After you finish cancer treatment, your friends and family might expect you to get back to your old self. They probably don’t realize the cancer experience can still affect you. Instead of feeling excited or happy, you might feel blue, anxious, let down, or even scared.
Those feelings are normal. Just because the doctor says you’re cured or in remission doesn’t mean the stress of having cancer suddenly goes away. Dealing with a life-threatening illness can change the way you feel and how you approach life, even after you’re in remission.
But there’s a lot you can do to make the transition from a person with cancer to survivor -- and feel good again.
Know What to Look For
You could feel:
Sad most days, or all the time. You might even feel like you don’t want to be alive.
Guilty that you survived when others haven’t
Afraid your cancer will return -- so much so that it’s hard to enjoy your life
Worried that your cancer will have negative effects on your relationships, finances, or other areas of your life
Like you’re reliving the worst parts of your cancer diagnosis or treatment
Many people who have had cancer go through something called post-traumatic stress. That means you’re shocked, fearful, helpless, or horrified about cancer and issues related to it.
Cancer-related PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) can occur any time, even after you’re in remission. Look for these signs:
Thoughts that frighten you and show up again and again
Overexcitement, not being able to concentrate, or even out of touch with reality
Trouble falling or staying asleep
If you’re experiencing any of the feelings described above more than, say, a few times a week, seek help.
How to Get Help
During chemotherapy and radiation, you had help from friends, family, and your medical team. Being in remission or even being told you’re cured doesn’t mean you don’t still need support. Experts say it’s crucial to have someone to talk to about your fears and frustrations. It’ll remind you that you’re loved and help you feel less alone.
If you're having problems, don’t try to act like you’re OK. Instead, tell well-meaning loved ones you have to adjust to this new phase of life and you’re doing the best you can. Although you’re no longer in treatment, it’s OK to talk about cancer and how you feel.
Even if you can turn to a spouse, partner, friend, or someone else close to you when you’re feeling tense or blue, you may still want to consider getting extra support. Reach out to one or more of the following:
Support groups and peer counselors. Peer counselors are people who’ve had your type of cancer and can talk to you about the experience. Most cancer centers around the country have support groups and other free programs that can help you work through your emotions, even after your treatment ends. Your oncologist, nurse, or another member of your cancer care team should be able to give you a referral for a therapist, peer counselor, and/or support group. Or call the American Cancer Society (800-227-2345) for a recommendation.
A professional mental health counselor (therapist). A clinical psychologist or social worker can help you sort through your feelings and give you smart solutions to ease your mind. Ask your cancer doctor or family doctor for a recommendation, or visit the American Psychological Association at locator.apa.org.
Your doctor. They may have resources, like a therapist you can see. They can help, too, if you need antidepressants or other medication for ongoing mood problems.
Your church, synagogue, mosque, or other spiritual or religious institution. Faith and spiritual practices may give you a sense of purpose and help you feel better after treatment.
Other Ways to Feel Better
Get -- and stay -- informed about your health. Ask your doctor how to lower the chances that your cancer will come back. Look for other ways to boost your physical and mental health. Zap your stress levels with exercise and by doing things you love. When you take action, it can help you feel in control again. That goes a long way toward helping you feel better.
Make yourself a priority. Don’t put your needs on the backburner just because you’re a survivor. Make time for therapy, take medication if you need it, and stay in touch with your medical team. Make self-care an everyday thing -- get some exercise and take time to relax and do things you enjoy. You’ll feel better and ease back into your post-treatment life.
Give it time. Research shows that cancer survivors often make healthy lifestyle changes after treatment. They also check items off the bucket list (like skydiving) or spend more time with certain family members. Even if you aren’t gung-ho now, chances are, you’ll feel good about life again soon.
Marisa C. Weiss, MD, president and founder, Breastcancer.org; director of breast health outreach and director of breast radiation oncology, Lankenau Medical Center, Wynnewood, PA; author, Living Well Beyond Breast Cancer.
Jeremy Winell, MD, director, Cancer Supportive Services, Mount Sinai Beth Israel Cancer Center, New York.
Dana-Farber Cancer Institute: “Your Emotions after Treatment.”
National Cancer Institute: “Cancer-Related Post-traumatic Stress.”
Catherine R. Powers-James, PhD, licensed clinical psychologist, MD Anderson Cancer Center, Houston.
Crane-Okada, R. Oncology Nursing Forum, January 2012.
Hawkins, N. Journal of Cancer Survivorship, March 2010.