Your feelings after cancer treatment
This information is about some of the feelings you might have after your cancer treatment is over and, if you’re finding your feelings hard to cope with, what may help.
The main part of your treatment is over and you can now begin to think about getting your life back. It’s a time for celebration, feeling positive and looking forward.
Or is it? Often, this is what people expect to feel as they approach the end of their treatment. Your relatives and friends may also think that life will just settle down again and go back to how it was before the cancer diagnosis.
But the reality can be different. Some people find that they’re facing new challenges and dealing with feelings they may not have had before. People may experience a range of emotions when their treatment is over. This can come as a surprise to both the person having treatment and to those around them.
This section is about some of the feelings you may have after your cancer treatment is over and, if you’re finding your feelings hard to cope with, what may help. It’s not possible to go into detail about all the different emotions you may have. But emotional effects are common and help is available.
You may want to discuss this information with our cancer support specialists.
Physical changes and your feelings
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After treatment you might have physical changes, which may take some time to get used to. These changes can affect your emotions in a range of ways. They can also impact on how you feel about your physical appearance - your body image.
The following are examples of physical changes that some people experience after cancer treatment:
People may lose their hair due to chemotherapy or radiotherapy. It can take many weeks or months for it to grow back to how it was, especially if they used to have long hair.
Some people may have had a surgically-made opening on their abdomen called a stoma, to enable them to pass waste such as bowel motions or urine.
Sometimes people lose a lot of weight due to cancer or its treatment, or they gain weight because of the medicines they have to take.
Hormonal changes can occur during cancer treatment, which may cause fatigue or other changes.
Some women with breast cancer may have had a breast removed (mastectomy), or part of their breast removed (lumpectomy).
Some people may have had their voicebox (larynx) removed, which will affect their ability to speak and will change the way they communicate.
These changes can cause you to lose confidence following your treatment. You may be afraid of how others will respond to the difference in your appearance or speech. There are some specialist support groups that may be helpful in this situation, where you can meet with other people who have been through a similar experience.
You can read more about physical changes in our sections on life after cancer treatment and coping with body changes.
Many people have to continue with some form of treatment for months or sometimes years, to control their cancer or to prevent it returning. This may be biological therapy or hormonal treatment.
Having ongoing treatment can often act as a reminder of your diagnosis. It may also have significant side effects and it may continue to have an impact on your daily life. This can affect how you feel and make it harder for you to get back to a normal routine.
We all experience a range of emotions every day, and there are many things that affect our feelings. Emotions vary for each of us - we’re all different and there’s no right or wrong way to feel.
Each person has their own experience of cancer and how it affects their life. It can be a life-changing experience, and most people feel that things will never be quite the same again.
We all express our feelings in different ways. It’s often clear how someone is feeling by their behaviour, what they say and how they say it. Sometimes though, one emotion can disguise another. For example, a person might be frightened but express their fear by being short-tempered and irritable, or angry with those around them. Talking about our feelings can help us understand our behaviour and what’s behind it. This isn’t always easy.
A diagnosis of cancer can bring about a range of strong emotions such as fear, anger and sadness. It can sometimes also bring on depression. While you’re having treatment these feelings can occur at different times, and they may vary in strength and frequency. Often, people find that over time their feelings become easier to cope with. By the time they come to the end of their treatment, many people have adjusted to their situation and the effect it’s had on them and their family and friends.
However, this isn’t the case for everyone. Some people find they’re still struggling to cope with their feelings weeks, months or even longer after their initial treatment has ended.
You can read more about the emotional effects of cancer in our section on talking about your cancer.
Your feelings after treatment
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Many peope find ways of coping with their cancer treatment and its emotional effects. They may find it easy to talk about how they feel, and have people they can speak to. Soon after treatment is over they can start to resume some of their normal activities, and this helps them feel better about themselves and their life.
Once the main part of your treatment is over, you might feel relieved. You don’t have to visit the hospital as often, you can begin to recover from the side effects of treatment, and you may start to think about having a holiday or going back to work.
Having cancer treatment may have stopped you doing some of your usual activities. These might be hobbies, seeing relatives and friends, or things like cooking or gardening that used to be a regular part of your life before having cancer. After treatment is over, you’ll probably start doing these again, though you may need to take things slowly at first.
But for some people - who perhaps appeared to have no problems during their treatment - it’s the time afterwards when their feelings come to the surface. After treatment, they may have more time to think and reflect on their illness and what they’ve been through, and they may find that their emotions catch up with them.
