After Cancer Treatment: Coming Out On The Other Side

A breast cancer and melanoma survivor remembers the emotions and experiences after surgeries, chemotherapy and radiation are finished.

Did you celebrate when all of your treatments were done? I tried to celebrate after chemotherapy and after radiation. The surgeries were just, well, painful, so I don’t recall celebrating those. Getting through all the active treatments is worth celebrating. If I remember correctly, my family and I went out to dinner after my last chemotherapy and my last radiation treatment.

I remember feeling kind of lonely and scared after the active cancer treatments. Suddenly, I was on the other side of all of the treatments and attention. Who watches me now to make sure cancer doesn’t return? Who will answer my questions and help me with my ongoing fears and worries?

but

Did you or your loved ones expect you to be "normal" right after treatment? It is cool to no longer have to go hang out in the waiting rooms regularly with other active treatment cancer patients, but I was in no way "back to normal" or settled into a "new normal" — a term I don’t really like. I remember that people expected me to be normal, especially once my hair grew back. Although wearing a wig and hats differentiated me from the normalcy that I wanted, I couldn’t just resume my old life. Life would never be the same. Initially, I felt shell-shocked, worn out and worried. Now, years later, I am doing better, I still worry.

How soon did people stop asking you how you were recovering? As soon as some of my hair grew back, people stopped asking about how I was. I was struggling with sleep, lack of energy and lots and lots of worry. I didn’t know what my priorities could or "should" be now. I remember waking up in tears before my brain even started thinking for the day. My symptoms were PTSD —post-traumatic stress disorder. PTSD symptoms are pretty common for cancer survivors. I wish someone had told me that. Medication and therapy helped me through that once I figured out what was happening.

Recovering from breast cancer treatments and surgeries took me longer than I thought it should. There was also the question: Who could I still talk to about my cancer? People around me didn’t stop asking because they didn’t care. I would guess they were probably just happy to see me around. In the interests of being "a big girl," it would now be my job to let my loved ones know what I was feeling. It also helped me to be able to discuss my fears and worries at my breast cancer support group and with my doctors.

Our fast-paced world just doesn’t give cancer survivors enough time. My advice? Take it anyway. Change your expectations of yourself. Let time heal the physical and emotional wounds. The further out, the better it gets.

Cancer recovery may take months and years. Patience isn’t my strong suit. Improvement was spikey, not smooth. Events could still upset me, especially a medical discovery or worry.

Even six years out from breast cancer and two years out from skin cancer, I am still learning. I feel more recovered, but I still feel impacted by my cancers. I keep regular oncology appointments and I continue to have full body skin exams every six months. How is it going for you? How have you coped after active cancer treatments as you emerged on the other side?