Life After Surviving Cancer
Surviving cancer is one of the greatest successes ever. More and more people are surviving thanks to new treatments, new technology and more information and focus on prevention. But once you are diagnosed with cancer, your life will change. Even after you have survived.
Fear of cancer returning
“My cancer doctor fired me today. He said he doesn’t need to see me any more. This is great, but every time I feel a pain or I have a stomach ache or I sneeze, I’m afraid it’s the cancer returning. I just can’t get passed that. Maybe someday I will.”
Lynn is a cancer survivor whose feelings are very typical.
“Knowing that you once had this horrible, complex disease that used to be considered a death sentence is traumatic,” says Nicholas B. Pleat, D.O., a medical oncologist with OHC. “I don’t think most people can just turn off all those emotions on the day they are told the cancer is gone and they have survived. It should be a time of celebration but you have to remember, cancer is intense, so it only makes sense the fear of return is just as intense. Survivors still remember the pain, the nausea, the depression, the bills. No one wants to go through that again.”
A cancer survivors’ support group is a good idea for someone experiencing these fears. They have been through the same emotional roller coaster and can best empathize with you. It’s also good to focus on hobbies, activities, work, family and friends to help transition from fearing the future to enjoying the present.
Medical bills and health coverage
Cancer is expensive. Even though someone has survived, they may have substantial medical bills to pay down. They may have lost their job or can’t find one because some employers are reluctant to hire someone who has had cancer for fear the person won’t physically be able to handle work.
“It’s common for a cancer survivor’s health insurance premium to go up so high they can’t afford coverage,” says Susan Nessim, founder of Cancervive, a group that aims to assist people who have experienced cancer deal with return to normal life. She is also the author of Can Survive: Reclaiming Your Life After Cancer. “Or certain scans or procedures won’t be allowed under the plan, so in one way or another, they get cut out of coverage.”
Investigate numerous sources for help. Most hospitals, doctors’ offices and other health care providers will work with you to pay your medical bills. A financial planner could also help you develop a budget to pay your expenses. A headhunter could help you find a good job with a good company who promotes a good work environment – and offers good health benefits.
Forever being identified as your disease
People have the best intentions. They mean well but how many times will you run into a friend and the first thing she’ll ask is, “How are you? You had breast cancer right?”
Survivors are grateful to have survived their disease and treatment. Most want to be supportive of others going through a similar situation. Just look at events like Light The Night and Breast Cancer Month that draw thousands of survivors eager to offer support. But many also want to move on and not be identified as their disease. They don’t want to forever be associated as someone who had cancer.
“I think sometimes friends and family may feel if they don’t ask about the cancer, the survivor may think they don’t care or don’t recognize the struggle they overcame,” says Dr. Pleat. “It might be better to ask a more general question, like ‘How are you?’ or ‘What’s new with you?’. These questions provide the survivor with the option to discuss their experience or not. I know one patient who will proudly respond, ‘I’m a 21 year cancer survivor!’ and another who will tell you everything happening in their life except cancer. I think it’s easier to let the survivor decide.”
You may lose touch with friends who were by your side during treatment. It isn’t that they no longer care, but they may think now that you have survived, you no longer need help or a shoulder to lean on.
“I believe people come in and out of our lives as needed. They were there to help and support you. They were significant in your life at a critical time. Even though they may have slipped away, they had a purpose,” says Dr. Pleat. “Don’t be disappointed but instead focus on those relationships most important to you and continue your friendship with them.”
Your relationship with your spouse or partner may have also changed. Perhaps before cancer, you were fiercely independent. During treatment, you needed help. Your spouse or partner became your “right hand man,” driving you to the doctor’s office, helping you get into bed, administering your medicine, cooking for you, changing your socks. Now you’ve regained your independence and no longer need help. That “right hand man” may feel like they are no longer important in your life or no longer needed. Some may feel shunned while others may continue to act as a caregiver and continue to do things for you when no assistance is needed. Depending on your relationship, you might sit down with them and explain that you are now more capable. You could also talk with a counselor for help.
Accepting your survival
Survivors’ guilt isn’t limited to people who have been in horrible accidents or situations. Many cancer survivors experience the same feelings of guilt: Why am I alive and doing well and others aren’t?
“I think one of the best options for people experiencing survivors’ guilt is to talk with someone,” explains Dr. Pleat. “Sometimes a family member or friend is the perfect person to share your feelings with. Or it may be more beneficial if the other person is also a survivor because they can empathize with you and everything you experienced. Someone who has never had cancer may not understand why in the world you can’t be happy. Another alternative is to speak with a spiritual friend or someone at your church. They are often experienced with consoling others and are exceptional listeners. If your feelings are very serious and causing depression or lifestyle changes, you may want to meet with a therapist.”
“The most important advice I can give is that if you are experiencing any feelings that are troublesome to you, seek help,” adds Dr. Pleat. “There are many support groups and organizations you can turn to. And you can do it on your terms, whether it be a chat room on the Internet or a groups that meets for coffee. Talk with your primary care or cancer doctor. See if your church can help. Turn to those friends that have been with you from the beginning. As one of our patients said, ‘Don’t try to go it alone.’”