnson, Ph.D.

After Treatment

Many people with cancer, as well as their friends and family members, eagerly anticipate the day of their last treatment, celebrating with a party or a dinner on that last day. The celebration is often short lived, because, for the patient, the joy they expect is not there, and relief of treatment completion is quickly joined by feelings of fear and anxiety.

So – what is “normal”?
It is normal to realize that going to the doctor every few days was tension-relieving (despite the inconvenience) especially when factoring in the friendly, encouraging, and helpful interactions with office staff and nurses. Something about knowing a strong medicine was being infused or radiation beams being targeted to destroy cancer cells to actively fight the cancer, was comforting. But now the questions linger: Will the cancer start growing again without treatment? Will the doctor find it in time if it recurs? What should I be doing, am I doing enough to prevent or detect recurrence?

Expectation of the timeframe for recovery is often unrealistic. Anticipation of being back to normal as soon as treatment is completed may lead to disappointment, anger, blame, or self-doubt. In addition to the toll that treatment itself places on the body, a common side effect of many drug treatments is fatigue. Increasing strength and stamina may take months; regaining appetite, increasing daily activity and uninterrupted sound sleep will all contribute to the progress. Upon reflection, many survivors report times of progress coupled with times of set-back. It is very common to take about a year to feel completely recovered.

How to live as a successful survivor?
Coping with changes and making the necessary adjustments of living as a long-term survivor will occur within a few weeks of the end of treatment. It may be helpful to keep a journal, make note of any concerning symptoms, attend support groups with long-term survivors. The stories and the connections in these groups with those of similar experiences may be very helpful. Treat yourself gently and pay attention to what your body needs. If you need to rest, then do so. It is important to begin exercising or being physically active in a very gradual way. Your muscles may have weakened throughout the time of treatment and inactivity. They need to be strengthened gradually to avoid the damage of too much too quick that may delay your overall recovery or affect your long-term quality of life.

Accept that recovery may take longer than hoped. Remember that survivorship is a process and ending treatment is a phase of that process. For extra support or ideas for coping, contact a psychologist who specializes in working with people who have experienced cancer – they can help you and your family with the survivorship journey.