I Finished Cancer Treatment! So Why Do I Feel Worse Now?

sad and pensive womanThe day I had been waiting for had arrived. I’d finished cancer treatment and could move on with my life after nearly a year of difficult treatments. I remember the feeling of elation that followed me after that last day of radiation treatment. I finally felt free. My husband and I took a trip to Hawaii to celebrate, and I felt more alive than maybe ever in my life. It was like I’d been holding my breath for months and now I finally was able to exhale. I’d finally been released from the physical and emotional confinements of cancer treatment.

When I returned from my Hawaiian “cancer-cation,” I found that things were already changing from the way they had been during treatment. There were no more supportive cards arriving in the mail, email check-ins from friends started to dry up, and the fruit baskets stopped arriving. Then the calls offering support started to dry up. Medical appointments became less frequent. Support systems began to fade. And then came the feelings—big, dark, troubling feelings. I found myself thinking, “I could have died; I still could die!” and the recognition that I would be living in the shadow of cancer for the rest of my life began to emerge.

Soon it was time to return to work, and I began to feel the weight of expectations from friends, family, and coworkers. I was done with treatment, and everyone wanted me to return to life as normal. Everyone was expecting it. But I knew I was forever changed and there would be no going back to “the old me.” I began to feel the pull of depression and anxiety, as well as the need to make meaning of my cancer experience. I began to wonder if it was a good time to reach out for help.

Does this experience resonate with you? It seems to be a common theme among cancer survivors I have worked with. In fact, it’s an experience so common and almost universal to people who have had cancer that many cancer hospitals and treatment facilities are now taking action toward creating survivorship programs that address the ongoing mental health needs of their patients. There is a reason they call the period after cancer “the new normal.” It’s an acknowledgment that the old, precancer life is gone and that we have to make our way to finding a new life for ourselves.

Why do so many of us who have experienced cancer face depression and anxiety post-treatment? Getting a cancer diagnosis is one of the most shocking and frightening experiences a person can face. It is, for many people, a traumatic experience. Even for those who don’t feel traumatized by it, it’s a moment that is seared into our minds forever and something we will never forget.

Immediately after diagnosis, we go through an overwhelming period where we struggle to manage our fears and grasp exactly what we will be facing in our treatment. We often have to make quick decisions about treatment options in a very short period of time. There is little time to process all the fear and trepidation we feel. Then treatment begins and we focus on getting through it. We stuff down our emotions and connect with the warrior part of ourselves. And then treatment ends and emotions that were buried as part of self-protection begin to resurface. The intensity of the feelings we experience can catch us totally off guard.

We may experience anxiety and depression. For many, the end of treatment only marks the beginning of a whole new set of challenges to be faced: how to manage the anxiety and fears of recurrence. How to find meaning in an old life that no longer fits. How to process the enormity of what you’ve been through. You may be feeling as I did—lost and rudderless in a your new, post-cancer identity.

You may be wondering how to get your life back on track after cancer. I wish I could provide you with some kind of a map to guide you, or a spreadsheet detailing exactly what to expect in your emotional and physical recovery. The reality is that just as each of us has a unique cancer diagnosis and treatment experience, each of us will have a different experience in how we process our experience with cancer.

Some will need extra time to recover physically and to reconnect with and forgive a body that betrayed them. Some will want to explore a newfound sense of meaning that they found in their cancer experience. Others may need help in implementing a plan to finally start to put their health and self-care into priority. Some may connect to all of this and more.

If any of this resonates with you, you’ll likely find that connecting with a supportive therapist who understands the issues unique to people with cancer will be helpful to you. The kind of emotional exploration done in therapy will arm you with tools for coping with the depth of emotion you feel and allow you to get back on the path to living in your new, post-cancer identity.

© Copyright 2014 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Stacey Fuller, LMFT, therapist in Pasadena, California

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Gabriel

    Gabriel

    August 6th, 2014 at 12:13 PM

    Cancer is something huge to contend with and after waging a battle against it like this I don’t think that there could ever be a going back to the old you.

    You have become someone different after fighting this disease. You have known pain and suffering, fear and anger that others may not ever understand. Great for them, hard for you because there is no real way of putting this into words. You have to do the best that you can to get back into the mormal routine just so long as you and everyone aorund you kind of knows that there will now have to be a new normal and it could take a while for everyone to adjust to that.

