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Surviving Cancer: The New Normal

When treatment ends, you may expect life to return to the way it was before you were diagnosed with cancer. But it can take time to recover. You may have permanent scars on your body, or you may not be able to do some things you once did easily. Or you may even have emotional scars from going through so much. You may find that others think of you differently now—or you may view yourself in a different way. One of the hardest things after treatment is not knowing what happens next.

Those who have gone through cancer treatment describe the first few months as a time of change. It’s not so much “getting back to normal” as it is finding out what’s normal for you now.

From your relationships with your family and your spouse to eating habits and exercise, cancer will change your life in ways that last well after treatment ends. How do you fight lingering fatigue? What should you eat to help prevent a recurrence? Will you ever have a regular sex life again? These are just a few of the questions that may nag at you as you make the transition from cancer treatment to cancer survival.

Two of the biggest hurdles patients with cancer face post-treatment are fatigue resulting from chemotherapy and/or the accumulated effects of other treatments, and a phenomenon some have dubbed "chemobrain" -- mental changes such as memory deficits and the inability to focus.

How long after cancer treatment ends can you expect fatigue, "chemobrain”, and other post-treatment side effects to persist? Everyone's different, of course, but as a general rule of thumb, expect a recovery period about the same time from your first "cancer scare" moment to the date of your last treatment. Certain side-effects may never go away.

Cancer survivorship is a marathon, not a sprint. That means learning to handle the symptoms that stick around after treatment ends by using those adaptive strategies you learned while on chemotherapy or recovering from surgery.

That may include having planned periods of rest, and think about what times in the day and after what activities you tend to find yourself most tired. If chemobrain is still bothering you, continue using tricks like writing things down, posting reminders to yourself, and asking people to repeat information. Some find it helps to keep a daily diary, noting down the times when fatigue or mental fogginess hit hardest, to help them plan around it.

Make sure your family and your officemates understand that just because treatment is over, that doesn't mean that you're going to be able to jump right back into running the carpool, coaching soccer, and traveling to conferences a week out of every month.

Everyone in your life is ready for treatment to be over, not just you, and although they've been supportive, your friends and family may be expecting you to spring back right away. Take time to provide education to your loved ones – they need to understand that when the therapy stops, that doesn't mean that the effects of the therapy stop immediately.

Manage your expectations as well. For example, you may have certain ideas about how your house should look, how much income you're going to have, and what your commitments to your community need to be. Decide which of those things are really important to you and which ones don't matter quite as much. Let the less-important ones slide or find someone else to do them.

The good news is that you’re not alone – there are almost 14 million people in the U.S. today who are cancer survivors. Programs developed especially to help you thrive as you begin your life after cancer are available as resources. Learn more about the Cancer Survivorship Program at El Camino Hospital.

This article first appeared in the February 2016 edition of the HealthPerks newsletter.

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