Your surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation treatments are finished. You think you should be celebrating your return to normal. But you don’t feel the same as you did before your cancer diagnosis. Breast cancer has changed you in many ways: physically, emotionally, spiritually.
Says Dr. Bonnie McGregor, a clinical psychologist at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, “The brain — your brain’s representation of your body — has to change, like the body has. There’s a disconnect. There’s grief that happens, too. The old picture of who you were is not there anymore. There’s a new picture, a new body. It’s amazing we can heal and we can grow into these new bodies. But part of the healing process is emotionally getting back into your body and dealing with the hurt and the feelings of betrayal1.”
Some side effects of cancer treatment may not go away for some time after your treatment is over, and some side effects may surface even years later: lymphedema, pain, fatigue, difficulty with physical and cognitive functions, difficulty sleeping, osteoporosis, weight management, and social and emotional difficulties.
Your family and friends may be expecting you to take on all the activities you looked after before your diagnosis. It’s important to decide for yourself how much you can handle, and to educate those around you about your capacity for activity. You may need to say “no” more often, ask for support, and schedule rest times, especially in the early days after treatment ends. According to the website Second Opinion, “It may take a year or more to regain a sufficient level of energy and sense of well being2.”
Your oncology team, which has worked with you so closely during treatment, will no longer be seeing you as often. You may need to mourn the loss of that connection, while building relationships with the doctors and nurses who will follow up with you.
Take care of your emotional health. Share your feelings and concerns with your family and friends, or write them down in a journal. Join a support group for survivors and read other survivors’ stories for tips on how others have made meaning out of their experience. Take time for relaxation techniques, such as meditation, visualisation, yoga, or deep breathing. If sadness or anxiety are making it difficult for you to take part in daily activities, ask your doctor for a referral to a counsellor.
Some breast cancer survivors find their experience to have been life-changing. You may have new values or a new outlook on life. You may have found new meaning in your spiritual beliefs. You may decide to take on new activities, such as travel or a new career path. You may want to improve lifestyle habits, such as better nutrition or quitting smoking. Or you may want to share what you’ve learned from your cancer experience by volunteering and telling your story to other cancer patients and survivors.
Indeed, your life is definitely different now than it was before your cancer diagnosis, and over the next several months, you will develop a “new normal.”