Articles for Our Patients ~ Susan Carter, Ph.D., MFT

Transitions - Living Beyond Cancer Diagnosis and Treatment

Author: Susan Carter, Ph.D., MFT • Language: ENG

After treatment ends, people often celebrate the last chemotherapy or radiation treatment. Then they begin to wonder, what now? Why am I still afraid, or even more afraid than before? What can I expect, and how do I get on with it?

Here are a few things to consider:

  • You may never be able to go back to the way life was
  • Now that your life isn’t full of appointments and treatments, you may have time to realize what has actually happened to you.
  • “End of treatment” and “watchful waiting” can be double-edged swords.
  • The word “remission” means many things to many people.
  • Your life is changed forever: your priorities, your emotions, your body, and your choices.
  • Learn to walk the world in your own shoes, not in someone else’s.
  • Build a new self-image, strengthen relationships, and begin new adventures.

The main questions remains: “How are you going to live the rest of your life?”

After treatment ends, you begin a transition into a life without daily appointments, tests, and treatments. You may look forward to getting back to normal.

Where do you look when you are “looking forward to getting back?” Do you look back at the way it was, or do you look forward to what it is like now? The experience of diagnosis and treatment of cancer is like a roaring river of water under the bridge. So many changes occur- your body, your emotions, and your priorities- that it is impossible to go back.

You seek a “new normal” then, a normal life that incorporates what you have learned and how you have changed. This is also a time when emotions surprise and rock you. For many, being busy is a good way to cope with and avoid the emotions of fear, anger and depression. Others have experienced many emotions, but when life slows down after treatment, it is often a time when the emotions catch up with you and you feel the feelings you have been avoiding.

Many people experience a depression following the end of treatment and are shocked by the impact of the tears and fears, after they had “been so strong” during their challenging treatments. This is the time when many people seek support and counseling to help them cope with these unexpected emotions.

Many people expect to be overjoyed and relieved at the end of treatment, only to find that they are more worried and overwhelmed than even before. Yes, the physically busy treatment schedule is reduced, the side-effects of treatment lessen, but this can often be replaced by the emotional strain of “watchful waiting,” the anxiety of waiting for test results to see how well it worked, and the loss of the active fight against their cancer.

And so, the questions begin to creep in: “What am I watching and waiting for?” “What if it comes back?” “What do I do now?” and “Do I just sit around and wait?” If you are told that you are in remission, how do you know what that means? Is the cancer gone, or can’t they find it right now? Am I cured or do I have to be vigilant for recurrence?

All of these may be true, but it is difficult to be sure. Learning to live with uncertainty is one of the major challenges following the end of treatment. Learning to live with change is another reality of this transition. Many changes have occurred, some of which are temporary, but many are permanent and need to be incorporated into your life.

Temporary changes may have included time off of work, hiring help in the home and changes in roles and responsibilities. But now some of these changes, as well as others, may become permanent.

Permanent changes may include having different priorities of what is most important in life, body changes due to surgeries and treatment responses, and your emotions may be altered due to medications, hormones and disappointments. People find that they make different choices about how the spend their time and with whom, and how they make plans for their current lives instead of in the future.

There have been many lessons learned during the treatment phases, which endure afterward: living day by day, doing what makes you smile, limiting negative energy and friends, becoming more assertive, asking for what you want and need, being more appreciative of time with family, appreciating and complimenting a good deed, and noticing the beauty of the day.

Re-building and strengthening is the challenge of the transition after treatment. Moving beyond “patient” to “survivor” and eventually “thriver,” may require a new self-image, improved and changed relationships, beginning new adventures - new ways, and a new perspective on life and your future. 

The key question you is: How are you going to live the rest of your life, however long it is?

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