Once your treatment is over, you may feel a range of emotions. Everyone’s experience is different – you may feel happy, relieved, fearful and anxious all at the same time. Getting back to normal for you may take some time, and you might find that your values and priorities have changed. You may change your diet, the things you do or the people you see, or things may go back to exactly how they were before your treatment. There’s no right or wrong way.
The most important thing is to give yourself plenty of time to adjust to the changes and find out what works for you by looking at all the support that is available.
You won’t see your doctors and nurses as much as when you were having treatment, but you will still have regular check-ups with your doctor. Your first check-up will usually be about six to eight weeks after the end of your treatment. After this, you will be seen every three to four months and eventually only once a year. Your appointments may continue for several years. It’s normal to feel anxious about these appointments, so finding ways to manage your anxiety can be helpful. The following tips may help.
If you have any worries or concerns in between your scheduled appointments, contact your doctor or nurse.
Some people recover quickly after their treatment with few or no problems. For others, it can take weeks, months or even years. Some long-term effects may even be permanent. Everyone is different, so you may have long-term effects that are different to someone that has had the same type of cancer and treatment as you.
Some treatments for cancer may involve surgery, such as breast removal (mastectomy), or a colostomy. You may feel uncomfortable about how this makes you look and feel afterwards. Talk to your family and friends about how you’re feeling. It may also help to join a support group to talk to people who have been through similar experiences to you, or speak to a psychologist or counsellor.
Fatigue is extreme tiredness and is common for people who have had cancer or treatment for cancer. It’s very different from normal tiredness because it doesn’t always go away with rest and sleep.
Fatigue can be frustrating and can impact your daily life. It’s normal for some people to feel tired for several months after treatment for cancer. Although doctors don’t know the exact causes of fatigue after cancer treatment, there are some things you can do that may help.
For further advice about ways of managing your fatigue, speak to your doctor or nurse.
Pain after cancer treatment can last for many months. However, some people may have no pain at all. Chemotherapy and surgery can damage your nerves and cause pain and numbness in certain parts of your body, such as your hands and feet. If you have any kind of pain, tell your doctor or nurse.
The earlier you get help and treatment for your pain, the easier it will be to relieve it. Your doctor may suggest taking over-the-counter painkillers, such as paracetamol or ibuprofen. Over-the-counter medicines can be bought from a pharmacy without a prescription.
Cancer and its treatment can sometimes affect your ability to have children. Infertility means that you’re unable to conceive a child despite having regular, unprotected sex. This is sometimes temporary but it can also be permanent. Being told you’re infertile can be overwhelming, so it may be helpful to talk to someone about how you’re feeling.
Some cancers can affect your sperm, for example, testicular cancer can lower your sperm count. Certain cancer treatment, such as radiotherapy, can also affect your ability to get an erection (erectile dysfunction).
There are different ways to improve male infertility problems, including medicines and therapies. You may have been advised to store some sperm before your treatment. This can be used for artificial insemination or in vitro fertilisation (IVF) when you want to start a family. You might find it helpful to talk to your cancer nurse specialist if you’re having problems.
If you're a woman, fertility depends on having a supply of eggs from your ovaries and having a healthy womb. Some chemotherapy medicines won’t affect your fertility but others may temporarily or permanently stop your ovaries producing eggs. This can mean that you may not be able to become pregnant and have symptoms of the menopause, such as your periods stopping, hot flushes, dry skin and vaginal dryness.
Your GP may prescribe hormone replacement therapy (HRT) if your cancer has caused early menopause to help prevent coronary heart disease and your bones from thinning (osteoporosis). However, HRT is not recommended if you have had breast cancer because it may increase the risk of your cancer returning.
Surrogacy or adoption may be alternatives for you to consider. Having problems with your fertility can be an anxious and stressful time. Speak to your doctor or nurse, who can put you in contact with support groups or a counsellor. Your partner, family and friends may also be able to offer support.
Many people experience changes in their sex life during and after cancer treatment. These changes are usually temporary but for some people they can be permanent, which means having to change the way you approach your sexual relationships. Sexual problems can be caused by:
It’s important to let your partner know how you’re feeling so they don’t feel like they are being rejected. There are other things you can try if you’re having problems with your sex life, such as being intimate in other ways (hugging, kissing, and massaging), or experimenting with other ways to help increase your sex drive. You may find it useful to speak to a sex and relationship therapist for more help and support.
One of the hardest parts of life after cancer treatment is dealing with the fear of your cancer returning. This fear is perfectly normal and affects seven in 10 cancer survivors. Unfortunately, it’s impossible to predict if your cancer will return and the risk of it coming back is different for every person. It’s important to eat a healthy balanced diet, exercise regularly and attend your follow-up appointments with your doctor. However, this can’t guarantee your cancer wont return.
You may find that over time, your fear of cancer coming back reduces and you may start to think about it less and less. Your doctor can tell you which symptoms to be aware of.
Thinking about your cancer coming back can make it hard for you to carry on with your daily life. Concentrating on what is important to you each day can be a form of distraction from these thoughts. Joining a support group or speaking to a counsellor may also help.
You may want to go back to work as soon as possible for financial reasons or to regain a sense of normality. For some people though, it can take several months to adjust to everything that has happened and get used to the physical and emotional changes. For more information, see coping with cancer and work.
After your cancer treatment, you may decide that you want to live a healthier lifestyle to try to reduce the chances of your cancer coming back. Your doctor can help you to develop a plan for living healthier. He or she may suggest some of the following.
Produced by Dylan Merkett, Bupa Health Information Team, May 2012.