Cancer often isn’t the sort of illness where you get ill, get better and move on. When your treatment ends, life can look very different. You might have changed your mind about what you want to do (or you might still be as confused as ever). You might look different or have less energy. You might be worried about the cancer coming back or excited about the future. It can be a seriously confusing time.
We've got more about life beyond cancer in our free book Honest answers, sound advice: A young person's guide to cancer
Back to normal?
So what does normal look like now? You’ll keep seeing your doctors for a while and they’ll give you plenty of support, but the world might still seem different to how it used to.
You might have new plans, a new outlook, new priorities. You might feel different physically. You might simply feel tired and muddled up. Instead of getting back to normal, you might feel more like finding a new normal.
Whatever you’re going through, there’s no need to rush anything. Figuring out what you want to do next can be a challenge, especially if you’re not feeling 100% or you’ve missed exams or lost momentum in your job.
It might help to talk through ideas of what you’d like to do now and in the future with your friends and family. It can also be good to spend time doing the things you used to do (this can help other people treat you normally again, too).
And remember that it’s OK to have bad days. You don’t need to pretend to be fine if you’re feeling down. As time goes by, chances are you’ll get more used to what your normal looks like now.
Redefining your plans
Now can be a good time to look into different options. It can help to talk to family, friends, careers advisers, social workers, religious leaders: anyone whose advice you trust.
Writing down short or long-term goals can help too.
The most important thing is to do whatever feels right to you.
Maybe you'll want to pick up where you left off with some goals. With others, you might do a bit of a rethink.
- Don't don't rush to plot out a new direction. The time will come when you're ready to think about different opportunities.
- If you're thinking about aiming for a totally new career, a careers adviser can help you figure things out.
- If you've got no idea what you want to do... that's nothing to worry about. This is a tough time, and no-one will blame you for feeling confused. (And plenty of people live a happy life without ever really knowing what they want to do.)
Tricky things at the best of times, relationships can be even weirder after you’ve had cancer. You might find your family struggles to get back to normal (whatever that is). You might find you’ve missed out on things with your friends or can’t relate to them in the same way you used to. You might struggle to explain to people why it’s not easy to just ‘get over it’.
So take time to figure out what matters – whether that’s working on old relationships, building new ones, or both. You might end up closer to some people while other relationships drift apart.
And if you’re worried about meeting a boyfriend or girlfriend, it can help to talk through your fears. It’s not unusual to feel less confident after having cancer, especially if you look different now. But your family and friends will point out what you’ve got going for you. And counsellors and clinical psychologists are always available to talk about anything that’s on your mind, too.
Late side effects
There’s a chance you could still get side effects a long time after your treatment has finished. This doesn’t happen to everyone and it doesn’t mean your cancer is back. But if it does happen to you, it can be seriously frustrating.
It happens because cancer treatments can damage healthy cells as well as cancerous ones, and this can cause problems that take a while to appear. Potential late side effects range from lung, heart, kidney and liver problems to difficulty having kids. Your doctors will tell you more about this – but remember that not everyone gets late side effects.
To help identify and deal with any late effects, it’s important to:
- Talk to your doctor about whether you’re likely to have late side effects
- Go to your follow-up appointments and tell your doctors about any problems you’re having
- Keep a detailed record of your cancer treatments and your care plan (if you have one), as this can help doctors you meet in the future who weren’t involved in your cancer treatment.
If cancer comes back
Sometimes, even if it’s been a long time since you had treatment, cancer can come back – either where you had it before or somewhere else. Getting that news can be devastating – a real ‘why me?’ moment.
It’s definitely not because of anything you’ve done. It usually happens because some cancer cells have survived your treatment. And it’ll probably mean that a lot of the emotions you felt before – shock, anger, sadness, fear – come flooding back.
Your doctors will talk you through exactly what’s happened and what treatment you might need. Cancer treatments are advancing all the time and might have changed since your first diagnosis. So don’t be afraid to ask questions or to be totally honest about what you’re feeling.
And while it‘s always a bombshell to find out your cancer has come back, you’ve got experience now that you didn’t have before. If you’re feeling low, try to remember that you did – and can – get through this.
If treatment fails
Sometimes cancer treatment doesn’t work. We’d love that not to be true. No doubt you would too. But sometimes doctors do have to let people know that their cancer can’t be cured.
It’s a horrible situation. Everyone reacts differently. But whether you’re angry or sad or frustrated or scared or all of these things or something totally different, there’s no right or wrong way to react.
You might want to do the things you’ve always wanted to do. You might want to spend time with the people you love, doing what you already love. Whatever you choose, talking honestly to people you trust and who will support you can help. That might be your friends or family or someone else – it’s your call.
You might find it helps to speak to a clinical psychologist. They will help you through whatever is on your mind – from dealing with difficult conversations to planning how and where you’d like to spend your last days. You might be feeling pretty powerless, but you actually have a lot of control over decisions that affect your life.
Your doctors will let you know how you can keep your symptoms under control. And they’ll answer any questions you have, too, so never be afraid to ask. This is an incredibly tough situation, and getting the right information is really important as you think through what you want to do now and start making any decisions for the future.