When someone you love has cancer: Life after treatment

It is a tradition across cancer centers, the Helen F. Graham Cancer Center included, to ring a bell when someone completes radiation therapy treatments. The ringing of the bell marks an important milestone: the beginning of ‘life-after-treatment.’ For those undergoing cancer treatments, and their loved ones, this milestone is often very much anticipated and celebrated. That being said, the transition to life-after-treatment is often met with a mixture of emotions. Cancer survivors frequently find themselves worrying, “Did the treatments work?” or “What if the cancer comes back?” There are also the long-term side-effects of cancer treatments, which frequently include fatigue, sleep problems, pain, hormonal changes, body image changes, and more. And the recovery from these side-effects can take quite a bit of time. As it turns out, the aftereffects of the cancer experience can last long after treatment ends, like the reverberations of a ringing bell.

This article covers some of the ways you can support your loved one after treatment ends by addressing a couple of common myths of cancer survivorship.

Myth #1: You’re back to normal now, right?

Many of our cancer survivors describe an outpouring of support early on, soon after diagnosis, that unfortunately fades with time and nearly vanishes when treatment ends. The presumption is: you’re back to normal now, right? The truth is that for many, once diagnosed and treated for cancer, there is no more going back to “normal.” Ever. Just like a combat veteran, the experience changes you forever. This is not to say that life cannot be good again; in fact many cancer survivors will honestly say that after a period of adjustment, their lives have never been better. The main point, however, is that things are different. What surprises many cancer survivors is just how long it can take to find what many refer to as the “new normal,” that sense that although different, life is again fulfilling and rewarding. It can take months and sometimes years to reach this point. So if cancer survivors – and to be honest, many in the medical community – are surprised at how long it can take to recover both physically and emotionally, then no wonder those of us who have never been through the cancer experience make the assumption things go back to normal when treatments conclude.

So how do we help our loved ones find that “new normal?” Most importantly, keep realistic expectations. The return to work and resumption of household responsibilities may take some time. Ongoing physical symptoms can be limiting and even debilitating. Offer support and understanding. Feel free to share that you have learned it will take some time to recover. Second, approach the situation much the same way you did at the time of diagnosis: this is a time to step up help, if you can. It is understandable, however, if you are not in a position to continue offering help. You may have been there all along helping out, offering support, and taking on more responsibility. This may have taken a toll on you too. If this is the case perhaps you can rally the troops and call in others who previously offered help. And third, recognize in some cases there may be a need for professional help. There are a wide range of resources and professional support providers available for survivors, from support groups, specialized medical care, assistance with healthy lifestyle change, physical rehabilitation, and counselors—all just a phone call away.

Myth #2: There’s nothing to worry about, so get on with living your life

Upon completion of treatment, many cancer survivors are told to “go live your life.” For many, this is easier said than done. Fear of recurrence is the phrase we use to describe the at-times debilitating anxiety and worry that many cancer survivors suddenly find themselves confronting after treatment ends. The worry of cancer coming back, spreading to another part of the body, or of a new cancer can crop up at any time. For many, these worries intrude at night, while lying in bed trying to get to sleep. Without any distractions and no one to talk with–everyone else is sleeping just fine, it can seem—cancer survivors often struggle with insomnia. For others, any physical symptom, no matter how minor, can trigger thoughts that this might be a sign of something grave. “Is the cancer back?” Still others describe a sense of general irritability and disconnection from others. Meanwhile, family and friends often report it is easier to find reassurance in encouraging news: “The doctor said your last scan was good; I think you beat it!” Many family members of cancer survivors simply want to spare their loved ones of needless worry, so they often offer advice like, “Stay focused on the positive.” The truth is that cancer survivors experiencing fear of recurrence would like nothing more than to be worry-free. In my experience, finding ways to deal with worry and fear can take some time. Some survivors draw comfort from talking with an understanding loved one or another survivor. Other survivors turn to faith. Still others, meditation, time in nature, or being of service to others. Writing in a journal has been shown helpful in making sense of difficult experiences. And counseling with a therapist experienced with this issue can also be helpful.

The bottom line is that things do not automatically become easier for cancer survivors when treatment ends. In fact, many survivors report that the period immediately following treatment proved even more difficult than the treatment phase. The challenge for many cancer survivors is in recognizing that things won’t go back to the way they were before—as the saying goes, you can’t unring a bell—and instead focusing on making the transition to the ‘new normal.” The good news is that with realistic expectations, understanding, and a willingness to accept outside help where needed, loved ones can play a critical role in helping to smooth that transition.