Feelings after cancer treatment

Monday 06 January 2020

I’d like to talk about something that is very common, yet often unacknowledged. It's generally assumed that finishing cancer treatment feels fantastic. This may be the case for some, but don't feel bad if it isn't like that for you.

Family and friends may have celebratory flags flying, as you move from ‘cancer patient’ to ‘cancer survivor’. Yet, you may not share the euphoria, as you begin the weeks and months post cancer adjustment. The reality of the ‘new normal’ can feel elusive – and hard to define.

It is possibly one of the commonest themes raised among our visitors to Maggie’s, both in our physical centres, and here online. Living beyond cancer can bring a range of mixed emotions. Sometimes feelings of anxiety and low mood occur. It doesn't happen for everyone – but for enough people to make it worth talking about.

Feelings you may be experiencing

First of all, there may be relief that the treatment is finished, and hopefulness about the future. You’ve been through a great deal, and it can lift the spirits to know the hospital visits are almost over. However, there may be other feelings lurking which may be unexpected. Emotions, including anger, sadness, anxiety, depression, and grief – life may feel different and you may feel insecure.

  •  Fear of recurrence – You may feel you don’t trust your body anymore. After developing cancer once, it’s natural to worry about it coming back. Even when the     treatment has been effective, and the odds look good, your mind may not believe it.
  •  Living with uncertainty - Suddenly, all that felt certain, may feel uncertain. It may feel that everything you took for granted in your life before cancer, isn't guaranteed. You may worry the cancer will come back, or that you may not be able to work again. Others may worry about their fertility, or relationships, and generally feel less secure.
  •  Loss of self-confidence – you’ve been through a life changing experience. Some of the treatments may have caused temporary or physical changes – new scars, weight loss or gain, skin changes, hair loss. Others may be learning to live with a stoma, or changes in energy levels and mobility. You’ve also possibly been out of the work and social loop for a while, and feel less confident about coping with ‘normality’ again.
  •  Loneliness – even among your family and friends you may feel different, and perhaps isolated. Everyone around you may be moving on with life, back to normal, and perhaps not understand that for you – things simply don’t feel the same. The support network of doctors, nurses and hospital visits has reduced, and this can feel lonely. You also may feel anxious about any new symptoms and miss having someone to touch base with about cancer related worries.
  •  Change of perspective - having cancer can change your world view. Sometimes things that loom large in other people’s lives may feel trivial compared to the huge event you’ve just been through. It’s not uncommon for cancer survivors to review their life, work and relationships, and feel less satisfied with the status quo. This can feel unsettling.
  • Surge of emotions - you may find you feel like you have 'unfinished business' after your cancer treatment has finished. Some people find the experience of being diagnosed, and going through treatment, to be a traumatic experience. You may feel angry, tearful, having flashbacks of difficult times, anxious and low in mood. Recent research has shown that a small proportion of people with cancer can experiences symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). 

Add into the mix that you may feel low in energy, and possibly be dealing with some after effects of your treatment. For example, fatigue is common, and it can take many months for energy levels to return. You also may be ongoing treatment, such as hormone therapy, which can have side effects for some.

Tips for coping with feelings after cancer:-

  • Talk to others about how you feel. Your family and friends may need to know that recovering from cancer treatment takes time, both emotionally and physically. Explain that even if you’re looking well on the outside, you’ve still got a lot going on. It can help to speak to a counsellor, your hospital team or one of Maggie's cancer support specialists about the emotions you’re experiencing.
  • Let your work colleagues know too. You are likely to need to a gentle return to work, and resist the temptation to go back too soon.
  • Finances may have been affected over the months, and you may have the added stress of making ends meet. We have benefits advisors available in our physical centres, as well as blogs and information from our online benefits expert.
  • Look at ways that you can take back some control. For months now, it may have felt that everything revolved around the cancer. It’s now about finding you again. The new ‘you’ may be thinking of looking at ways to prevent the cancer coming back. Your physical and emotional wellbeing is important. Looking at diet, exercise, stress management, life/work/family balance, and making time for you, can help.
  • Calling in at your local Maggie’s Centre can help you find ways to cope and move forward. Meeting others who understand how you feel can lift the emotional  burden.
  • It’s natural to feel anxious about the cancer coming back. Find out from the hospital team what you should be looking out for, and who to contact if you’re concerned. At first, it may be that every new ache or pain triggers alarm bells for you. This intense feeling does settle over time, but it can be many months before the worry reduces
  • Ask about the 'Where Now?’ courses, held in our Maggie’s Centres. ‘Where Now?’ is a seven-week course for anyone who has finished their cancer treatment, as well as their friends and family. It offers skills and techniques to support you through this transition period and beyond.
  • Find ways to relax and to care for you. Your confidence may be low, but getting out and about can help. Picking up old hobbies or exploring new activities can ease the way forward. Treat yourself.
  • Goal setting. It sounds a bit work orientated, but what can help is setting goals to achieve, and give yourself targets. It may only be walking for 15 minutes every day, or meeting a friend for coffee, planning a mini break, etc, but it gives something to aim for, and a sense of satisfaction when the goal is achieved.
  •  Keeping a journal, writing down how you feel, can be helpful. Putting feelings down on paper can clear the head, and help process the life changing events you’ve been through.

There may be times when you could do with some extra help with how you’re feeling. It’s not uncommon to feel anxious or low in mood, but if the feelings are very intense, do seek further help. Talk to your GP, ask for counselling support and as mentioned before, do drop into one of our centres, and join in our online conversations.

The new ‘normal’, much discussed on websites and forums, happens slowly and over time. You may have to grieve the old you, first, and remind yourself that you’re in an unfamiliar landscape for a while. You will get there - and we're here to help.

Warm wishes


Links updated April 2020


Emotions after treatment   -    Maggie’s

After cancer treatment has finished - then what?   (PDF) Dr Peter Harvey

The Cancer Survivor's Companion: Practical ways to cope with your feelings after cancer (2013) by Lucy Atkins  and Frances Goodhart

After treatment  - Macmillan Cancer Support

Life after treatment - Cancer Council Victoria

Coping with the fear of recurrence   - Cancer.Net

Emotions after cancer treatment  -  Livestrong

Money and benefits  - Maggie's

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