Reclaiming the Self after Cancer: The “New Normal” 

Summary: Finding your “new normal” after your cancer diagnosis and treatment journey may not be as smooth of a ride as expected. Facing the emotional toll as well as new and stressful physical limitations may prolong the very reluctance and depression towards returning to the everyday ebb and flow of life. Taking the time you need to determine where you want your life to go after treatment is a must and an important part for reclaiming the self!

After your cancer treatment ends, you may find yourself lost in a fog of the “old” life you remember. Things that once brought a smile to your heart are now just something else happening in the day. Many people believe that once the treatment is done, you will simply bounce back into your “old” life and return to “normal” as you knew it. This is just not the case.

The journey with cancer begins with diagnosis. During treatment, it is normal to feel that your life has been put on hold while you are “dealing” with it. After treatment ends, it may be hard to know how to resume to your normal activities, which is often called feeling or being in limbo. Survivors are often joyful to be free from cancer, but do not face the reality that they have most likely not dealt with the emotional damage that having cancer and going through treatment has done. There may also be physical limitations or issues that are now present that were not before, which will take time to get used to.

Those people you meet who have had cancer and gone through treatment will tell you that the journey does not end when you are marked cancer free. This journey is on-going and lasts a lifetime. These people will tell you that cancer changed them in so many ways and that after treatment, many were different. Felt different. Acted different and had different abilities and limitations. They will also tell you that over time and with patience within themselves, they have managed to find their “new normal,” which you will find eventually, too. While this “new normal” may take weeks or years to arrive, have the patience to stick with your journey to see it through until you can reclaim your personal intimacy once again.

The Most Common Concerns & Misconceptions about the End of Treatment

Some of the most common misconceptions on thoughts that people finishing their cancer treatments should be feeling are:

  • I should be celebrating.
  • I should feel well.
  • I should be the person I was before cancer.
  • I should not need support.
  • I should feel grateful.

We receive a myriad of questions about after-treatment feelings and the physical limitations that arise. Here are some of the top asked questions:

“I was excited that my treatment was ending two months ago. But now, it’s like I can’t get out of this funk. Why am I no longer excited?”

It is common to feel both excited and anxious about your treatment ending. Many need and take time to stop and think back over everything that has happened in the last weeks and months of their cancer journey. This process looks different for everyone. Many survivors feel a sense of loss for the person they “once were,” and for the way things “used to be.” Others feel they should be full of happiness, rainbows and wisdom for others because they survived, but instead harbor feelings of guilt and unexplained anger. There are others who will feel like they have fought and won a battle and need time to rest, while others will bounce immediately back into their old routines and lives.

How you feel after your treatment ends will depend on the type of cancer you had, your temperament as a person, and how much your cancer and treatment have affected your life. Any long-term side effects from the treatment will also affect your outlook. Some of these long-term side effects might include fatigue, difficulty sleeping, pain, depression and mental anguish, loss of libido, erectile dysfunction, intimacy issues, dryness and more, which all make every day life more challenging.

“Everyone is celebrating now that I am cancer free. It’s like they don’t understand my journey is nowhere near over, and it’s taking me longer than I thought to be okay with their excitement. How can I express my need to be realistic about this journey? My journey?”

Being open and honest about your own feelings is always best when dealing with others, even with a touchy and emotionally charged subject like your cancer journey. Not everyone will go through having cancer in their lifetime, so many do not understand the feelings and emotions that come along with this life-long, life-changing journey.

Your friends and family mean you no harm, and once they have been informed of how you feel and why you may not feel as excited as they are quite yet, know that they only want what is best for you. Celebrating your life is okay for them to do, as it allows them to express their feelings brought on from this stressful time as well. Remember to explain to your family why you are still hesitant with certain feelings and allow them the time they need to absorb the information from you.

“For me, having cancer was a positive experience. Is this typically a positive experience for others?”

Many people do find a positive light to their own cancer journey, and some might even call it a “life-changing experience.” Cancer causes many patients to stop their lives in their tracks and re-evaluate choices, decisions, and future plans. These diagnoses often trigger lifestyle changes, dietary adjustments and an overall healthier outlook on life. The shift is often gradual for most but can be very fast and furious for others. After treatment ends for those who have had a positive experience, they often seek out work to help others going through cancer as an advocate or sounding board in support groups.

That said, cancer is not always a positive experience for people. The cancer itself, the side effects, and the general life upheaval is enough to push even the most level-headed person over the edge. The lasting physical side effects and permanent body changes can take years to fully accept. The key in all of the journey, whether it be during the good times or the bad, is to never give up!

“Do I have to let cancer change my life?”

Of course not! And in those moments where the choice of allowing these changes or not is out of your hands- it is okay then, too! The journey of cancer is not a set path, and many areas are rocky, bumpy, or have obstacles you never would imagine. You should never feel pressured to make any life choices or decisions based solely on your cancer, treatment, or journey.

Here are some basic suggestions on how to find your “new normal,” and re-find and reclaim your whole-self!

  • Assess your life. You may want to ask yourself: Am I doing what fulfils me? Am I doing what I have always wanted to do? What is important to me? Then and now?
  • Focus on each day and expect both good and bad days. Consider beginning to journal about your days. This will allow you to see what brings you joy and what brings you turmoil.
  • Do things at your own pace. Avoid pressure to make decisions or start new activities unless you are ready. Plan rest time between activities and work on slowing down your life for a while.
  • If you feel apprehensive about going out for the first time, ask someone you love and trust to come along. Plan for a short trip to a place you are comfortable being in and visiting.
  • Be prepared for mixed reactions from family and friends. If people do not know how to react to you, try not to get upset. Some people avoid contact because cancer brings up difficult emotions. They are dealing with it in their own way just as you are.
  • Share your feelings and worries with family and friends. If you hold in your feelings, no one will be able to help you and you will become more isolated which will not be beneficial for your whole-self healing.
  • Talk to your doctor if you are concerned about sadness or low moods. Do not be embarrassed about discussing mental health issues after facing such an ordeal.
  • Practice some form of relaxation, such as meditation, visualization, yoga or deep breathing.
  • Join a local support group. Speaking with other cancer survivors may help you cope and make you feel more optimistic about the future. There are many support groups connected to local hospitals and organizations. Simply contact these in your area for more details.
  • Attend a survivorship program, if there is one in your area.
  • Read other survivors’ stories. Learning how other people have made meaning of a cancer diagnosis may help you to find your own reason and “new normal.
  • Take part in a survivors’ event, such as Relay for Life. There are many events throughout the year that take place to benefit cancer organizations. Locate one that you like and respect and donate your time!

Finding your “new normal” after cancer treatment may be a new part of the journey you were not expecting. The emotional and mental aspects of fighting and living with cancer must be dealt with to achieve and succeed at living the best mental-health-stable and full life you can live. If you are struggling with the comeback and searching to find your way back to yourself, we can help! Reach out to our Reclaiming Intimacy Through HOPE team for tips, suggestions and articles to help you reclaim your life!

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Resources Used:

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