How to Get Back to Life After Treatment

by Jane Ashley

It’s the moment that we’ve waited for and dreamed of, our treatment is done. No more chemo or radiation — we’ve recovered from surgery. Our oncologist says to us, “We’ll see you in three months.” We go to check-out, expecting to feel elated, but it suddenly hits us that no one is going to checking on us for the next three months.

Live One Day At A Time (1)

You may experience an entirely different set of emotions than you expected. Instead of turning cartwheels of joy, you might feel “let-down” or “unsettled.” After being enveloped in almost continuous care during treatment, it’s time to adjust, and this can be a scary time of transition from being the patient into being the survivor. Many of us develop close bonds with members of our treatment team, but it’s time for us to graduate and learn how to live our life again. Remember that we endured all of our chemo and radiation to avoid dying — so we may have to step out of our comfort zone to find our new normal.

Concerns we may feel after treatment is completed

The transition from patient to survivor is not easy for anyone. We have many questions and worries.

Side effects from our treatments — issues like chemo-induced peripheral neuropathy, baldness, diarrhea, weight loss or weight gain, difficulty sleeping, residual pain and coping with their body changes due to treatment (i.e., mastectomy, ostomy, artificial voice box, difficulty swallowing, sexual dysfunction).
• Will we be able to recognize symptoms of a recurrence?
• Accepting long-term side effects of treatment — including effects from radiation and chemotherapy, medications to help prevent bone loss and hormone-suppressing medications.
• Emotional concerns including fear of recurrence, self-esteem, our financial future and the possibility of leaving our loved ones behind.
• Understanding and coping with our prognosis for the future.
• Re-establishing our relationship with our primary care physician.
• Finding a deeper meaning for life.

Not every person will experience all of these concerns, but these are some of the concerns that we may might encounter.

Making plans for our future

We may lose sight during our treatment of our long term goal — the goal of treating our cancer and beating it back into a durable and long-lasting remission — that is, attaining a “No Evidence of Disease” aka NED status. We get so caught up in the side effects of treatment and the resulting anxiety and stress that many of us forget just how wonderful life is.

After treatment, it may require a few months for us to settle down and settle into our new normal. Don’t be hard on yourself. We are recovering from some of the harshest treatments of modern medicine. But recovery doesn’t mean just sitting at home and worrying about all of the “what ifs” that might pop into our heads. There are many concrete actions we can take to put ourselves on the road to full recovery.

These actions are common sense, but they make even more sense after we’ve survived cancer. We’ve learned that we need to nurture our body because we’ve seen, first-hand, that when we don’t have our health, we really can’t enjoy life.

Alcohol. Experts recommend limiting our alcohol consumption to one drink for women, and two drinks for men. If we’ve over 65, both men and women should only have one drink daily. There are some health benefits from moderate alcohol consumption (in particular, red wine), it’s best to limit our consumption to just one drink a day.

Exercise. Exercise is an under-appreciated activity. Many studies demonstrate that exercise increases survival after cancer. Even more important, exercise greatly improves our quality of life. We’ve often tired, stiff and suffer from insomnia after cancer treatment. We might even be a grumpy and irritable. Exercise has “universal” advantages. Start slowly. Walking is a perfect exercise, and it’s free. Gym memberships are more affordable from ever. If we’ve over 65, Medicare pays for Silver Sneakers, a “Get Moving” cardio exercise program available throughout the United States. The American Cancer Society recommends 150 minutes of moderate exercise every week. Here are just a few of the benefits to exercise:

Increased stamina.
• Rebuilds strength and muscle tone.
• Reduces stress and anxiety.
• Improves mood.
• Reduces depression.
• Loosens tight muscles.
• Increases ability to do our favorite hobbies.

Food. Small changes made over time produce new eating habits. Drink water or black coffee instead of sodas. Learn to say NO to deep-fried food. Eat more chicken and fish and less red meat (pork counts as red meat-it’s not the other white meat). Eat more salad and vegetables. Add fruit to your daily breakfast. Swap out rich dessert and eat melon instead. Try whole-grain breads; they add fiber, taste good and metabolize more slowly. Eat five half-cup servings of vegetables and/or fruits daily. Gradually cut out junk food, but don’t have a guilt trip if you splurge occasionally. These dietary changes will help you lose weight gradually. If you’re underweight after cancer treatment, consult with an oncology nutritionist to learn how to regain weight back up to a normal BMI (Body Mass Index).

Sleep. Sometimes, there are nights when sleep won’t come. Quality sleep helps our bodies recover. Many cancer survivors have insomnia. 

When Sleep Wont Come (1)

Anxiety and fear of recurrence are contributing factors — exercise helps many people sleep better. Here are some other tips that may help us:

Don’t drink caffeine with 8 hours of your regular bedtime.
• Avoid excessive alcohol consumption. Although it initially helps one fall asleep, inevitably, it causes us to wake up at 2 am and not be able to fall asleep again.
• Avoid watching TV or computer time for at least an hour before going to bed. A warm shower or soak in the tub is ideal for falling asleep. Reading is another good before-bedtime activity.
• Don’t exercise without 2-3 hours of your regular bedtime.

Stress. Stress reduces our quality of life. We, as cancer survivors, have physical and emotional factors that produce stress — fear of recurrence, the financial toxicity of treatments, questions about working in the future, physical consequences of treatment — so we’ll have stress. Here are some tips to help manage stress.

Cancer support groups.
• Counseling.
• Exercise.
• Hobbies and sports.
• Medications for depression or anxiety.
• Relaxation techniques, like mindfulness or meditation.
• Social network of friends and co-workers.

Make New Friends

Tobacco. The evidence is clear. Smoking increases our risk of recurrence and puts us at risk to develop a secondary cancer. There are lots of resources to help you quit; ask your doctor for help in beating this habit.
Weight. Start with small changes. It’s not necessary to accomplish all of these lifestyle changes at once. The transition to a healthier lifestyle may take 18 months or two years, but the reward is feeling energetic, strong and able to handle whatever life throws you. Little changes over time become lifelong habits.

So WhatNext?

It’s up to each of us. We’ve played the hand we were dealt, and we’ve completed our treatment. It’s now up to us as to what we’re going to do with our life. We, as survivors, aren’t victims. We did what we had to do to survive our cancer experience. We have the power to take charge and improve our physical and emotional health so that we can enjoy our life once again.

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