I Survived. Now What?

As defined by the National Cancer Institute, a cancer survivor is “anyone who has been diagnosed with cancer, from the time of diagnosis through the rest of his or her life. Family members, friends, and caregivers are also part of the survivorship experience.” If you have survived cancer, battling the illness consumed your life for a very long time. All of your energy and time was funneled into beating this disease, and perhaps you didn’t consider what you would do once you had fought off the cancer. Adjusting to life after cancer can be a challenging time. You must not only learn to adjust to a post-cancer body, but also find ways to cope with the different emotions that accompany cancer recovery.

“Cancer Free” are the two words you have waited months, and perhaps years, to hear your doctor say. However, at this moment, overwhelming joy is often coupled with a fear that the cancer will someday return. Learning to cope with these conflicting emotions is another step in your battle with cancer. According to the National Cancer Institute, developing a solid relationship with your primary care physician, and getting involved with your medical care, can help to gain back some of the control you may have lost during treatment. Follow-up care for 3-5 years after ending treatment is important, not only to monitor for recurrence, but also to answer any questions and alleviate any fears that you may have. Doctors may also recommend counseling services to further aid in your recovery.

Cancer treatment is rigorous and you may have noticed that it has left a lasting impression on your body. Fatigue is one of the most common side effects from treatment, and it is possible you may feel fatigued up to one year after stopping treatment. Making a daily schedule, resting between activities, maintaining a regulated sleep pattern, and most importantly, letting others help, can allow you to cope with chronic fatigue. Also, many studies have confirmed the importance of some form of regular exercise. This is key not only during treatment, but after as well. Symptoms of fatigue will not disappear instantly, but you will notice that they gradually diminish over time.

In addition to fatigue, you may experience memory and concentration issues, impaired organ function, infertility, swelling, or incontinence. You may have scarring, skin changes, or weight changes that you don’t want others to see. It is important that you talk to your doctor and formulate a care plan to manage any of these conditions you may be experiencing.

In addition to your physical needs, you also have post-treatment emotional needs. Taking care of your emotional health is just as important at taking care of your physical health. Feelings of frustration, anger and grief are normal. Initially, worry that the cancer will come back can be overwhelming. You need to know that this is completely normal, and these feelings of dread will subside as time goes by. However, if your feelings of fear, anger, and sadness do not subside, and interfere with your daily activities, you may be experiencing clinical depression. Many survivors get help with depression through therapy and talking with others who have gone through cancer treatment as well. Talking with your doctor will help determine if you are clinically depressed.

The most important thing to keep in mind during your recovery is that you battled cancer and won. Finding your “new normal” will be a challenge, but you may find that your life has a deeper and more profound meaning. The end of treatment can be used as a time to look forward to the future and evaluate your “new” life. Though you would not have chosen it for yourself, you have been on a life altering journey. Take time after your treatment to celebrate the ending of this journey and focus on the incredible feat you have accomplished.


“Facing Forward: Life After Cancer Treatment. National Cancer Institute.July, 2010. Web. http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/coping/life-after-treatment.pdf

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