  • gavin

    gavin

    August 6th, 2014 at 3:15 PM

    I find that with a lot of survivors there is this sense that they are going to feel great when this is all over so they are surprised and very let down that even once they have gone through all of the treatments and all of that is over with they still feel terrible and just a little off for lack of a better word. I think that there are also a lot who deal with this guilt over why they survived and maybe some of those who they met in treatment did not and why they can’t shake this feeling of being depressed when everyone seems to be telling them that they should be happy to be alive.

  • Lyn S

    Lyn S

    August 6th, 2014 at 10:29 PM

    I am a 15year survivor of Cancer of Unknown Primary and a support group facilitator. I clearly remember the feeling of elation that very quickly changed when everyone expected that when I was out of treatment life would go “back to normal”. I floundered around trying to cope with feelings of abandonment, isolation and feeling that nobody really understood my feelings, especially after having so many people looking after me for the period of my treatment. I have found this one of the main issues that people discuss at support groups too. Its called survivorship and we don’t get forewarned about it enough in my opinion. There certainly are some very good services around in some countries but not all. This initial period is one where people need to be supported and guided just as much as when they are having treatment. Most of us never expected to be diagnosed with cancer, and it completely shakes our world to its foundations. True healing needs to encompass all aspects of the journey, not just the initial stages.

  • Reesa

    Reesa

    August 7th, 2014 at 12:01 PM

    It could help to get involved with a group of other cancer survivors.

    It could be useful to be in a setting where you are with others who have the same sort of experiences that you have had and they might have something that they can share with you that will help you through this stage.

    You want to feel strong and whole again but there is this part of you with which this is not resonating. Talking to other people who are experiencing the same kind of journey could be a huge help.

  • Stacey Fuller, LMFT

    Stacey Fuller, LMFT

    August 8th, 2014 at 8:03 AM

    Thank you so much for the comments. You all are absolutely right. This experience seems almost universal amongst survivors and it simply isn’t talked about enough – or understood enough. Finding other people who have been through it is the beginning step in making sense and meaning out of it.

    This was one of the reasons I decided to utilize my skills as a therapist to help people going through the same experience. The process of finding that new path after cancer can be really daunting. Demystifying the experience and getting support through the post-treatment phase is so necessary.

  • Xavier

    Xavier

    August 8th, 2014 at 10:49 AM

    This is a long, strange trip that you have been on!
    Most of us think that okay, I am physically healed, so I should be great.
    We don’t think about the emotional roller coaster that we have been on and how this could have changed us, not always for the better.
    You show me someone who comes through this absolutely the same and I will show you someone who is likely not being too honest about their feelings.

  • loretta

    loretta

    August 9th, 2014 at 12:35 PM

    The survivorship programs could be a blessing to many

  • Emery

    Emery

    August 11th, 2014 at 3:13 PM

    This should most definitely be a time when you look upon the many blessings that you have been given rather than the downside. I know that this has to have been terribly difficult and painful, but look at the new lease on life that you have now been given. You wnat to focus on the downside instead of the incredible new up that you are being rewarded with?

  • Stacey Fuller, LMFT

    Stacey Fuller, LMFT

    August 11th, 2014 at 5:18 PM

    Thanks for your comment, Emery. I agree with you that life after cancer can feel like getting a new lease on life and I absolutely echo your belief that we should take time to look at the good side and even the silver linings of the cancer experience.

    As a therapist, I also know the value of taking examination of both the good and the bad. As I described in my post, the overwhelming feelings that come up after completing a lengthy cancer treatment are nearly universal amongst survivors. Many people experience some kind of post-treatment depression and/or anxiety; it’s a normal part of processing the experience of possibly losing your life and living with the possibility to recurrence. Therapy can help people process that experience, find the meaning in it and move back into a new life.

    I would guess that most people who have been through the cancer experience are able to come away with a real sense of appreciation for their lives. I certainly feel that way. But it can take time to get there and cancer survivors need to give themselves the space to just feel their feelings – light and dark – for a while.

  • Deb

    Deb

    September 22nd, 2014 at 8:33 PM

    I stumbled across this post while trying to research why I felt so sad and emotional after I had been surgically cured. From diagnosis to surgery was 3 weeks! I had uterine cancer that was found early grade 1 stage Ia. Other than being cancer free you can’t get much better results than I got. In that three weeks I didn’t cry, I wasn’t scared, I really KNEW everything would be fine. Suddenly two weeks post op with a clean bill of health I’m caught off guard feeling scared and crying! Sometimes when people ask me about it and share their own stories of diagnosis and treatment I find myself almost embarrassed by how insignificant my story is. I am so lucky and truly thankful, I wish that is all I felt. Working through this will take time I suppose–too bad I can’t work through the emotional pieces as fast as the physical.

