The end of your cancer treatment heralds what, for some, is a daunting new phase – so-called 'Survivorship'. This stage of a cancer journey takes some adjustment, and there is plenty of support out there to help you to find your 'new normal'.
With your whole world previously focused on just getting through the day-to-day challenges of your diagnosis, you suddenly find yourself ‘free'. While you may feel happy and relieved that the worst times are over, you may also find yourself feeling anxious and fearful about the future - especially now that your medical team is no longer part of your daily life.
These are all completely natural reactions as you learn how to process the enormity of what you've been through and how to reclaim your pre-cancer life. So take it easy, take it slow. And remember you're not alone.
There's no doubt that cancer is a life-changing experience, explains Oncology Care Physician Dr Inge Kriel, adding: "It has a profound effect on all spheres of life: physical, emotional, social and spiritual. The cancer journey is often a protracted one: cancer treatments (including chemotherapy, surgery, and radiation) may take a year or even longer to complete, while endocrine therapy (e.g. Tamoxifen that often follows after a breast cancer diagnosis) could run for five to ten years. Your life may seem to be a blur of doctors' appointments, with many hours spent waiting in doctors' rooms. Then there’s the loss of your identity as you contrast the ‘you’ you’ve always known, and the new identity you’ve suddenly gained as a cancer patient. Your world becomes so consumed with appointments, treatments, blood tests and rushing from one doctor to the next, that it's hardly surprising that you don't have a moment to process the emotional trauma of your diagnosis. It's often only once your treatment is over that you suddenly find the time to ask yourself ‘what happened?' and try to come to terms with the implications of having had cancer."
Finding your ‘new normal'
"One of the first steps taken once in the survivorship stage of a cancer journey, is learning how to return to a normal life and to leave your identity as a cancer patient behind. Unfortunately," says Dr Kriel, "life will never be the same as it was before you were diagnosed. The physical scars are a constant reminder of your cancer journey, as are the late and long-term effects of chemotherapy, radiation, and endocrine therapy. So what you need to do is to find a ‘new normal' going forward which will enable you to make the transition from cancer patient to cancer survivor. There's a lot of help out there to assist you: all you need to do is ask."
- Get involved with support organisations which will put you in touch with other survivors who have had similar experiences. Often, patients who have been in remission for a number of years still attend meetings and are happy to assist new cancer survivors to re-adjust to life after cancer
- Go for counselling – this is another vital aspect of survivorship.
- Chat to your healthcare provider about going on to anti-depressants if you're feeling anxious or depressed. Depression and anxiety are common after a cancer diagnosis, and if left untreated may impair your ability to adjust to your new identity.
- Take charge of your life by re-establishing your pre-cancer diagnosis routine by:
- Eating well
- Exercising regularly
- Doing yoga and meditation exercises for relaxation
- Going back to hobbies and activities you previously enjoyed
- Check out complementary therapies: Art counselling, Sophrology etc.
It's important to discuss any physical and emotional symptoms you may be experiencing with your Oncology Care Physician, adds Dr Kriel. "These symptoms can have a significant impact on your quality of life and may hamper your ability to find the new you. For example, chemotherapy-related nerve damage may impair fine motor skills and affect your ability to enjoy hobbies such as sewing or knitting while problems with balance can affect your ability to exercise safely. Remember that you don't have to suffer in silence: effective conventional and complementary treatments are available to address all of these symptoms and to help you to resume your daily activities of living, to get out of the cancer routine and to move forward as a cancer survivor".
Listen to our podcast 'Survivorship' and hear Dr Inge Kriel share fascinating insights into the Survivorship phase of cancer. She’s also joined by Penny Howie a twice breast cancer survivor.
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