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Finding your new normal

The first few months after cancer treatment ends are often a time of change. It’s a time when you need to adjust to new schedules, changes in your body and energy levels, and new understandings of what life might be like. Although many people talk about “getting back to normal,” most people find that this transition period is about finding out what’s normal for you now.

For some people, depending on whether they feel their cancer experience has changed them, normal may mean going back to exactly how their life used to be. For them, the best thing about the end of treatment will be getting back to their regular routine and ways of doing things.

For others, it’s not that simple. You may no longer feel sick, but you might not be feeling that great either. You may be unhappy with the physical or mental changes that cancer treatment has caused. Things that used to be easy – remembering a phone number, walking around the block, eating at a restaurant – may now seem nearly impossible.

Different physical or practical issues (such as new health routines or concerns about money) could now be a part of your life. Your values and priorities might have changed. Material things may be less important to you than spending time with family and friends or enjoying favourite pastimes.

You may find that you’re somewhere in-between. In some areas of life, your new normal is very different, and in other areas, things go back to exactly what they used to be.

It may help you to think about what you want to do when you feel well again. Some people find it fun to celebrate at the end of treatment, like take a vacation or learn something new, like ballroom dancing. Others prefer to get back to prior routines as quickly as possible.

Some people find it helpful to set goals, because this gives them something to think about and work toward. There are different types of goals people may look at, such as travelling, making a career change, going back to school or developing a new, healthier lifestyle.

One way isn’t better than the other – the most important thing is to figure out what works for you.

Doing things in your own time

Cancer survivors are often given overly hopeful information about how long it will take to feel better. You may be told that you’ll feel back to normal in a matter of weeks or months, when in fact recovery can take much longer. Some people never feel exactly the same as they did before treatment. Or you may be told nothing at all – which still leaves you wondering if how you’re feeling is normal.

If you have a timeline in your head and you’re not meeting it, you may feel frustrated and hopeless or as though you’re doing something wrong. You may start to think that there’s something wrong with you and you’ll never get better.

It’s important to give yourself time to adjust to life after treatment – especially if there are major changes in the way you look or feel, how easily you can move around, or your ability to communicate with others. Take things at your own pace. Remember that everyone is different and that nobody can predict exactly how long it will take to recover. Your healthcare team and other people who have had cancer can provide you with information and suggestions for coping with and understanding your recovery, but in the end the experience is your own.

Over time, you might notice that things start to get better. Sometimes, change is so gradual that you don’t even notice it’s happening.

Tips

Here are some suggestions that can help you cope after treatment has finished.

  • Nap when you need to. Your mind and body still need a lot of rest to recover from all you’ve been through.
  • Let family and friends know that you can still use help with housework, errands and shopping.
  • Share your feelings and worries with people who are close to you or with a healthcare professional like a social worker or counsellor. Some people say that this helps a lot.
  • Talk to another cancer survivor or join a support group for survivors.
  • Recognize that you might need to push yourself a little bit. Go out for a short errand, coffee or lunch with a friend, or for a very short walk. At first, going out may feel scary. But over the long term, most people say that getting out makes them feel better.
  • If you’re going back to work, work only a few hours a week to begin with if you can and build up slowly.

Stories

Dr Shawn Li I’m extremely grateful to the Canadian Cancer Society for funding my research with an Innovation Grant.

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