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Life After Cancer: Looking Back—and Moving Forward

Finishing treatment for cancer marks the end of what might have been one of the hardest chapters of your life. It’s also the start of something entirely new—and for some, that takes some getting used to.

Completing your cancer journey can bring a wave of complex emotions from joy and relief, to anxiety and fear, to a sense of being disconnected from those around you. All of this is normal, but it might still be hard to process.

“In some ways life is very different now,” said Paula H. Finestone, PhD, a clinical psychologist at Fox Chase Cancer Center. “You can’t stare death in the eye and come away the same person.”

So how can you reconcile your old self with the new and readjust to everyday life? Here are some strategies that may help: 

Put your new perspective to work. Cancer is sobering to the point where it can make everything else feel trivial. That way of thinking can feel alienating, but you can also use it to your advantage.

“You might decide you’re not going to get so worked up about things that are minor in the grand scheme,” Finestone said. “Or it might be a shift in priorities—you might find that you value your relationships more and get less distressed over things you can’t control.”

Acknowledge your uncertainties. You can be over the moon that your cancer has been cured or is in remission. At the same time, you might find yourself worrying about whether it could come back. When that happens, try redirecting your energy towards something positive, Finestone suggested. You might not be able to control what happens with your cancer in the future, but you can take steps to be good to your body now—like eating a healthy diet and being active every day.

Talk to people who understand what you’ve been though and are facing now. Consider joining a support group for cancer survivors. Talking with other former patients can help you feel understood, and ones who are further along in their journey might have helpful advice for coping with your feelings.

Find a way to celebrate. Fighting cancer is hard work, and it’s worth marking the end of your journey with a reward. “Ask yourself, ‘what’s something I wanted to do but that I haven’t been able to because of my cancer or treatment?’ ” Finestone said. It could be anything from taking a trip somewhere you’ve long wanted to go, to gathering family and friends for a potluck dinner, to getting a tattoo or a new piece of jewelry.

Give yourself time. The early days and weeks after your treatment ends can feel like a fog. “It can take a year after finishing treatment to kind of let it all sink in,” Finestone said. “Don’t feel like you have to jump right back into everyday life right away.” Even though you might have dreamed about the day when dealing with cancer wasn’t your top priority, you still might not feel up to picking up right where you left off before your diagnosis. Allow yourself time to adjust.