From Cancer Patient to Cancer Survivor: How to Cope with the Transition

The completion of a cancer treatment regime marks the start of the transition from being a cancer patient to a cancer survivor. In the U.S., the rate of cancer survival continues to increase every year due to changes in early-detection practices and advances in treatment. The American Cancer Society published a predicted estimate of 10,995,610 male cancer survivors and 11,174,200 female cancer survivors by 2030.

In terms of frequency of intensity, medical support at this stage typically lessens the moment treatments are completed. However, a cancer survivor will be required to adjust to different sources of treatment sequelae (such as fatigue, pain, and physical changes in appearance), stress, social stigmatization, social disruption, and changes in lifestyle.

This period of adjusting to a “new normal” also brings out many different emotions. You might initially feel relief to finish the demands of treatment and be ready to put this hard experience behind you. Having your life return to the way it used to be might even make you feel excited. But alongside all these feelings, you may also feel uncertainty, fear, and anxiety.


What the new normal could look like

Indeed, one of the most difficult things after treatment is not knowing what happens next. Some cancer survivors describe the first few months as a time of change—not really about getting back to normal but rather finding out what the new normal is now. Others say that they find new meaning in life and they look at things differently after treatment completion.

The new normal may include permanent scars on the body, emotional scars from going through so much, making lifestyle changes, not being able to do some things you used to do more easily, and new sources of support. Even if others think of you differently now or you find yourself in a different way, give yourself time to adapt to these changes.


How to cope with the transition

The most common feeling as a cancer survivor is the fear of cancer recurrence, and this comes as the biggest challenge when trying to live the new normal. Fear of recurrence is normal and often disappears over time. However, even years after the last treatment, factors like certain symptoms, follow-up visits, illness of a loved one, or the anniversary of your diagnosis may cause your fear to come back.

One important step to cope with this part of the transition is keeping yourself informed. Understand how you can achieve better health and find out about the services available to you. When you know them, it gives you a better sense of control. Here are some specific steps to cope:

  • Recognize your emotions.

Many people tend to ignore or cover up “negative” feelings like fear and anxiety. If you start to recognize them, you’ll be able to think of ways to cope with them.

Oftentimes, it helps to talk about them with a family member, trusted friend, or mental health professional. They may help you figure out the reasons behind these emotions and find ways to avoid or overcome them. Other means could be keeping a journal to process what you’re going through or expressing yourself through music or art.

  • Know that it’s common for cancer survivors to worry about every ache and pain.

Sometimes, we experience body pain or ache that may not be related to cancer or its complications. If you are a cancer survivor, this is something that might cause you to worry and know that you are not alone.

If you suspect that your ache or pain is part of a symptom, talk to your healthcare team immediately so they can give you advice. Sometimes, just having a conversation with them may help calm your fears.

  • Let your healthcare team know about your concerns.

Your healthcare team is the one who can give you the facts about your chances of recurrence and the assurance that you’re being looked out for, so it’s important to honestly tell them your fears of cancer coming back. The risk of recurrence may vary across patients, so they can give you personalized advice.

  • Ask for a follow-up care plan

A follow-up care plan is important to monitor your cancer for recurrence. This usually consists of a summary of your cancer treatment and the next steps for your care. During follow-up visits, you may undergo physical examinations and tests to keep track of your recovery.

Having a plan and being updated with your cancer recovery status help give you a sense of control. Ask your healthcare team about this.

  • Join a support group

Many cancer patients and survivors find joining a support group helpful because they get to share their experiences and feelings with others who are going through similar experiences. Having a group provides a sense of belonging and a feeling of being less alone and understood.

During a support group meeting, you can also exchange practical information and helpful suggestions with fellow survivors.

Here’s How to Find the Right Cancer Support Group for You.

  • Make healthy choices

Since you cannot control the recurrence of your cancer, it’s better to focus your energy on keeping your body and mind healthy. Some things you can do as part of your healthy habits include the following:

  • Eating nutritious meals, which include plenty of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains
  • Moderate exercise (ex. walking, jogging, and cycling) to reduce anxiety and improve mood and self-esteem
  • Relaxation exercises like meditation and yoga to help reduce stress and calm anxiety

As part of healthy choices, it is important to avoid unhealthy habits like smoking and excessive alcohol intake. It should not be far from your knowledge that smoking is one of the risk factors for cancer. So if you want to avoid recurrence, it is good to quit this habit.

  • Take part in gatherings, clubs, or associations.

Getting out of the house and meeting other people as part of your normal routine can help you focus on other important things besides cancer and the worries it brings.

Read more on Tips for Coping with Cancer Recurrence.

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