Adjusting to Life after Cancer

By Mary McCabe, RN, MN,

Friday, June 12, 2015


Many people who have completed active treatment for cancer describe the post-treatment “survivorship” stage as a positive time. But it’s also natural to have concerns and unexpected feelings bubble up. At Memorial Sloan Kettering, we’re dedicated to helping you handle this new phase of life, by offering ways to keep you as active and healthy as possible and developing a plan of care for regular cancer screenings and follow-up visits.

  • Many survivors have feelings they didn’t anticipate.
  • It’s normal to think about what’s next.
  • Ask your doctor and nurse about your follow-up plan of care.
  • Strategies exist for handling pre-test anxieties.
  • There are no fixed rules about sharing your experience.

The end of active treatment means your doctors aren’t examining you as intensively. You may, for example, experience an unusual pain and wonder what to do about it. You’re relearning what’s normal — just a regular pain or sensation — versus what might be a sign of the cancer coming back.

To many people’s surprise, some survivors also report feeling some sadness once active, intensive treatment ends. This can be confusing; the expectation is that you’d feel happy. Unexpected gloominess, anxiety, and even fear about the future are common — and perfectly normal. We’ve found that learning more or talking about what you’re experiencing can ease some of the intensity of what you may be going through.

This readjustment takes time and ongoing communication with your nurses and doctors. Even though you’re not in daily or weekly contact anymore, you can still let your team know about your concerns. Some people find it helpful to make a list of questions to review with their doctors and nurses at their follow-up visits. Over time, most people begin to feel more comfortable with their bodies again.

Easing Pre-Visit Anxiety

To put yourself at ease before a follow-up scan or appointment, experiment with these strategies, which have worked for others:

  • Write down any questions you have about long-standing symptoms or confusing or difficult emotions.
  • Ask a friend or family member to sit with you while you wait for appointments or scans, for example.
  • In the days before your appointment, schedule activities that can help distract you from worrying, such as going for a walk, talking with friends and family, or doing yoga.

If your anxiety becomes persistent or overwhelming, or makes it difficult for you to keep your appointments, consider talking to one of our social workers, a Resources for Life After Cancer program specialist, or a mental health professional.

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To Share or Not to Share

When it comes to deciding when to tell others about your cancer, there is no right or wrong approach.

For most people, the answer to the question of when to tell others about your cancer experience — particularly those you might become intimate with — is about timing and trust. Some feel it’s important to let a person get to know you well first before discussing a cancer diagnosis; many people wait until things progress to the point at which keeping a cancer history a secret feels more uncomfortable than talking about it.

Others feel they’re a whole new person because of the diagnosis and want to communicate this part of their personal story right away. There’s no right or wrong approach.

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Mary McCabe is Director of Clinical Programs for MSK’s newly established Cancer Survivorship Center. This comprehensive initiative is designed to understand and meet the needs of people who have completed active treatment for cancer.


Just reading the above blog made me feel better or should I say normal about the fear in the back of my mind of getting a reoccurrence of breast cancer. Thank you! After my treatments ended i felt actually sad and afraid. It is a weird feeling. Anyway I am going to the Survivor celebration next Tuesday and I look forward to seeing people who have made it for many years they give you encouragement and I thank you for that as well.

Annie, we're so glad to hear the blog post made you feel better. Have a great time at the Survivor Celebration!

I am currently on Herceptin every 3 weeks, and taking Tamoxifin on a daily basis. I want to start taking a liquid dietary suppliment daily for replacement of my vitamins Im currently taking. Is it safe enough to or should I stay away from taking it?

Dear Sandy, it's best to discuss any vitamins or supplements you wish to take with your oncologist. He or she can answer your questions about any risk of adverse interactions with your treatment or other health issues that need to be considered. Thank you for reaching out to us.

I had Primary Brain Lymphoma. I am now in remission for 5 years. After 7 months of chemo at MSK I was in remission and was fine but very tired. I was able to go back to work. Two and a half months after I was in remission the PBL returned and again I was receiving chemo at MSK. I received chemo for 5 more months and again in complete remission. The second time I had memory problems and was unable to return to work. Obviously the cancer was the worst thing that could have happened to me but the 2nd worst thing for me was not being able to return to work due to my disability caused by either the cancer or the chemo. I'm still here and was able to meet my Grandchildren. That makes survival worth it.

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