The cancer recovery process
Hester Hill Schnipper, LICSW, OSW-C Program Manager Emeritus, Oncology, Social Work
NOVEMBER 06, 2019
It is often an unpleasant shock, after completing cancer treatment, to find yourself feeling more distressed than you have since the first days following your diagnosis. Most people practically count the days until treatment will be concluded; I have known many who were distressed by an unavoidable delay in a chemotherapy cycle or radiation treatment. Even if the delay is only a week, the additional time feels like forever.
As everyone around you offers congratulations and expects you to be feeling fine, you are likely to be exhausted, depressed, sick of being bald, and worried about the future. It is common for intense feelings to surface at this point, and you may be surprised at your anger or sadness. You want your old life back and are just starting to realize that will never happen. What you can expect, instead, is that a "new normal" will gradually evolve. (Note: I strongly dislike the new normal phrase, but it is widely used, and I don't have a good substitute.)
It is only after treatment, when you no longer have to concentrate on just getting through each day, that you can appreciate what has happened. Especially people who have pushed through the months of treatment to care for their families, go to work, and try to keep life as normal as possible, may find that they are now emotionally and physically depleted.
How Long Will Cancer Recovery Take?
First, remember that recovery will take approximately as long as the duration of your treatment — that is likely to be many months, although you will feel better and better as time passes. Try to be gentle on yourself and allow for days when you feel more tired, upset, or overwhelmed by the world around you. It is vital that you remind your family, close friends, and, if possible, work colleagues that you have just finished some very tough treatments and that it will take time for you to be fully healthy and strong again. Do not immediately try to do everything that you were doing before your diagnosis; ease back, as gradually as necessary, into your full schedule.
Evaluating Relationships and Finding Support
You will find that some of your relationships feel different. Even the people who love you most can't really understand what you have experienced. It can be hard to be patient with their seemingly small problems or to be enthusiastic about some of their plans or life events. For example, if you are now facing infertility due to chemotherapy, it is very painful to hear of friends' pregnancies or new babies. If you are struggling financially after losing income during treatment, it is hard to hear about your friends' vacations or purchases. Whatever problems existed before your diagnosis will be waiting for you now. If you were unhappy in your marriage, dissatisfied with your job, or struggling with your adolescent daughter, you won't find that things have magically improved.
Find a few people with whom you can be completely open and honest; these may be your spouse, a close friend, or a therapist. If you decide that talking to a therapist would be helpful, be sure to find someone who is familiar with the issues facing cancer survivors. This is a good time to consider joining a support group. You will find that other cancer survivors get it in ways that no one else can. You can talk with an oncology social worker at BIDMC to learn about available support groups and counseling resources both at the hospital and in the community.
Getting Acquainted with Your Post-Cancer Body
Learning to again be comfortable in your body is a process. We are all especially aware of every ache, pain, or cough and we fear that it signals cancer's return. Most doctors go by the "two week rule." If a symptom goes away by itself in two weeks, you don't need to worry. If it lasts longer, call your doctor. Of course, there are exceptions; anything that seems very alarming or dangerous should be reported immediately.
Physically, the return to robust health can feel painfully slow. This is an excellent time to continue or begin a regular exercise program. There is some evidence that exercise may diminish your risk of recurrence, and, at the least, it will help you tone up, lose a few pounds you probably gained during treatment, and begin to feel stronger and more in control.
Evaluating Your Life from a New Perspective
Your perspective has changed. You have had time and occasion to think about what is most important to you, what your priorities are, how you want to spend your time and your energy. As you slowly resume your regular routines, continue to think about what you have learned about yourself and your values. This is an opportunity, if you wish, to make some changes. At the very least, it is a chance to consider your life and how you wish to lead it. Although you would never have chosen it, you have been given the clarity to reframe your life while you still have life ahead.