Living well after cancer

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On this page: Who is a cancer survivor? | Finding a 'new normal' | Adjusting to the 'new normal' | Misconceptions about treatment ending | Key points

Who is a cancer survivor? 

‘Cancer survivor’ means different things to different people. For some, a cancer survivor is anyone who has been diagnosed with cancer. Others use the term to refer to people who are alive many years after their cancer treatment.

The transition from patient to survivor is different for everyone. Some see themselves as a survivor from when they become free from signs of cancer. Others see themselves as a survivor when active treatment stops. Either way, you may wonder: what now?

For many people, ‘survivor’ is a strong and positive term. However, others feel it implies that they will struggle to cope with cancer in the future. Some people do not like being labelled at all and may prefer to put their cancer experience in the past. You may find it difficult to relate to the title of survivor because you believe your treatment was relatively simple. Instead, you may refer to yourself as someone who has had cancer or is living with cancer.

In this section we use the term ‘survivor’ to mean anyone who has finished their active cancer treatment. No matter how you feel about the word ‘survivor’, or the words you choose to use, we hope this section will be helpful.

Improved methods of cancer detection and treatment have led to an increase in the numbers of people surviving and living with cancer for longer periods of time. There are approximately 920,000 people who have been diagnosed with cancer at some stage in their life currently living in Australia. 

Finding a 'new normal'

Cancer is often described as a journey that starts during the process of diagnosis. During treatment, some people feel that their life is on hold, or in limbo.

When treatment ends, you may want life to return to normal as soon as possible, but you may not know how. Or you may want or need to make changes to your life. Over time, survivors often find a new way of living. This process is often called finding a ‘new normal’ and may take months or years.

Adjusting to the ‘new normal’

People often feel both excited and anxious when treatment ends. You may need time to stop and reflect on what has happened before you can think about the future.

  • You may feel a sense of loss or abandonment as your engagement with the treatment team and support from family and friends becomes less intense.
  • On the outside, you may look normal and healthy. But on the inside you may still be recovering physically and emotionally.
  • Your family and friends may not fully understand what you’ve been through, or realise that the cancer experience doesn’t necessarily stop when treatment ends.

It may help to allow yourself time to adjust to these changes, and to ask your friends and family for their support and patience during this period. 

A life-changing experience

Most people refer to cancer as a life-changing experience, with many finding there are positive aspects to having had cancer. Some people discover an inner strength they didn’t know they had. Others may develop new friendships during their treatment or discover new sources of support.

Cancer may cause you to re-examine your priorities in life. You may find you now place more value on your relationships with family or friends, or you may want to make changes to some relationships. Some people are motivated to travel or start new activities. You may want to make changes to your lifestyle, such as reducing stress, starting exercise or quitting smoking. See taking control of your health for more information. This shift is often gradual; even positive change can take time.

After treatment, some people want to help improve the cancer experience for others through advocacy, support groups, fundraising or volunteer work. If this interests you, call Cancer Council 13 11 20 when you are ready to find out what options are available in your area. There is no hurry. Focus first on your recovery. It is important to look after yourself if you want to help others. 

"You never get back to the normal you knew before you had cancer. It’s a series of evolution – evolving as a different person." Julie

Misconceptions about treatment ending

I should be over it

After finishing treatment, people may expect life to return to the way it was before the cancer diagnosis. For many people, the reality is more emotionally and physically complex. Some cancer survivors find they can’t or don’t want to go back to how life was before their treatment. Many feel as though they have fought a battle and need time to recover.

I should feel well

Many cancer survivors have ongoing health concerns because of the cancer or treatment side-effects. These may include fatigue, sleep disturbance, physical disability, poor body image or self-esteem, pain, anxiety, or depression. The after-effects of treatment may make everyday life difficult.

I should feel grateful

Survivors can sometimes feel pressured to feel grateful. However, the impact of cancer and its treatment on your life and future may leave you feeling upset, angry and resentful.

I should not need any more support

Some survivors are surprised to feel that they need more support than ever now.

I should be celebrating

Some survivors feel they should be happy and full of wisdom because they survived, and may feel guilty or confused if they don’t.

I should be the person I was before cancer

Many survivors say that cancer changes them. You may need time to adjust to changes in your body or physical appearance. You may feel different after treatment, even though you look the same. Many survivors feel a sense of loss for the person they once were or thought they’d be.

"After my treatment, a psychologist explained that it’s common to feel like you’ve had the rug pulled out from underneath you after a major trauma. It’s also common to question your view of the world and your beliefs. Knowing that, and how normal it is, helped tremendously." David
Tips: Adjusting to the ‘new normal’
  • Assess your life. Ask yourself: What fulfils me? What is important to me? What gives my life meaning?
  • Focus on each day and expect both good and bad days.
  • Do things at your own pace. Rest between activities.
  • Share your feelings and worries with family and friends, a psychologist or counsellor.
  • Seeing a life coach may help you to develop goals and strategies to get your life back on track.
  • Keep a journal. Many people find it helps to write down how they’re feeling.
  • Talk to your doctor if you are feeling sad or have low moods.
  • Learn some form of relaxation or meditation, such as mindfulness, visualisation, yoga or deep breathing.
  • If you are worried about going out for the first time, ask someone to accompany you.
  • Read about other survivors’ stories. Learning about other people’s experiences may help.
  • Join a support group or attend a survivorship program. Connecting with other cancer survivors may help you cope and feel more positive about the future.

Key points

  • Cancer is often described as a journey that starts at diagnosis.
  • For many people who have finished cancer treatment, life has changed and is not quite the same as it was before diagnosis.
  • After treatment ends, you may find that people expect you to feel well, get on with your life and not need support. For many, this may not be the case.
  • Many survivors find they need ongoing support after their treatment finishes.
  • Having mixed feelings after treatment ends is common.
  • Many survivors don’t feel the way they expect to after their treatment ends.
  • You may find you need time to recover, physically and emotionally, after your treatment ends.
  • Many people find they need time to reflect on their cancer journey. This may mean re-evaluating their values, goals and priorities in life. With time they find a new way of living – a ‘new normal’.
  • Some cancer survivors say there were positive aspects to their cancer experience.

Reviewed by: A/Prof Jane Turner, Department of Psychiatry, University of Queensland; Polly Baldwin, Cancer Council Nurse, Cancer Council South Australia; Ben Bravery, Cancer Survivor, NSW; Helen Breen, Oncology Social Worker, Shoalhaven Cancer Services, NSW; A/Prof Michael Jefford, Consultant Medical Oncologist, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre and Clinical Director, Australian Cancer Survivorship Centre; David Larkin, Clinical Cancer Research Nurse, Canberra Region Cancer Centre; Miranda Park, Clinical Nurse Specialist, Cancer Information and Support Service, Cancer Council Victoria; Merran Williams, Nurse, Bloomhill Integrated Cancer Care, QLD; Iwa Yeung, Physiotherapist, Princess Alexandra Hospital, QLD; Danny Youlden, Biostatistician, Viertel Cancer Research Centre, Cancer Council Queensland. 

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