Fear about the cancer coming back
The biggest fear people have after treatment is often about whether the cancer will come back. While you’re having treatment, you know that something is being done to stop or slow the cancer. But when treatment is over, it can seem as though nothing‘s happening and the cancer could return. If you have any aches or pains, even in a different part of your body, your first thought may be that it’s somehow due to the cancer. It’s natural to feel this way.
Fear and anxiety are normal reactions. They may be present all the time, or they may come and go. These feelings can be very strong and difficult to cope with - you may find that you can’t concentrate, are easily distracted, sleep badly or become irritable with others.
Fear and anxiety often lessen over time as you get on with activities not related to the cancer.
As time goes on, most people become less worried that their cancer will come back. It’s not only the worry that eases over time, but the actual risk too - when cancer does recur, in most cases it happens within the first two or three years after treatment has finished.
If you’re concerned about any unexplained symptoms, particularly any that last more than a week, you can always arrange a check-up with your GP. The likelihood is that there will be another explanation for the problem.
If you find that fear and anxiety are ongoing feelings, you can get help from your GP, your nurse specialist, a counsellor or a psychologist.
Isolation and feeling alone
One of the most common feelings people with cancer have is loneliness and a sense of being on their own. This isolation can affect people at different times during their illness. Sometimes this feeling persists after treatment ends.
There can be many reasons why you might feel alone. For example, you may be coping with changes to your appearance. Feeling different from other people can be hard, especially if the differences aren’t obvious to everyone.
You may still feel lonely even if you’re surrounded by family or friends, because it can seem like no one really understands what you’ve been through. You may even miss seeing the hospital staff, as they will probably have given you support and reassurance at your hospital visits.
You may have a lot more time on your own now, for example if you’re still off work. Your family and friends might not realise that you’re feeling alone, or they may assume that you’re enjoying having time by yourself.
The sense of isolation may be made worse if you find it difficult to talk about yourself and your emotions. It can be hard to talk to others about how you really feel, especially if you sense that they think you should be able to get on with life now and ‘feel fine’.
Isolation is a common experience, and one that can be helped by talking about it. You may think that your family and friends are too busy to chat, or worry that you might be a burden to them. But you can be the one to make contact, and you may find their responses reassuring.
Some people find it easier to talk to someone who isn’t close to them - perhaps a counsellor, or members of a support group who have been through a similar experience. You could use social networking sites and the internet to share your experiences and connect with people. You can also talk to our cancer support specialists.
We have more information about loneliness and isolation.
Loss of confidence
An experience of cancer can make you feel vulnerable. For a time, your life may be worked around hospital visits for tests and treatment. After treatment ends it can seem as though you’ve become dependent on others, and that you no longer have control over your life.
Often your social life has to change after treatment. This can also affect your confidence as, for a time, you don’t have the normal chats with friends or colleagues. You can still feel tired and stressed after all you’ve been through, and it may feel as though the things you used to do are now much more difficult.
It can take time after your treatment for your strength to return and for you to feel able to do the things you used to do before your diagnosis. This might be physical tasks such as work, gardening, shopping or housework, or even just things like reading a book or making simple decisions. Getting back to these activities will take time and you’re likely to build up your strength and confidence gradually.
Setting yourself manageable goals can help. As you achieve these, your confidence will grow. You can take back some control in your life by making plans, and this too will help build your confidence.
After treatment, some people are physically and emotionally exhausted. This can cause them to feel low at times. Usually, as they begin to get better and find they’re able to get on with their usual activities, these feelings will improve. However, some people find that they don’t feel better, and they may have depression.
People can sometimes feel guilty about feeling depressed, as they think they should just be grateful that they’ve completed the treatment. Maybe they experienced depression while they were having treatment, and they may have assumed that once treatment was over they would feel better. But this isn’t always the case - cancer has a huge impact on a person’s life and it’s not simply a case of picking up from where you were before the diagnosis. So try not to worry if you’re feeling low - there’s a lot that can be done to help.
Symptoms of depression can include:
having very low moods most of the time
not feeling like your usual self
being unable to enjoy things such as eating, seeing people, hobbies or even your own company
losing interest in your favourite activities
having problems sleeping, or waking early
poor concentration and forgetfulness
feeling helpless or hopeless
feeling vulnerable or oversensitive
a loss of motivation
being unable to start or complete tasks.
Many people experience these symptoms occasionally, but if they go on for more than a couple of weeks, you should seek some professional advice.
