The term cancer survivor means different things to different people. For some it means anyone who has been diagnosed with cancer , others use it to describe people who are alive many years after their cancer treatment. A cancer survivor is really anyone who has finished active cancer treatment.
Once treatment is finished you may expect life to return to what it was like before the cancer diagnosis. For many people it isn’t that simple and they and their families face emotional, physical and practical challenges because of the effects of the cancer and its treatment.
It can take time to get over the side effects of treatment. Your side effects will vary, depending on the type and stage of your cancer as well as the type of treatment you had. Any changes in how your body looks, feels and functions can be difficult to deal with, especially if it affects your day to day life.
These changes can include:
- Changes in how your bladder and bowel work
- Menopausal symptoms
- Changes in your sexual activity
Emotions after cancer
Cancer is not something you forget. After treatment stops, you might feel more anxious rather than more secure. Feeling anxious and frightened about the cancer coming back is the most common fear for cancer survivors, especially in the first year after treatment. For some people this fear means they have trouble sleeping and it may affect their ability to enjoy life and make plans for the future.
You may expect life to return to the way it was before you were diagnosed with cancer. This is impossible for some people with cancer – what used to be normal doesn’t feel the same. Cancer may cause you to think about what’s important to you. You may develop a new outlook on life, values and priorities. Conflict may develop if family and friends don’t acknowledge the changes cancer has had on your life. Counselling can help you adjust to life after cancer.
Cancer is not always a negative experience. Some people who have survived cancer said the disease had a positive impact on their life.
Going back to work
Work is an important part of life for many people and not just a way to earn an income. It provides satisfaction and a chance to socialise. Returning to work may be one way to make your life feel normal again.
You are the best judge of when to return to work. This will be different for everyone and will depend on how you feel. It may help to go back for short periods of time and build up as you feel better. You may be anxious to prove that your skills have not been affected by your illness. Try to pace yourself so you don’t get too tired. Consider talking to your employer about working part time, job sharing or working from home.
You might find that relationships with colleagues change when you return to work. Like your family and friends, your colleagues may be unsure of what to say or try to protect your feelings. Some people with cancer have found that being open about their condition eases relationships with co-workers.
Some people returning to work appreciate a casual attitude towards their illness. If you are being overprotected at home, returning to a situation where others don’t think of you as sick might be just what you need.
If treatment has made it impossible to return to work, look into rehabilitation and retraining programs that can prepare you for another job. Contact Centrelink or your hospital social worker for more information.
Maintaining a healthy lifestyle
Surviving a diagnosis of cancer can change the way you look at life. Some cancer survivors alter their lifestyle quite dramatically and others return to their normal, regular routines. Whichever path you choose, eating well and being active can help you feel better, have more energy and help reduce the risk of cancer returning.
Studies on people who have survived cancer are limited compared to studies into preventing cancer. The evidence varies for different cancers but research does suggest that a healthy lifestyle can actually stop or slow the development of many cancers (in combination with conventional treatment).
Whilst more research needs to be done, the same dietary changes recommended for cancer prevention may also help reduce the risk of cancer recurring or secondary cancer.
Unfortunately there is no guarantee that cancer will not return. Healthy habits that include eating more vegetables, fruits, wholegrain breads and cereals, together with regular physical activity, may help to lower the chances of some cancers returning. Eating well and keeping active may also help protect against heart disease and diabetes.
The Living Well After Cancer Program is a free community education program, held throughout NSW, run by The Cancer Council NSW with trained cancer survivors.
This 2.5 hour program includes practical information and open discussion for people who are cancer survivors, their carers, family, friends and work colleagues.
- Learn about the possible changes, challenges and opportunities they may face after completing cancer treatment
- Have the opportunity to connect with others on a similar journey
- Share tips, ideas and activities for living well after cancer.
Visit the Cancer Council website to find out program details near you.
Source: NSW Cancer Council
- The National Cancer Institute – Facing forward series: Life after cancer treatment
- The National Coalition of Cancer Survivorship