Hester Hill Schnipper, LICSW, is the Manager of Oncology Social Work at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston. A 2-time breast cancer survivor, she writes a daily blog called Living with Cancer.
The early months after finishing cancer treatment are often shockingly difficult. Most patients expect to quickly feel normal again. They anticipate having energy, appetite, enthusiasm for life, and hair. Many assume that they will quickly return to their before-cancer lives. But this is rarely the case, and it may be depressing and scary to find that out. The phrase “new normal” is often used to describe the changes that fill life after cancer. Most people grow into this new phase of life, this new normal. Although I would never suggest that cancer is a “blessing,” you may discover that you are making choices that create a more satisfying and happier life. As more people survive after cancer, more attention is being paid to living after cancer.
Here’s a handy rule: it takes at least as long as the total duration of treatment to feel fully physically and emotionally well. It is easy to worry that robust health will never return or that persistent fatigue means that cancer is still lurking. It is harder to be patient, to understand that your body needs time to heal, and to recognize that some adaptations may need to be made. Remember, too, that your family and friends may also expect you to quickly recover. They may presume that you can meet all your obligations immediately. There are a few people who finish treatment and never look back. These lucky people seem to pick up life exactly where they left it and to completely believe that cancer is behind them forever. Remember that they are the exceptions.
How to identify if you’re having trouble
It is never possible to fully predict who will have more or less trouble with recovery. Many people do quite well a year after treatment. Others struggle for several years and may have to make permanent changes in their lives. How do you know if you are having trouble? If you are more than 1 year past treatment, here are 5 ways to recognize if you are struggling.
You are having trouble managing your feelings and are too often in tears or angry or anxious.
You are having difficulty sleeping many nights, especially if you go to sleep, but then awaken in the very early hours and cannot get back to sleep.
Your important relationships are strained. This includes relationships with your spouse or partner, children, parents, and close friends.
Your work life is not going well. Perhaps you can’t concentrate or meet deadlines or focus as you could in the past.
Your energy level continues to be low, and you can’t exercise or complete a day’s tasks as you have in the past.
Other areas of life that may be affected are finances, sexuality, and self-esteem.
How to seek help
If you see yourself in this list, it is time to look for help.
Therapy. An oncology social worker or another therapist who is experienced with cancer patients and survivors can work with you on all of these issues. Ask your doctor or nurse for a referral or call the nearest large hospital or cancer center and ask to speak with an oncology social worker. If you are wondering whether it will help you to talk with someone, do so. Don’t spend time feeling badly when you can find help. Many people successfully navigate cancer treatment and then only experience the emotional distress after it is done.
Finances. If finances are a problem, consider talking with a financial planner. Cancer treatment is expensive. Many people are left with big bills, lower incomes, and fears about money. Hospitals and medical offices have staff who can talk about payment plans, bill reductions, or other ways to manage some of the costs. Ignoring financial difficulty is never a good strategy.
Group support. Think about joining a cancer support group. Your family and friends love you and want to support and help you, but no one understands the cancer journey better than others who have gone through it too. As many people say, “This is a sister/brotherhood that no one wants to join, but we are always there for one another.”