Coping With Cancer: When Treatment Ends

It is good news: the intensive stage of cancer treatment is coming to an end. Through chemo, radiation, surgery and other remedies, we cancer survivors have endured a lot and managed the rest of life as best we could. We feel grateful, but that is not all.

When the routine and intensity of treatment ends, painful and troubling emotions emerge for many cancer survivors. Now we begin to feel and process all that we have been through. During treatment, we focused on day-to-day coping. Afterwards, all the feelings of this traumatic time are still within us. In this less busy, quieter time of recovery, we begin to feel them. Ironically, the crisis has faded, but we are just beginning to experience its full impact.

We feel the little things-the pain when a nurse had trouble finding a vein, or the frustration or boredom when we sat a long time in waiting rooms. We also feel the big scary things: when we waited for test results not knowing, when we had to tell friends and family about our diagnosis, when we contemplated the possibility of our own death. The first months after treatment ends are when bottled-up memories and feelings come uncapped.

We also may feel frightened about ending treatment. At least during treatment we have some secure structure in life and some affirmative steps we are taking to beat cancer. After treatment we are not sure how to relate to cancer, and we can feel more alone with it. Our medical support team is gone. Our daily routines are mixed up again.

As our own feelings surge, our families, friends and co-workers think we are done with cancer, and they may be tired of dealing with it. They want to be assured that we are all right and to put the cancer experience in the past. But most of us cannot do that right away, so we feel a little crazy and guilty. We think that we ought to be able to move on, but it’s not that easy. Does this sound familiar to you? I call this time the Feeling and Healing Phase of recovery.

What helps us through this Feeling and Healing time right after treatment? Here are seven specific steps that you can take on your own behalf during this tender time.

* Allow time for your body to rest and recover

* Build emotional support perhaps by joining a support group, doing therapy or coaching, or participating in chat rooms and other virtual forums

* Engage in activities that you enjoy

* Ask for continued support: let dear ones know what’s going on

* Use your creative powers to express your feelings and process the experience

* Discover or design a retreat space for yourself and give yourself some time there

* Take an imaginary retreat through visualization

In the months right after treatment the key is to allow yourself space and time to absorb and process all that you have endured. You need ways to express your emotions and to share them, so you do not feel as alone. With time, the feelings begin to lose some of their grip. We feel less overwhelmed and new questions begin to pop up in our minds.

At some point-usually many months after treatment ends-you will begin to notice that thoughts and feelings of cancer take up a little less time and energy and that you are naturally starting to think more about the rest of your life. This may come in the form of dissatisfaction with some aspects of your life, or it may come in the form of yearnings or wishes for your life. You may find yourself curious and drawn to trying something new. You may be confused. You start feeling the desire to get back to life, but you recognize that you cannot go back to what life was before. Given all that you have been through, you may not know what you want anymore or how to go forward. These thoughts and feelings signal that you are shifting to the next passage of post-treatment recovery which I call the Now What? Phase.

There is some really good news here: at this particular time in your healing, there is a unique opportunity to use the fear, gratitude, and insights that arose from your cancer experience to transform your life. You have had to tap into your own strengths to cope and to manage fear. You may also have gained a lot of clarity about what is most important to you in life. Gather those insights to steer a course forward.

Life coaching is particularly helpful at this time. What is life coaching? It is a relatively new specialty that has evolved over the past 25 years. A coach guides a process designed to help each participant define his or her deepest values and goals and move toward building a life that reflects those aspirations. The assumption in coaching is that the participant is completely creative and resourceful and the expert in his or her own life. Coaches help you put that tap root down into your own insight, and then support you as you take action based on that insight.