Life After Cancer: The Emotional TSUNAMI of Being a Survivor

Side view of person with shoulder-length hair looking to the side out window of trainCancer is a life-changing and potentially life-threatening diagnosis. Before the news can even sink in, you buckle in for your wellness team’s treatment recommendations, which may include chemotherapy, radiation, and/or surgery. The “warrior mentality” kicks in as an unexpected fight against your own body begins in earnest.

During the active treatment phase, you are surrounded by medical professionals and, if you’re lucky, family and friends supporting you through the various treatments. Then, suddenly, hopefully, you cross that finish line and are told there is no evidence of disease (NED). Cheers and celebrations ensue. NED! It’s all over. You’re a cancer survivor and you get to return to your life.

That’s the way it’s supposed to work, yes?

Unfortunately, cancer survivorship can bring an emotional tsunami of its own. Many survivors find themselves dealing with the chemotherapy effects of fatigue and concentration problems, which may impact their ability to function at work or at home. Additionally, there is the emotional aftermath of coping with a life-threatening diagnosis and life interruption; possible body image issues resulting from surgery (e.g., mastectomy); perhaps major changes in narrative (e.g., having children, financial strain); changes in self-esteem; survivor’s guilt (“Why did I survive while others didn’t?”); fears of recurrence; and a foreboding sense of a shortened future, to name a few concerns.

It is common to experience emotional turbulence post-cancer. There is nothing wrong with you for not being able to just resume your life after treatment. It may take some time to emotionally heal. Survivors may experience depression, anxiety, even posttraumatic stress. Indeed, PTSD symptoms are not reserved for combat veterans. Survivors of cancer have endured a battle as well—it just looked different.

Cancer survivors can experience myriad symptoms such as being triggered into a state of high anxiety by certain smells, sights, or bodily feelings. They may discover they can’t free their minds from intrusive and unsettling thoughts, memories, or images of their cancer care.

Cancer survivors can experience myriad symptoms such as being triggered into a state of high anxiety by certain smells, sights, or bodily feelings. They may discover they can’t free their minds from intrusive and unsettling thoughts, memories, or images of their cancer care. There may also be a strong desire to avoid certain people or situations because they might be anxiety-provoking.

A survivor may oscillate between feeling too much and feeling numb. It’s also not uncommon to experience body pain or to immediately jump to thinking the cancer is back. Some may find themselves struggling to move forward, afraid to dream of a future again. These types of symptoms are a reminder you have survived a life-altering event. It’s okay to allow yourself some time to heal the post-cancer emotional wounds.

To monitor your emotional health after cancer diagnosis and treatment, it may be helpful to remember the word “tsunami.” TSUNAMI may be used as a mnemonic to help you assess whether you are dealing with posttraumatic stress symptoms. As many cancer survivors would attest, the word fits very well to describe the turmoil that can occur in the aftermath of cancer.

  • Trauma: Any time you experience a life threat, you are vulnerable to experiencing an emotional fallout. Most cancer diagnoses meet this standard.
  • Significant distress: Are you struggling to get through most days? Has your ability to function at work, at home, and in your relationships decreased?
  • Upregulated: Is your sympathetic nervous system working on overdrive? Are you experiencing problems with focus or sleep? Are you easily startled, hypervigilant about your body, or easily angered?
  • Negative thoughts and mood: Are you feeling sad, anxious, and fearful a lot? Are you having negative beliefs on a regular basis (e.g., “I am going to have a recurrence,” “I don’t see myself growing old,” “My body is permanently ruined,” “I will never be happy again”)?
  • Avoidance: Are you spending a lot of time avoiding places, people, and situations that might trigger your anxiety about your cancer diagnosis and treatment?
  • Month: Have your symptoms persisted for at least a month?
  • Intrusive memories and symptoms: Are you finding you are upset by memories or images about your treatment? Are you having nightmares about what you experienced? When you are exposed to reminders of your cancer diagnosis and treatment (e.g., news segments about cancer), does it take a long time to calm down?

What You Can Do to Help Yourself

If some of the above questions resonate with you, there is a lot you can do to promote emotional healing. First, seeking counseling from a mental health professional with training in health psychology may help quell your symptoms. Another goal with therapy is to help you feel like you are not just surviving life but thriving again.

There are many other treatment methods that may be used to promote healing. Some methods that are used to help people with posttraumatic stress, such as trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy, are utilized to help survivors of cancer. This treatment orientation provides psychoeducation about trauma, fosters development of relaxation tools, and teaches methods for examining dysfunctional thought patterns and desensitizing triggers. Other avenues survivors might explore are cancer support groups, acupuncture to relieve anxiety, iRest meditation, and yoga.

The key to thriving after cancer is to intervene early and thoroughly. So no matter what phase of your cancer journey you are in, it is important to monitor your mood. If you are emotionally struggling, reach out to a mental health professional to provide guidance through your recovery and beyond NED!

© Copyright 2017 All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Michelle Kukla, PsyD, Topic Expert

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

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  • debbie

    July 18th, 2017 at 11:24 AM

    I remain in constant fear that every time I have to go back to the doctor he will give me bad news all over again. I feel like I am always looking over my shoulder, looking or expecting I guess something to sneak up on me.

  • Dr. Michelle Kukla

    July 18th, 2017 at 8:32 PM

    Hi Debbie, thank you for sharing your worries about a cancer recurrence. Please, know that you are so not alone! If you feel that the anxiety is becoming hard for you to manage reach out to a talented health psychologist that can help you to stop looking over your shoulder all the time. Or, try a cancer support group for survivors in your area, this is a frequent topic of discussion. Take care!

  • debbie

    July 19th, 2017 at 11:02 AM

    I have been going to a support group for a while now and you are right, that does help a lot. I feel like there are things that I can talk about in those meetings that I can’t really at home because they understand more of what I am going through.

    Don’t get me wrong, my family has been great but i have felt like such a burden to them for so long and they think that I should be all happy to be in remission, and I am… but there is always that fear that what if this is my last cancer free day? And I worry and I don’t think that they can relate to that at all.

  • Dr. Michelle Kukla

    July 19th, 2017 at 9:19 PM

    Debbie, I am so happy to read you have found a support group to share these feelings with and that you feel understood. That is so important. You are still on a healing journey from the cancer. I wish you well as you continue to find ways to decrease the anxiety and live more in the present. Thank you for taking the time to contribute your thoughts. I am sure you have helped many other cancer survivors with your post to see that they are not alone in these feelings. Your courage to share is amazing!!

  • Nico

    July 20th, 2017 at 9:36 AM

    I am not sure that my mom will ever get over my dad who passed away from cancer last year. I thought that she would be doing better by now, not so much that she would be over the grief but that she would have gone back to really living. I guess that there is no time line on how long someone will hurt from a loss like that.

  • Dr. Michelle Kukla

    July 20th, 2017 at 8:27 PM

    Dear Nico, you are very right, there is no timeline for the grief process. However, we do hope that loved ones that are grieving are able to reinvest in a new life without the loved one in it, as time goes bye. Sometimes when we get stuck in the grieving process an expert in grief counseling can help facilitate movement towards acceptance of the loss. Thank you for sharing and I am so sorry you lost your father to the battle of cancer last year. I hope you have a good support system as you continue the grieving process. Take care, Nico!

  • peter c.

    November 8th, 2018 at 3:19 AM

    Hi Debbie, thank you for sharing your worries about a cancer recurrence. Please, know that you are so not alone!

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