The story doesn’t end here…


I am returning to this question again of what happens to us once treatment ends, as it is one that fascinates me and I never tire of hearing how others experience not just the immediate aftermath of the end of treatment, but the months and years that follow.

You live for the magic day that all treatment is ended and you can at last return to normal life. There is an expectation that when you walk out of hospital on that final day, your cancer story has ended.  Now close the page on that chapter of your life and pick up the pieces where you left off and get on with your life. You are going to live, you are not going to die after all – so rejoice….go live your life, go live your happy ending.

But it’s not so simple. In fact the reality can be quite different. This magical day you’ve dreamed of can  feel like the biggest anti-climax of your life. For me, it felt like that last day of exams, those important exams for which you had studied so hard for months and now the final exam is over but you are left emotionally and physically wrung out.  

You start to pick up the pieces where you left off before you were diagnosed and you tell yourself you can get back to normal now that all treatment is over. So you wait and you wait for your life to return to normal…but does it ever? I don’t believe so – I believe we need to find a new normal. A new way of restoring balance to our lives and a new way of being in this post treatment phase. Besides, have we really cheated death? We have bought ourselves some more time certainly, but none of us, as the old joke goes, gets out of this world alive. There is, to borrow another cliche, nothing more certain than death or taxes and we will have to face our appointment with death another time.  We know, more than most, that we cannot live our lives ignoring this fact.

We are not prepared for the tsunami of emotions that hit us at times. We can be filled alternately with relief and elation at being given a second chance and with anxiety, fear and uncertainty in the months and years after treatment ends. We’ve left behind the security of the hospital care, the doctors and nurses that has monitored us so closely for the past few months and we ask ourselves, who will keep such a close eye on us now? Who is watching to make sure the cancer really has gone away? What do you do about those aches and pains? Do they mean the cancer has returned? Are they related to treatment, your advancing age, a common cold or something more sinister? I certainly felt a form of separation anxiety as I walked away from the doctors and nurses who had been my life-line for almost a year of treatment. How could they just cut me loose like that, abandon me to my fate? I felt very vulnerable and afraid. No one said the words I wanted to hear “you are cured”, so it feels as if I was placed in some kind of limbo, not part of my old life, no longer part of my cancer battleground, and not sure of the future.

When I was going through surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy, I felt as if I had a new full-time job on my hands, a project which took up all my time. It was structured around appointments and  moved through defined stages to a clear goal in sight. I met new people and learned so many new things. When treatment ended, that structure fell apart.I had lost my job. My days were my own again, but I was  unsettled and lost.  My emotional and psychological landscape had changed dramatically and I needed to find a new way to be in the world. While the battle for survival ended, a new challenge was begining – how to make sense of the experience of cancer and integrate it into my new normal. Now the time for real healing begins.

While the treatments for cancer – surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy targets the cancer quite specifically in the body, the experience does not leave the mind, the spirit or the emotions untouched. Some will walk away from the cancer experience and say this is over dramatising things or being somehow over-indulgent, but I have met and talked to too many cancer survivors to know that the experience touches us at a very deep emotional and spiritual level. Some researchers into the area of survivorship have postulated the theory that surviving cancer, fits the theoretical framework of postraumatic stress disorder.

Hearing of the experiences of others has helped me enormously but I would like to hear more. How did you feel after all treatment had ended? Did you manage to pick up those pieces and resume your life before cancer interrupted it? Did you make any changes to the way you lived your life? What are your fears and worries? How has your life changed?

Sometimes there can be a code of silence surrounding the aftermath of cancer treatment. We hear stories of how survivors have gone on to live wonderfully transformed lives, filled with gratitude for their experiences, and while these stories give us hope and inspiration, the reality is not always so for others. So whatever your experience has been in the aftermath of cancer, please consider sharing your story here and let it become part of the sisterhood of experience. I love the quote from Rebecca Falls which says that “one of the most valuable things we can do to heal one another is listen to each other’s stories”. By sharing your story in this way you can help to demystify the confusion, lessen the feelings of loneliness and isolation, and validate the experiences of others.

Related Posts:

Survivor loneliness of women after breast cancer

The post-treatment let-down