Post-Treatment Jitters: What Happens When Chemotherapy Ends?


What happens when chemotherapy ends?

Finding out you have cancer is one obstacle, but coping with the treatment is second only to the Olympian hurdles. When I had a course of six chemotherapy infusions facing me, the road looked long and tough. I have to do this was my only thought. There was no waiting around, either. As soon as my surgery recovery looked positive, off I went for treatment with two strong IV drugs.

I had no background in cancer or how treatment worked. The first day was beyond scary; I look back now and think of how shaky I was and how I dreaded the thought of chemotherapy. When we don't fully understand something, it seems so upsetting. This fear of the unknown was something I had to do, no matter what.

But, as the weeks and months slid by and I did OK with it, I could see that at some point, there would be an end to the appointments, lab work-ups and infusions. That’s when the advice came in. Well-meaning friends and relatives remarked constantly: “You’re one-fourth there!” “You’ll be half-way through.” ”Just a few more to go and you’ll be finished!” ”Wow! Great! You’re nearly done … see?” “You’re all set now.” “It’s all over.”

When you don’t have cancer, it must be difficult to master the concept that cancer isn’t always an open-and-shut case. I was new to this myself, so I wanted to agree.

Was I getting cancer treatment or in an odd Twilight Zone relay race with an unknown outcome? Did anyone else understand that these medicines may or may not help me? The thought crossed my mind, especially when others spoke of celebrations and parties because I was “just about over with this one!” It was silently nerve-wracking -- an unspoken, unknown, strangely scary time for sure. I tried to prepare myself to be hopeful and positive. And I was.

What I wasn’t prepared for were the mixed feelings I felt after the five months of chemotherapy were finished. Instead of relief and happiness, I felt almost as frightened as I was in the very beginning. How could this be? Others said it’s great, it’s over, it’s done!

But, the fact is, it wasn’t over, finished or done. Now, without my steady, every-three-week jolt of super-powered medicine, and my team hovering around, what would become of me? None of this occurred to me consciously, but I was getting depressed and anxious. The sinking-feeling stuck to me day in and day out. Where was this all coming from?

Finally, I spoke up to a member of my care team. A wonderful oncology social worker explained that what I was going through was a transition, a period when treatment stops and life sets back in.

I had been feeling like a soul who was tossed off an ocean liner, floating with a life jacket on, hoping to paddle enough to keep my head above water. It wasn’t just my imagination. There’s an actual term for what I felt. I was experiencing a transition ... now I knew! With that, I was more relaxed, and felt free to enjoy my life and what I had just accomplished!

How would I have known that when treatment was finished this would happen to me? Knowing that it did made all the difference. My days brightened up. I was uplifted. I was less anxious. What a revelation! I was normal!

I’m a normal person with cancer who went through a transition. But I'm alright with that. Just so I know.

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Dr. Kelly Stratton
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