Some people also have physical symptoms of depression, such as a dry mouth or a racing heart (palpitations). These may also be related to anxiety.
Letting your family and friends know how you feel can help them to support you. You can read some helpful tips about this in our section on talking about your cancer.
It’s fine to still need help and support even though your treatment is over. There are many ways to deal with depression, and different people find different things helpful. For some, just talking about their feelings will bring relief. This might be with family and friends, or with others who’ve had a similar experience in a cancer support group or through an online social networking site.
You can always talk to your GP or specialist nurse at the hospital. Seeing a counsellor or psychologist can also be extremely useful. They can help you work out why you’re feeling low, and what may help you.
Complementary therapies, regular exercise and/or antidepressant therapy can all be helpful. Think about whether any of these might help you. Looking after yourself and getting the support you need should help you make a complete recovery.
Our section on the emotional effects of cancer has more detailed information about depression and what may help.
It’s natural to feel angry when you’ve had cancer. You may feel angry about having a serious illness, going through treatment and having to cope with the side effects. You could also be angry about the impact the cancer has had on your life as a whole - on your ability to work, your relationships and family life, for example.
Anger can be expressed in different ways. Some people might be impatient, or raise their voice. Others may be very upset and tearful. Letting people know that your anger is not about them, but about your situation, can be helpful. It allows you to express your feelings and not bottle them up.
Anger can be a very powerful emotion, and some people find they can use the energy of their anger in a positive way.
It may give them determination to start a project, such as taking up a new hobby or a sporting challenge. Or it may help them clarify what’s important in their life. However, if anger is starting to affect your life negatively, for example by affecting your relationships, you may want to seek help from a counsellor or psychologist.
Feeling that we have some control over our lives gives us a sense of security, and allows us to enjoy the things we do. An experience of cancer can take away your sense of security and control, and this can be very frightening.
Generally we want to know what is likely to happen to us, so that we can plan for the future. But at the end of treatment there can still be uncertainty, even when you’ve been told that everything has gone well.
You may find yourself asking some of these questions:
What happens now?
Will I ever get back to how I was before?
Will I be able to go back to work?
Will I be able to have children?
Will the cancer come back and, if so, when?
Understandably, the last question is probably the most significant. For some people, their treatment may have been aimed at curing the cancer, so they hope that they can put it all behind them. Others may have been told that the cancer is likely to come back, but no one can say for sure if and when this will happen.
Uncertainty is one of the hardest things to deal with and can cause a lot of tension. You may feel irritable, angry and frightened. It’s difficult to make plans when you don’t know what lies ahead. And even if you ask your doctors what’s likely to happen, you may find that their answers are vague because they can’t say for sure.
This uncertainty can be very hard to cope with, especially when you’re trying to get back to a normal routine.
There are different ways of learning to live with uncertainty. For many people, taking control of the things they can do something about is helpful.
You may want to think about your lifestyle and making some changes - perhaps to your diet, or your work-life balance. You may also consider using complementary therapies if you think they might help you in your daily life.
For some people, getting back to their normal routine will help, especially as they regain strength and are able to do more of their usual activities.
At any stage of a cancer experience, many people find that support from their family, friends or partner is invaluable. Sometimes bonds are strengthened by the shared experience of overcoming cancer. But at the same time, both cancer and its treatment can put a strain on relationships.
The impact on your relationships is likely to depend on many factors, such as how the cancer and its treatment have affected your day-to-day life and how strong your relationships were before you were diagnosed. There’s no ‘normal’ way that things go in a relationship after cancer treatment.
Our section on relationships after cancer treatment has more information, including steps you can take if you’re having problems.
The first step towards coping with your emotions may be just telling someone how you really feel. This isn’t always easy, but it can often help you feel better. You could talk to your partner if you have one, or to a relative or close friend.
Some people find it easier to talk to someone they aren’t close to. You may feel that your GP or nurse specialist would be the best person for you to talk to. Or you could call our cancer support specialists. You may want to contact a counselling organisation. Some NHS cancer treatment centres employ psychologists and/or counsellors, so it’s also worth asking what emotional support is available.
Along with keeping physically active, it’s important to maintain a healthy, balanced diet after treatment. Doing this will not only benefit your overall health but may also help you feel better emotionally.
For more information about improving your diet after treatment, you can read our section on eating well after cancer treatment.