  • Stacey Fuller, LMFT

    Stacey Fuller, LMFT

    September 23rd, 2014 at 12:09 PM

    Thank you so much for your comment, Deb. You are right – working through your feelings after a cancer diagnosis can take time. We sometimes forget that receiving a cancer diagnosis is a very traumatic experience for most people. It catches you off-guard and it turns your world around. Couple that with living with fear of recurrence and you can see why your response is so very normal.

    As a cancer survivor and a therapist, I would recommend that you seek out the help of a therapist in working through these feelings. It helps tremendously to have that support. I wish you all the best.

  • Carolyn

    Carolyn

    October 1st, 2016 at 9:16 AM

    I can’t understand why I feel so bad. No energy sick stomach. Went into the hospital for a few days felt good when I got home . A day later seem to go down hill again.

  • Mary S.

    Mary S.

    May 6th, 2018 at 10:12 PM

    Thank you for your on point article. I recently completed chemo after having had a mastectomy. I feel very anxious and depressed wondering if and when the next shoe will drop. I’m having trouble finding my joy again.
    Plus still dealing with my less than attractive appearance ….
    I’m back at work as a teachers aide and this has helped a little but I’m feeling very disconnected.

  • Carolyn

    Carolyn

    July 31st, 2018 at 4:23 PM

    After surviving a stage 2A breast cancer that included 2 initial tumors, surgery, reconstruction, chemo and then a recurrence immediately following with the full regimen of surgery, chemo and radiation, I had the sense that there was something better I could be doing with my life, rather than working 40 hours a week with very little time for friends or doing the things I love. Now that it’s over, I’m back to that 40 hour work week, and life seems utterly meaningless. I feel trapped because I need health insurance. Luckily I’m close to medicare eligibility but still need to work at least another year to make up for the financial losses that resulted from all the medical treatments and natural therapy costs. I feel resentful about having to work when I’d rather be doing other things, like becoming a Master Gardener, nurturing meditation practice and spending time with friends. I find myself shamelessly unloading my angst on my husband, who has really not much to do with my problem, but he’s the closest person to me. I don’t have fear of a recurrence, even though I know it’s a possibility. I just want to do more meaningful things in my life. Frustration and angst continually cloud my judgement. My mind keeps telling me, ‘hey, you could die anytime, so why are you sitting at a desk, messing around with all this technology. You could be out getting fresh air, doing things you love, being with people who inspire you and getting your body exercised.” I can’t seem to find a way out, and the more I try the worse it gets. The concept of “resigning myself” to the situation is unpalatable. I’ve made many positive changes in my lifestyle, mostly slowing down and trying not to cram every single moment with my “to do list”. You would think I’d be happy about that, but no, that’s not good enough. Then I feel the shame of being self-centered. Then I look at our polarized country, the deterioration of environment, and the ruts keep getting deeper. Most people see me as a very positive person, but deep down inside it’s “all of the above”. Thank you for allowing me to get these feelings out.

  • Helen

    Helen

    October 18th, 2018 at 8:31 PM

    I came across your article and immediately felt connected to everything you went through. I had a mastectomy September 2017, then chemo and finally radiation. After that I basically thought I would return to normal but it just doesn’t happen like you said. If I went to a store I became weak and had panic attacks. My mood was up and then down. I couldn’t remember words when I spoke because I had chemo brain. I’ve read a lot of articles online but yours was describing everything I’ve gone through. Thank god I found you and thank you.

  • Linda G.

    Linda G.

    December 11th, 2018 at 10:41 AM

    After 3 years cancer free i feel lost and feel like there is nothing look froward too.something I feel like there is nothing left for me.So what do you do?

  • The GoodTherapy Team

    The GoodTherapy Team

    December 11th, 2018 at 10:45 AM

    Dear Linda,

    We’re sorry to hear that you are having a difficult time. If you would like to consult with a mental health professional, you can find therapists in your area by entering your city or ZIP code into the search field on this page: https://www.goodtherapy.org/find-therapist.html.

    Once you enter your information, you’ll be directed to a list of therapists and counselors who meet your criteria. You may click to view our members’ full profiles and contact the therapists themselves for more information. If you need help finding a therapist, you are welcome to call us. We are in the office Monday through Friday from 8:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. Pacific Time, and our phone number is 888-563-2112, ext. 1.

    Kind regards,
    The GoodTherapy Team

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