Emotions You May Experience After Treatment Ends

by Jane Ashley

Most of us expect to feel jubilant and overjoyed when our treatment ends. But many of us find that it’s not that easy to transition back into “normal” life. People who haven’t experienced cancer firsthand, either as a patient or caregiver, don’t realize that just because we’re not taking medications does not mean that our cancer care is over.

Feeling Lonely

Cancer survivors have a “new normal.” We are cautiously optimistic while acknowledging our fear of recurrence. Our values may change – we may isolate ourselves from others as we contemplate our diagnosis, our treatment, and our outcome.

We find ourselves walking a tightrope – feeling like we’ve been left hanging – we miss our medical team despite the fact that we’re glad that we’re done with cancer.

We may find that trivial activities no longer are pleasurable. Depression might sneak up on us. We might experience survivor’s guilt. All of these common feelings/emotions after our cancer treatment has ended may contribute to a feeling of empty loneliness.

Are these feelings normal?

Absolutely. We, as cancer patients, face one of the most daunting diagnoses known to mankind. The treatment is extended; the side effects from treatment are sometimes worse than the symptoms that lead us to diagnosis. Our outcome is not guaranteed – treatment takes a financial and emotional toll on both the patient and their family.

During treatment, we had a whirlwind of medical appointments. Our chemo and radiation nurses looked after us. They brought us coffee or hot tea and even a snack. Everyone in the facility acknowledged us with a smile. We had regular blood work, physical exams and scans to ensure that our treatment was working and that our bodies were sufficiently healthy to have our next chemo.

Our neighbor may have organized a Meal Train for us. Our friends and co-workers called or texted us. Our caregivers went beyond what might have been considered reasonable to take care of us.

Then – POOF! Our treatment is over, but we’re not over our treatment.

Where do we go from here? How do we get there?

We might experience “Sudden Braking Syndrome.” There isn’t really anything that is called “Sudden Braking Syndrome,” but, in my opinion, this is what happens to many cancer patients when they finish treatment. We don’t get a chance to wind down out of treatment – we finish the last chemo or the last radiation treatment or recover from surgery, and our medical team says, “We’ll see you in three months!”

These first three months are often difficult for patients. We are not like a windup toy with new batteries – we can’t just hit the “ON switch” and morph back into who we were before cancer. Our bodies need a few months to recover, and our inner self-needs time to absorb the enormity of what has just happened.

A New Outfit

How do we recover physically?

Here are a few effective ways to regain your strength and stamina.

• Many insurance companies offer six weeks of physical therapy to cancer patients. Be sure to call your carrier and ask if they provide help so that you can regain your strength and balance. We underestimate how much our balance has been effected – we may be prone to falling.

• Ask if you can start working part-time to ease your way back into the daily grind.

• Enroll in an exercise program. Yes – an exercise program. Our bodies are stiff from hours of sitting. We may have gained weight from being given steroids. Ask your cancer center if there is an exercise program that they recommend. The LIVE STRONG program at over 700 YMCAs is designed just for cancer patients. If you live in a rural area, start walking every day.

• Try on your clothes and donate those that don’t fit. Many of us suffer body image issues after cancer treatment. If you’re financially able, invest in a couple of new outfits that fit well. Your self-esteem will soar. If finances are tight, shop at thrift stores – Goodwill and the Salvation Army store has some great deals.

How do we find the “New Me?”

Be assured that you are still here … but there just might be a “new and improved” you. Many of us discover that we have been forever changed. We are still who we always were, but we are kinder, gentler, more patient and more tolerant because we’ve seen the other side of the story.

• We’re now the one with a “pre-existing condition” that is sparking so much discord in the United States.

• We understand now why people say that they can’t pay their copays, even with insurance.

• We know that we will never take good health for granted again.

• We’ve seen the face of despair, up close and personal. They sat in the chemo chair beside us.

• Fear of recurrence is real for each of us, and it doesn’t go away. Our friends and even our family just can’t understand what living with that is like.

Volunteer Salvation Army Band

How can anyone expect us to just bounce back to normal life after this life-altering experience? Part of the isolation/loneliness that we feel is self-imposed. Subconsciously, we might be pulling back a bit from our friends and family as we struggle to re-enter life without cancer treatment. Your friends and family might not know exactly what to say to you now either. It’s a slippery slope for both family and family/friends.

Don’t try to go this alone. There are lots of options to help us sort out our emotions.

• Join a local support group.

• Ask your oncologist to refer you to a therapist for a few sessions.

• Join an online support group.

• Volunteer – the holidays are coming up. The Salvation Army needs bell ringers.

• Join a local walking group.

• Be kind and patient with yourself. Allow sufficient time to process the ordeal you’ve just experienced.

We've all heard the saying, “Time heals all wounds. ” Unfortunately, that’s not completely true. Time won’t replace a spouse who has died. But as time elapses after our treatment is done, we’ll look back and see that we were strong enough and brave enough, and we’ll respect ourselves as our “new and improved” version.

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