Although it’s important not to push yourself too hard, too soon, gradually introducing regular exercise into your life can help you feel better. You could go for a walk each day, or if you’re able to, try cycling or swimming. Exercise produces mood-improving chemicals in your body and regular exercise will keep your body topped up with these chemicals. Even doing simple stretches may help you feel better.
New evidence suggests that keeping active may lower your risk of getting other health problems and help reduce the risk of certain cancers coming back.
Our Move More section contains information about getting active after cancer treatment, and includes a diary to help you plan your activities.
Writing and being creative
Some people find that it helps to write down how they feel. Keeping a diary, journal or online blog can be a way of expressing your feelings without having to talk them through.
Other people find they can often express their feelings better through painting, drawing or other creative hobbies, such as playing music, than they can through words.
Relaxation exercises can help you cope with your emotions. There are books, CDs, tapes, DVDs and classes that can show you how to relax. You may also want to take up yoga or progressive muscle relaxation, which involves getting to know groups of muscles around your body and learning to tense and relax them.
A selection of relaxation CDs and DVDs are available from Penny Brohn Cancer Care.
There are many types of complementary therapy. They include acupuncture, aromatherapy, art therapy, homeopathy, meditation and reflexology. Some people find that complementary therapies help them deal with the emotional effects of their cancer and its treatment.
If you’re still having treatment for cancer, or taking any medicines, discuss your planned therapy with either your specialist or GP to check that there are no reasons why you shouldn’t go ahead. Many doctors are comfortable with medical and complementary therapies being used together.
Always use a qualified therapist who belongs to a professional body. The British Complementary Medical Association can give you the names of registered therapists and advice on what to look for. Remember to check the cost of treatment beforehand to make sure you’re fairly charged. Some support groups also offer complementary therapies.
Self-help and support groups
Joining a self-help or support group can have many benefits. These groups offer a chance to talk to others who may be in a similar situation and facing the same challenges as you. Joining a group can be helpful if you live alone, or don’t feel able to talk about your feelings with the people around you.
However, not everyone finds it easy to talk in a group. It may help to go along to see what the group is like and then make a decision.
There are many different support groups available. Your hospital or nurse specialist should be able to tell you about local groups. Or you can talk to one of our cancer support specialists.
The internet has become a common way of socialising. There are a number of social networking sites, which many people use to keep in touch with each other. There are also some specific community sites for people with cancer.
Our online community is a social networking site where you can talk to people in our chat rooms, blog your experiences, make friends and join support groups. You can share your own thoughts and feelings, and get support from others.
You may also want to look at the Healthtalkonline website. This site lets you share your experiences, ask questions and pass on advice to others.
It’s important to choose websites of credible organisations, so that you can be sure the information is accurate and the networking sites are well moderated.
If you find that your feelings are overwhelming, then it may be time to get professional help. Making this decision can help you feel much more in control.
You could start by seeing your GP. It can help to write things down before the appointment. When you’re with the doctor, try to tell them how you really feel - this will help them give you the most helpful advice or treatment. You might want to take a friend or partner along to help you remember everything you want to discuss.
It can sometimes help to talk to someone outside your circle of family and friends, who has been trained to listen and help you explore your feelings. Talking one-to-one with a trained counsellor can help you sort out your feelings and find ways of coping with them. You may need to pay for counselling.
Some GPs have counsellors within their practice, or they can refer you to one. You can also find counselling services by contacting the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy.
You might like to watch our video about how counselling can help people affected by cancer.
Clinical psychologists are trained to understand what people think and feel and how they behave, particularly in stressful situations. Psychological therapy can help you to recognise, understand and deal with your emotions. Your GP can give you advice on how to contact a psychologist or psychotherapist.
You may be able to see a clinical psychologist on the NHS, or you can contact the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. You may need to pay for psychotherapy.
Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT)
The way we think about things has a powerful effect on how we feel. This can include our thoughts about ourselves, our world and the future. Some people can develop negative patterns of thinking and behaviour, which keep them feeling low in spirit. Cognitive behavioural therapy is designed to break this cycle.
The behavioural part of this treatment is designed to help you find out what you can do that gives you a sense of satisfaction and pleasure.
Even when nothing else changes, the way you think about things can affect how you feel. The therapist will help you recognise the negative thoughts that are making you feel low, and they can help you find effective ways to challenge them.
As you begin to feel better, you’ll be able to do more, which will in turn help you feel even better. Contact the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy to find out more.
This section has been compiled using information from a number of reliable sources, including: