I never was told what to expect after cancer treatment. I was so happy to be done, but at the same time there is this fear. “Is it really over?” and “What if it comes back?”
Let’s face it, a cancer diagnosis is life changing. Sometimes, it isn’t fully realized until everything is over. At least, that’s how it went for me. I was twenty-two when I found out I had cancer, and as anyone would, I had a million questions surging through my mind. Luckily, I had an amazing team of doctors and nurses who were ready to assist with any questions I had, which helped tremendously. Looking back, I realized that I always had questions to ask at my weekly doctor visits, but questions I never thought of asking were, “What’s life like after cancer treatment?” I ask myself why the thought never occurred to me until months down the road, after being told I was in remission. Everyone’s experience is different, but in the end we all have one goal, and that’s healing and moving forward with life after cancer. Here are some helpful questions that I asked my doctor:
- What symptoms should I be worried about?
- Which doctors should I call when these symptoms occur?
- How often should I see my doctor?
- What tests do I need?
- How long will it take me to recover and feel more like myself?
- Is there anything I can or should be doing to keep the cancer from coming back?
These types of questions will help you better understand what to expect with life following your treatment. For most, you’ll be followed closely, initially following the end of your treatment. For me, it means I have a check-up every three months, with blood work done on a six-month basis. But for others, it could be scans to check your progress. Just like everyone’s treatment plan is different, your follow-up care will be as well. I think the best thing to do is to be well-informed and don’t be afraid to ask questions! Your doctor and other health care providers are there for you and want you to ask questions to help you move forward.
“Just as cancer treatment affects your physical health, it can affect the way you feel, think, and do the things you like to do. It’s normal to have many different feelings after treatment ends. Just as you need to take care of your body after treatment, you need to take care of your emotions.
Worrying about the cancer coming back is normal, especially during the first year after treatment. For some, the fear is so strong that they no longer enjoy life, sleep well, eat well, or even go to follow-up visits. ‘If I get it again, what am I going to do?’”
Fear of recurrence is a main concern for cancer survivors. I have found that it has been the biggest thing I have struggled with following the completion of my treatment. A few months after my final PET scan to confirm that I was NED, I started feeling like I was experiencing symptoms. Long story short, I presented my oncologist with my symptoms and they were able to take the course of action they saw fit, and in the end were able to confirm that I was still indeed cancer free. But, how do you figure out a balance of when to call your doctor and when to know that this is just your new “normal”? This was a hard thing for me to figure out, and honestly, even now, close to one year in remission, I still sometimes struggle with that question. But like many things, it is a process, and as the days go by, I find myself getting more and more comfortable with this new life. Yes, we as cancer survivors have things that we have to think about over the average person, but does that mean we will always live in fear? No, of course not! Just like going through treatment is a process, figuring out life after cancer is also a process, and it’s ok if this process takes a while. The good news is, everything gets easier as time goes by. Here are some great tips for coping with the fear of recurrence:
Tips for coping with the fear of recurrence.
- Recognize your emotions.
- Accept your fears.
- Don’t worry alone.
- Reduce stress.
- Spend time with family and friends
- Focus on hobbies and other activities you enjoy
- Take a walk, meditate, or enjoy a bath
- Exercise regularly
- Read a funny book or watch a funny movie
- Be well informed.
- Talk with your doctor about follow-up care.
- Make healthy choices. Healthy habits like eating nutritious meals, exercising regularly, and getting enough sleep help people feel better both physically and emotionally. Avoiding unhealthy habits, like smoking and excessive drinking, helps people feel like they have more control over their health.
Read more about healthy living after cancer: http://www.cancer.net/survivorship/life-after-cancer/coping-fear-recurrence
Written by: Kara Schanley
Dr. Norleena Gullett is a Radiation Oncologist at Erlanger Cancer Institute in Chattanooga, TN. In addition to her medical expertise, she strives to offer emotional, psychological, and spiritual support in her care for her patients. She prides herself on treating you, the whole person, with the best care possible.