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Life after cancer: 8 tips to help you navigate the ups and downs

In many ways, life after cancer is something to celebrate. You just fought one of life’s hardest battles—and won. But at the same time, the transition isn’t always a celebration. Many people no longer feel like themselves or don’t know how to go back to “normal” again.

When you’re in the middle of your cancer fight, everything is focused on getting better. Now that you’re in remission, it may take time to figure out your next steps.

First and foremost, have grace and compassion for yourself. Being prepared with coping skills, resources and support can help as you navigate this next chapter in your life.

1. Reevaluate your identity or goals

Many cancer survivors say what’s important to them has changed. For example, a job that you’ve worked for decades just doesn’t seem important anymore. Going through cancer is a life-changing event, and we can’t expect anyone to be the same person before and after.

As you evaluate your identity or goals, the first step is to acknowledge that you’re not the same, and that’s OK. Then, give yourself grace and space to reflect on how you have changed. Some people find it helpful to talk with others about how they feel. Or try journaling if you don’t feel comfortable talking.

Identifying values can also help you decide what activities and relationships you engage in and what is important. Your new values will serve as guideposts in your life as you navigate changes in your identity and goals.

Related: How my cancer diagnosis taught me to live in the present

2. Reconnect with friends and social groups

It’s common for cancer survivors to be overwhelmed with stepping back into large social settings. In the beginning, put some boundaries around social gatherings and start with one-on-one or small groups. 

If you’re worried about talking about your cancer, having a script in your mind ahead of time helps relieve some anxiety. When you don’t want to talk about cancer, have a prepared response, such as, “I really appreciate your concern, but I want to enjoy our time tonight and not talk about cancer.” If you do want to talk about it, think about how much you want to say.

3. Ease back into work

Returning to work after cancer treatment can affect you in emotional, physical and social ways. Especially if your career has been a significant part of your identity, you may have feelings of inadequacy and frustration as you try to step back into that role. It’s normal to need time to process these feelings.

The physical effects of your treatment are also a factor in going back to work. Talk through what you can tolerate with your care team and your employer, including if you’re physically ready to work a full day again.

For the social aspect of interacting with co-workers, create a script for work conversations about your cancer. This script may look different than what you say to close friends or in other social settings.

4. Create a coping skills toolbox

Like any life-changing event, your next steps may come with joy, grief, hope, anxiety and a dozen other emotions. It’s completely normal to feel overcome with happiness and gratitude one day and then feel extremely down the next day.

To help with emotions during this transition, create a “coping skills toolbox.” This should include several different tools that help you get through the tough days. Some helpful tools might include:

  • Taking a walk
  • Breathing exercises
  • Reading a book
  • Journaling

5. Combat fear of recurrence

Living in uncertainty is hard to do. Gather information from reliable sources, like your doctors. Often, our minds will go down scary paths, even if it’s not true, especially while waiting for the next test results. Referring to trusted information about your health will challenge those less helpful thoughts as they come.

Use relaxation techniques, maintain healthy routines for sleeping and eating, and take care of your basic needs to help you focus on your well-being instead of fear. Many survivors seek out professional help to hone coping skills. Support groups with others who are in remission can also be a great outlet to share both your fears and hopes.

6. Adjust to physical effects

Sometimes we have the expectation that we’ll quickly return to our pre-cancer physical abilities. But remember, your body is healing after an intense treatment, and that takes time.

Whether you want to get back to your exercise routine or just clean the house, pick a short amount of time, such as 10 minutes, to start. This will let you understand what the limits of your body are right now. Pay attention to your body’s messages and then gradually work toward more activity.

You may also face body image challenges after cancer. Scarring and other physical reminders of your condition may be hard to cope with or triggering. Counseling or therapy often helps you accept the new body you’re in and what that means for you.

7. Reach out for help and support

Nobody can go through this transition alone. We’re social beings and rely on our community and relationships in both difficult times and happy times. Recovering from cancer is no different, so use your support system.

A common concern from cancer survivors is that they don’t want to be a burden to others. But in truth, friends and family want you to let them in. Continuing to be open and honest about your feelings strengthens your relationships. 

Help from outside your personal system is also always available. Consider professional support for your mental health if you need it. Cancer survivors continue to benefit from support groups too. These groups are an opportunity to talk about your experiences, share what you’ve been through, and even guide someone else who may be starting their own cancer journey.

8. Accept your unique cancer journey

In the end, there’s no right way to do life after cancer. You may struggle with this transition in many ways, or it could be much easier than you expected. Any experience you have going through such a life-changing event is valid and normal.

Tapping into your humanness and the necessity for community with others can lighten the load as you learn to navigate your next steps.

Looking for support after cancer? Talk to a patient navigator.  

About the author

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Ann Marie Warren, PhD, is a clinical psychologist and research center director for the Baylor Scott & White Trauma Research Consortium. Her clinical and research interests include the psychological impact of injury and other medical conditions.

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Claire M. Bird, PhD, is a postdoctoral psychology fellow at Baylor University Medical Center.

Life after cancer: 8 tips to help you navigate the ups and downs