Adjusting to life after cancer treatment

A happy, peaceful middle-aged woman walks on a trail towards the ocean with her arms stretched out. The trail runs through a bright green beach grass and there is a beautiful rainbow stretching up from the ocean to the sky.


Here are common things to expect after active cancer treatment ends and tips for managing fear of recurrence, changing priorities and roles and depression.


By Amy DePaolo, LCSW, OSW-C, Oncology Social Worker, Danbury Hospital, part of Nuvance Health


While everyone has a unique experience with cancer, most people feel happy and relieved when they overcome it. It is also common to worry about a cancer recurrence, adjust to changing priorities and relationships and grapple with depression post-cancer.


Here are tips for navigating common concerns during cancer survivorship.



What is cancer survivorship?


Cancer survivorship begins at the moment of diagnosis and continues for the rest of your life. It encompasses the physical, emotional and social aspects of life that are impacted by the experience of living with, through and beyond cancer.


Fear of recurrence after cancer treatment


One of the most prevalent and distressing feelings that cancer survivors report is the fear their cancer will return. This can cast a long shadow over everyday life, affecting appetite, sleep, work and leisure activities. Body aches, follow-up medical appointments, anniversary dates or someone else’s diagnosis can trigger this fear.


Tips for coping with the fear of cancer recurrence


  • Engage in relaxing activities: Activities like meditation, yoga or journaling can help ground you and reduce anxiety. Finding a regular practice that brings you peace can create a sanctuary in your daily routine.


  • Make healthy choices: Maintaining a balanced diet, ensuring adequate sleep and exercising regularly can boost your emotional and physical strength. Healthy habits foster a sense of control and well-being.



  • Express your feelings: It’s important to talk about your fears. Share your feelings with friends, family, other survivors or a mental health professional. Sometimes, simply voicing your worries can alleviate their weight.


  • Accept your emotions: It’s all right not to be always OK. Allow yourself to feel sadness, anger or fear without judgment. These emotions are a natural part of your healing process.


  • Stay involved in follow-up care: Regular medical checkups are crucial. Staying informed and actively participating in your follow-up care can help mitigate fears by addressing concerns promptly.


  • Find acceptance and hope: While it’s important to acknowledge your fears, also focus on the joy and hope in your life. Humor and reasons to smile can also be incredibly healing.



Changes to roles and relationships after cancer treatment


Finishing treatment can sometimes feel like losing a “safety” net. You don’t have as many medical appointments or see your cancer care team as often. Relationships and dynamics might have changed during treatment; family and friends usually resume normal activities and roles from before you had cancer and expect the same from you.


Tips for managing new roles and relationships after cancer


  • Communicate openly: Be honest with your loved ones about what you can and cannot do as you heal. Clear communication helps set realistic expectations.


  • Give yourself time: Recovery is a marathon, not a sprint. Be patient with yourself as you adjust to new roles.


  • Accept help: Allowing others to assist you doesn’t mean you’re weak. It’s a way to foster deeper connections and share the load.


  • Plan your conversations: Consider how you want to discuss your cancer experience with others. Having a plan can make these conversations less stressful.


  • Be open with children: If you have children, explain your ongoing recovery in an honest, age-appropriate way. Kids are often more resilient and understanding than we expect.


If you and your loved ones are having difficulty adjusting to new roles post-cancer, a therapist can help guide your conversations and develop a strategy for creating a new normal that feels good for everyone.


Depression after completing cancer treatment


Just like your body needs to heal physically, your mind needs to heal emotionally. Feelings of anger, loss or sadness are normal and may persist after treatment. For some, these feelings lessen over time, but for others, they may interfere with daily life.


Talk with your doctor if you experience any of the following signs of depression for more than two weeks:


  • Persistent anxiety and worry


  • Feeling emotionally detached or numb


  • Feeling out of control, shaky or overwhelmed


  • Feeling guilty or worthless


  • Feeling helpless or hopeless


  • Having difficulty concentrating and focusing


  • Frequently crying or feeling sad and unable to enjoy everyday activities like food or socializing


  • Avoiding situations or activities you previously enjoyed



You can visit your primary care provider for help. At Nuvance Health, you can also contact your oncology social worker or nurse navigator, who can connect you with appropriate help. If you are in crisis, call 911 or go to the nearest emergency department if you can get there safely.



Tips for dealing with depression after cancer treatment


  • Reach out for support: Talk to family and friends or join a support group. Sharing your experiences with others who understand can provide immense relief. Find a cancer support group or event.


  • Practice self-care: Engage in activities you enjoy and help you relax. This could be anything from reading a book to walking in nature.


  • Set small goals: Accomplishing small, manageable tasks can help build a sense of achievement and improve mood.


  • Stay physically active: Exercise releases endorphins, which can naturally boost your mood. Find an activity you enjoy and look forward to.



  • Maintain a routine: A daily routine can provide structure and a sense of normalcy, which can be comforting during recovery.


  • Practice mindfulness: Techniques like meditation, deep breathing and mindfulness can help you stay grounded and reduce anxiety.


  • Avoid alcohol and drugs: These can worsen depression and anxiety. Focus on healthy ways to cope with stress.



  • Seek professional help: Don’t hesitate to contact a mental health professional if you’re struggling. Therapy and medication can be very effective in treating depression.



How does life change after cancer treatment?


Many survivors find they reassess their life’s priorities and values after cancer treatment. Surviving cancer often brings a renewed sense of purpose, strength and positive changes, such as spending more time with loved ones, traveling, pursuing hobbies or engaging in volunteer work.


Tips for managing lifestyle changes after cancer treatment


  • Reflect on your experience: Think about how cancer has shaped your outlook on life. What have you learned about yourself?


  • Focus on what matters most: Identify and prioritize the activities and relationships that bring you joy and fulfillment.


  • Explore new interests: Now might be the perfect time to pick up a new hobby or interest you’ve always wanted to pursue.


  • Give back: Volunteering or helping others can provide a sense of purpose and community.



  • Give yourself grace: Sometimes, people feel pressure to live differently or find meaning in every moment after cancer. Everyone’s joy and purpose are different, and you don’t have to uproot your life because you had cancer. Many people continue working during cancer treatment or return to work after and still have chores and errands. Please don’t feel like you aren’t living your life to the fullest, because these basic human tasks are a part of life. Whatever you do post-cancer, aim to be kind to yourself and others and live without regrets.


The bottom line: Navigating life after cancer treatment is a complex journey, filled with both challenges and opportunities for growth. It’s normal to have fears and concerns after active cancer treatment ends; by addressing them with compassion and understanding, you can find strength and resilience. It’s OK to seek help, express your feelings and take the time to heal — emotionally and physically. Your experience has given you a unique perspective on life, and with support and self-care, you can navigate cancer survivorship with hope and purpose.