5 October 2018
Being told you have cancer can feel like being hit by a bus. The world you know suddenly spins out of control, and life revolves around hospital appointments, treatment and managing side effects. Life becomes about taking one day at a time. You don’t even dare to begin to think about what life after cancer will be like.
Time passes. Now you are facing life after cancer. Suddenly it’s as if you’ve been hit by that bus again – as the thoughts and images of what you have been through tumble into your mind. You know you are one of the lucky ones, only it doesn’t feel like that. A voice inside your head is telling you “you ought to feel relieved”, or “ you should be pleased”. Now, almost without warning, all the thoughts and fears you ignored as you focused on getting through treatment, are raising their head and bubbling to the surface.
You have spent weeks or months coping with the physical, emotional and practical demands of treatment. Your world has shrunk to be about getting through the next day or the next treatment. Now, you have to learn to expand your horizon again as you are left to face life after cancer. You may be painfully aware that it’s a very different future to the one you had envisaged before diagnosis and treatment. Now the images of your future may be uncertain and even frightening. You feel you should be pleased and happy, but instead you are scared as the structure and support that kept you going throughout treatment may no longer be there. You can end up feeling as if you are facing one of the most difficult and complicated times without the support you need.
Treatment may have changed the way your body feels or looks. This change in the body can leave you as a stranger in your own skin. Hair loss, scarring, loss of a body part, weight loss or gain can leave you feeling as if you have lost the person you were before. If your movement, balance or co-ordination are also affected you can end up even more distanced from your old self.
You may feel you have lost your independence, if you have to rely on others to do things for you that you used to be able to do without help.
Cancer treatment puts a huge strain on the body. Often there is little time to recover physically and emotionally between treatments. You may find it difficult to sleep or eat well, making it more difficult for your body to recover. Treatment can drain energy and resources so the simplest task can feel like running a marathon. When the fatigue continues, it can be difficult to live with. Others cannot understand the extent of the tiredness, and it can be hard for them to realise how demanding everyday tasks have become for you.
Once treatment is over, you may feel a sense of pressure to go back to being who you were before the cancer. In many ways, you are still the same person you were before, but the experience has probably changed you too. Regaining a sense of control takes time. It is a process that can take much longer than you may expect.
Everyone is different and has a different experience of cancer. The time it takes to heal is different from one person to the next. You may need to take time to grieve for what you have lost. It is important to give yourself the time and space you need to rebuild your life so you can recover physically and emotionally. It may help to set yourself bite sized goals to help you to regain the energy you need to start doing the things that you want to do.
The cancer diagnosis brings with it the possibility that life may not be as long as you had expected. Where once you may have felt generally safe and secure in the world, you may now experience vulnerability and insecurity. This can create anxiety for people who have never felt anxious before.
Cancer diagnosis can bring with it worries about being able to recognise when something is wrong with your body. You may not have known you had cancer in the first place. Now, your body is different so you are experiencing a whole set of new and unusual sensations.
You may regularly be scanning your body for signs and symptoms that all is not well. Although this can help to relieve anxiety, it can also reinforce your anxiety about the symptoms.
It can be helpful to learn new skills to help you manage your thoughts and feelings. Techniques such as hypnosis, relaxation and mindfulness can help you to create a place of safety and security within, while living with the uncertainty of daily life.
Try these self help tips to help make your life after cancer easier.
You don’t need to cope on your own. The Pickering Cancer Centre and Macmillan run drop in centres where you can find support, meet people going through similar experiences, or have a cup of tea and a chat.
Practice calming breathing to help alleviate the physical sensations, emotions and intense anxious thoughts about cancer. Breathing techniques slow your whole system down and help you to feel calmer. Practice relaxed breathing to help reduce anxious feelings. Deep breathing helps you to relax.
Take a few deep breaths – breathing in to a count of 7 ,22wand out to a count of 11. With practice, this will help you to feel calmer and more in control.
Use your imagination to prepare yourself in advance for stressful situations such as hospital appointments. Close your eyes and imagine yourself in the situation, going into as much detail as possible. Take a deep breath and relax away all the tension. Now imagine feeling calm and relaxed as you cope with the appointment. Take a look at creating-calm-uncertain-world for ways to help you.
Hypnosis allows you to experience helpful thoughts and images as if they are real. Self-hypnosis has proven to be effective in improving relaxation and treating anxiety. Using self-hypnosis can help you to learn to respond to situations and emotions in new and helpful ways. Self hypnosis harnesses the power of your mind and teaches it to work for you in the way you would like.
You can reduce anxiety about what is going on in your body by developing body awareness. This involves passively observing your body and its actions without thinking in terms of “good,” “bad,” “attractive” or “unattractive.” You can think of it like being a scientist investigating yourself. The aim is to be interested in perceiving, understanding, and accepting your body exactly as it is.
This non-judgmental awareness towards your body encourages self-acceptance.
If you find you haven’t got enough energy or motivation for an activity just focus on a small part of it. So, rather than thinking about going for a walk, focus on taking five steps. This will build up your strength to be able to do more next time. Tell yourself “I have taken the first step towards my goal”. Recognising and rewarding your action will help improve your motivation to do more.
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